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The Artist of Our Time? : Francesco Clemente is talented, prolific and commercially successful, but his place in art history is unsure

August 19, 1990|KRISTINE McKENNA

NEW YORK — Is Italian artist Francesco Clemente the greatest painter to emerge in the past 20 years? Or, as some critics claim, is he a facile draughtsman whose ability to turn out gorgeously composed, easily accessible images threatens his potential to evolve into a truly important artist?

Like David Hockney, Jim Dine and R.B. Kitaj--gifted individuals all, who, some say, betrayed their talent in order to win a mass audience--Clemente has an unerring graphic touch that stands as the central barrier to his creative development. His images are so arresting and pleasing to the eye that he'll always have an audience for his work, regardless of whether he continues to challenge himself. And, with the price of a Clemente hovering around $250,000, his days as a starving artist are gone for good.

The money may be pouring in, but the jury is still out on Clemente's significance to posterity.

"It's precisely Clemente's apparent willingness to satisfy the public's insatiable appetite for 'good drawing' that erodes his credibility," says Art in America magazine's Robert Storr, while Time's Robert Hughes dismisses him as "a feeble draughtsman." Critic Carter Ratliff describes him as "a manipulator of insecure tastes who, so long as the momentum of his career demands it, will submit to the art-world moment."

Critical carping aside, there's no denying that since debuting as part of the Neo-Expressionist wave of the early '80s, Clemente has established himself as a hugely successful artist who bears comparison with Picasso in the breadth of his achievement. Just 38, Clemente is a compulsive worker who turns out a torrential river of art. Among the mediums he's mastered: drawing, painting, pastel, etching, photography, mosaic, sculpture and Indian miniatures.

At the age of 34 he was the subject of a major retrospective that originated at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., in 1985, then traveled to six American cities (it came to L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1987), and he's had a hand in the production and publication of approximately 60 books. He has created frescoes in Italy, woodcuts in Japan, handmade paper for Muslim hangings, and frequently collaborates with artists and writers on joint projects.

His immediate agenda includes: a major survey of works on paper that opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Oct. 15, then travels to Virginia, San Francisco and Hartford, Conn.; an exhibition of new painting, sculpture and watercolors opening at the Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York on Oct. 18; and two major museum surveys, in Japan and at the Kunst Museum in Basel, opening early next year.

Is it possible for any artist to turn out the volume of art Clemente routinely produces and maintain a high standard of quality? That too is the subject of some debate. Faulted for "overproduction" by several critics (an objection first raised in 1985 when he had concurrent shows of new work at three major New York galleries), Clemente regards the sort of career evaluation typical of the art community--and the American art world in particular--as a bit strange. He takes an entirely different view of his work, and life in general.

Steeped in the philosophies of India and the Far East that espouse an integrated, non-linear approach to life that's the antithesis of the progress-obsessed West, Clemente rejects the conventional view of art making--which is traditionally seen as a progressively more grandiose evolution that builds toward that massive crescendo known as the masterpiece.

"I view the work as an ongoing ebb and flow," says Clemente during an interview at his spacious loft in lower Manhattan. "There are ideas and themes that interested me 10 years years ago that no longer seem too compelling, so yes, you do bring things to a conclusion. But in a larger sense the paintings don't change at all. The mysteries that exist in life are eternal, so although the way one approaches those mysteries might change from year to year, the mystery itself remains the same."

Arranging a meeting with Clemente requires considerable tenacity. Maintaining homes in Rome and Madras, India, in addition to his New York residence, the peripatetic artist is notoriously hard to track down, and once you've found him, he's apt to say no to your interview request (he's done just a handful over the past 12 years). Knowing that he's less than fond of the press, one rings his buzzer with trepidation that's exacerbated by the fact that Clemente's persona is as powerful as his paintings.

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