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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

Perceived as a restless seeker who roams the globe living in casual bohemian splendor, he is by choice a perpetual exile. From early childhood the strange culture of India seemed within Clemente, and from the first time he visited the country, in 1973, he recognized aspects of himself there. He now spends a good part of the year in Madras, a city located in the southwestern province of Tamil Nado. Once home to the great mystics Madame Blavatsky, Krishnamurti and Madame Montessori, Madras is a city steeped in magic, and Clemente too has come to be seen as something of a mystic. He's also a classically educated scholar fluent in several languages, including Hindu and Sanskrit, who reads works of late Latin literature for instance--for pleasure. It's a rather intimidating package. However, on meeting Clemente one is immediately put at ease.

There's a charming weightlessness to his personality, possibly rooted in his refusal to draw rigid conclusions about anything in life. An oddly handsome man with piercing blue eyes, a soft speaking voice and an easy laugh, he seems to view life with a bemused playfulness not uncommon to those on intimate terms with their demons. Talking in a small room off his main work space, he perches on a small, uncomfortable-looking wooden bench, fidgeting and squirming like a restless schoolboy.

Preparing to leave that week for some time in Europe with his wife and four children, Clemente will then travel on to India alone. Much must be done to close up his New York studio, so several workers are bustling about packing things. He finds all the activity distressing, explaining that he rarely uses assistants and that his studio is usually a place of solitude and silence.

It's also a place of casual beauty, a place where exquisite things--gorgeous rugs and works of fine art--are strewn about, sharing space with tacky bits of kitsch. A plastic shower curtain, for instance, is hung as a room divider, while open steamer trunks function as shrine/display cases filled with lovingly arranged photos and artifacts. A uniquely interesting interior, it reflects Clemente's personality and his life, which seem to be an exotic blend of bounty and austerity.

Born in Naples, Clemente was an only child born to prosperous parents. His father was a judge, and he recalls his upbringing as "solitary. I was the sort of child who could sit alone in a room all day and speak to no one--and I'm still that way. On the other hand, a friend of mine recently told me of a dream he had where he and I retired to the woods alone to live as hermits. In his dream I arrived for this life of solitude trailing a caravan of people behind me--and I must I say, I recognized myself in his dream," he laughs. "Living in a crowded, chaotic way appeals to me, too."

One of the oldest ancient Greek settlements, Naples has an extremely rich history--Pompeii and Herculaneum are nearby, and the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome all left their mark there. Clemente grew up keenly aware of the ghosts that haunt the streets of Naples. "I was part of the last generation in Italy to receive a classical education," he says. "After us--whoosh--it vanished, and my children have made me aware that the frame of reference I have will soon be gone from this world. I suppose it's always been that way. Languages die and new ones are born, and my language--the language of books and history--is on its way out."

A self-taught painter, Clemente began making work at the age of 8 and became involved with contemporary art in Rome in the late '60s. In 1970 he moved to Rome to study architecture, then left school and spent much of the decade traveling in India and Afghanistan with friend and early mentor Alighiero Boetti, an artist associated with the Arte Povera movement, and Alba Primicieri, whom he subsequently married. Much of his time in the '70s was spent studying the occult and a wide range of philosophies; Cy Twombly and Joseph Bueys were also important influences on him during those years.

Even when he was very young, however, Clemente never aped the artists he admired, and he arrived at a relatively mature style when barely out of his teens. At the age of 20 he began to regularly exhibit in Europe, and he had his first show in New York at the Sperone Westwater Gallery in 1980. In 1983 he set up a studio in Manhattan and almost immediately assumed a prominent place in the American art world.

A quick look at Clemente's work would suggest sex, death and transformation to be subjects that preoccupy him. However, a closer look reveals faith, fear, the weight of history and the excruciating burden of consciousness to be the central themes in his work.

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