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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

"I also know that if I were a painter today I'd have a terrible time knowing how to go about that, and in being caught in that dilemma, Clemente is very much of his time. Much of Clemente seems to come out of early Picasso, and Clemente clearly wants to paint like Picasso. However, he can't play the Picasso part without a certain ironic distance from Picassoism. Many people find something profoundly moving and true about our time in that situation, and I recognize that there's an aspect of Clemente that's very much of our time. Some people think it will remain as the image of our time, but I'm not convinced."

Clemente's desire to reinvest painting with an epic historicism is reflected in the fact that while many of his contemporaries on the New York art scene cite mass media as the central source of their work, he looks to the written word for inspiration.

"Francesco's always had a tremendous interest in books," says Raymond Foye, the owner of Hanuman Books, who's been collaborating with Clemente since 1983. "He made 12 handmade artists' books which were printed in Madras by his friend C.T. Nachippan, he's collaborated with several poets on books (Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Rene Ricard among them) and has been the subject of three books. Together, he and I have done 42 books through Hanuman Press. Francesco does the covers and chooses the photographs and I edit the text."

Clemente and Foye are presently at work on a collection of interviews with Jack Kerouac, a book of stories by Cookie Mueller (a New York writer who recently died of AIDS), a book on Picasso by David Hockney and a compilation of the gospel speeches of Bob Dylan--apparently, yet another manifestation of Clemente's fascination with religion.

"I was raised Catholic but for several years I've been studying the religious traditions of India and the East," he explains. "I've had no formal religious training and I don't meditate, although I certainly pray--for me, prayer goes on constantly in one form or another. I've had a few pivotal experiences in the course of my spiritual studies and have met some extraordinary people. I met Krishnamurti, who lived in Madras prior to his death, and I met another very powerful man in Delhi who was close to Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti's ideas have been quite important for me."

Another facet of Clemente's quest for self-knowledge is reflected in his unending travels.

"I travel because I like to be reminded of different ways of living," he explains. "It's very liberating to see that the law of one land is meaningless in another. Lately I've found myself very curious about Africa, yet I feel shy about opening a new chapter. Still, I feel I know Africa in the way I knew India without ever having been there.

"I love New York, partly because I've always felt strong emotional ties with the Beat Generation and the New York School of painting. And I've enjoyed the time I spent in L.A., but I don't think I could live there without being on drugs. That seems like the way you're supposed to experience the place, no?

"Generally, I like this country very much, although I find that there's a unique way of feeling worthless in America. Because there's no class system here commerce has been made god, and if you have no product to send to market, you're nothing. There's an intense kind of loneliness that's peculiar to this place--but loneliness isn't always bad. Loneliness can be sublime."

Clemente's years of travel are visually manifested in the sweeping universality of his paintings. Designed to be felt rather than interpreted, his work is infused with great tenderness--one senses in these images an acute awareness of the fragility of living, and a profound affection for the endless parade of faces that pass through--all of whom are struggling with the bonds of consciousness, all of whom are basically the same.

"The faces in my paintings all look alike because I want the figures to have the quality of just faces in the crowd--because that is what we all are," says Clemente.

Yes, one concurs, but how does Clemente reconcile this humble understanding of man's place in the universe with the fact that he's treated as a god within the art world?

"The fringe benefits and attention that go with being an artist can be amusing, and when I first came to New York I socialized a lot and enjoyed it immensely. But the 'career' part of my life doesn't change the fact that I'm disappointed in myself all the time. Even when my work is hailed as successful and people respond positively to it, it has little effect on my perception of myself because I feel that I'm just the vehicle for the work. It passes through me, that's all. I struggle to remain aware of that because that understanding helps me to walk lightly through life."

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