PRINT February 1981

A Chameleon in a State of Grace: Francesco Clemente

More truth/more intelligence/ha ha
More future/more laughs/more culture . . .
I need more than an ordinary grind
And the more I think the more I need
More cars/I’ll take more money/more champagne
I can’t forget my brain
—Iggy Pop

All italicized quotes in parentheses are from Oscar Wilde's discussion of Christ as a supreme romantic type in De Profundis.

NASCENT STILL IN ITS native lands, yet already flourishing as export, imagism is not like nationalist movements we have known before. One of the most intriguing factors about imagism is that its meaning and quality intend to refer to the visual/cultural dialect from which it arises, but it is not a provincial result of “unaware,” “local” artists’ sensibilities, nor is it a resignation to local traditions, in retreat from a central cultural hegemony. It represents a sophisticated attitude deliberately choosing indigenousness, consciously opting for the particular and the idiosyncratic. At dangerous stake is the misunderstanding of this work as provincial rather than as an elation of the particular, the personal, the regional and the national. Finally, we have a potential dialogue instead of the whitewashed homogeneous international style. The immediate international contextualization (in particular) of Italian imagists pitted against American ones is, if anything, all about “International National.” Sealed as a taboo for too long, image has finally popped open in an international national convention of obstinate genies at the Tower of Babel.

Generally the Italian image painting that surfaced in New York this past fall was better, more sophisticated, a lot more intriguing, complex and cultivated, and more sensual and sexual, than the bulk of the new American work using imagery. However, precisely because of this deciphering and differentiating, it was glided over. There is definitely a culture gap confronting the emphatically foreign, metaphysical, physiognomic, pictographic repertoire of Italian artists—a problem analogous to discussing Jasper Johns without knowing the American flag.

Many of the so-called “new imagists” in New York refer to a photo-reproductive picture reservoir. Americans are Puritans at base, and images coming from dark movie houses, TV sets and newspapers fall somewhat short in sentience of texture; the generic national visual fiber of print and celluloid is the umbilical cord which feeds the groping baby hand making pictures. The Italians, too, go to the cultural visual sources of their traditions/regions. Image seems to make them happy—they are free to draw their dreams (the myth of craftsmanship), their allegories (the power of metaphor), free to treat entire historical styles (just as iconography), free to be specific about their heritage (fancy pink frescoes, the best soulful marble fountains in the world)—about being Italian. In New York right now there is an extraordinary situation of a free young generation of painters babbling in straitjackets—visual artists claiming leisure time, taking points from entertainment. Media technocrats, the true primitives of culture, have been ruling for practically all of the second half of this century.

Ever since empiricism, art has been conscious of being “art.” Before art generated a canon of visual criteria that separates art from its maker, artists were satisfied to make visual statements. But then these statements developed sophisticated rules, and a system of art emerged that is practically independent of artists, (immune to the shortcuts of gesture, the impress of personality, and impervious to idiosyncrasy). In a way, what was happening with ’60s art, analytic of itself, seemed a deduction—generated as a pure, exalted scholastic exercise—from the autonomous visual tradition. The practice of art meant relinquishing personal idiosyncrasy, and artists attended to an inheritance considered weightier than themselves. Critical to recent imagist consciousness is the realization that artists exist within a system of visual configurations and its concomitant traditions. That is where some of them live their lives. That is where Francesco Clemente lives his.

Repeated history can be boring for critics always on the lookout for newness. When artists consciously refocus on elements just declared to be passé, it is partially to stop the choir from singing, “Oh, boring.” Now, artists with conceptual backgrounds are painting because it is the most obstinately endeavor-like art form. “Painting never changed: it is just this endeavor,” Brice Marden says. It is not even art, it is painting, says Ryman. There is a big difference. Even when Beuys can say that everyone is an artist, and even when, in the vernacular, “art” becomes interchangeable with “quality,” not everyone is a “Painter.” So the artists who make paintings doubly claim the pedigree “Artist.” In this endeavor the artist is verifiably an artist.

In the Eternal City (Rome) it is better to be a chameleon in a state of grace, redeeming oneself incrementally. It is better to take the scenic route. History is not to be subsumed or consumed, but appreciated, reanimated, assimilated, understood; it is a search, probing and appropriating, finding and amplifying your own rhythms in the art of the past. The layers of tradition are charted history claimed and inherited so many times back and forth, and have little to do with linear tracks. It is difficult to take an attitude—to be smart, moral, relevant—with this much material looming behind you. An artist in this position looks to achieve an atmosphere within the work that has cultural logic, imagery with a referable heritage, and (at the same time) make art which contains the magic of the intrinsically personal and private.

The Italian imagists that we are hearing about the most are being grouped together, “booked” together, and alphabetized together. This shared showcasing has facilitated an “ism,” as it always does, but it cannot force a synthesis. These are individuals, coming from different regions, from different traditions, making very different work.

Francesco Clemente, born in 1952, drenched initially in the rich, heavy, religious Neapolitan climate, lives in Rome, and his work naturally refers to that creative ambience—the Roman way, where artists sit in the Privé. (I remember saying once to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while metaphysics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and there find its complete fulfillment.) The metaphysical conceptualists, (Di Dominicis, Pisani, Prini, etc.) presided over the club when I was first there five years ago, and they were sitting there in exactly the same way/manner/ position (I swear) when I stopped by this past summer. They must have been there when Clemente went out for esthetic mingling. This is not, by the way, ridicule; it is a heart-warming matter. It is the climate in Rome; it is art. Intrinsic to the processes of ideational dialogue, poetic gesture, metaphysical transmutation, enigmatic obscuration, ironic stance, café-style bravura wit (Bohemia) and the sheer presence of these artists, is the focus on the image of the artist as such (or as myth).

Paralleling the attitude-oriented mental/existential cunnings of the conceptualists were the Arte Povera group’s (Boetti, Kounellis, Merz, etc.) matériel-oriented sensual/textural strategies of the hand, that released the latent energy in matter, and produced voluptuous tactile pleasures. As assistant to Boetti, Clemente witnessed this venture (too) into patterning craft and using traditions of the Orient.

While much of the tone and ponderings and posturings of the Roman conceptualists detectably permeates Clemente’s work, he releases the anxiety that pervaded their muffled gestural intellectualism: he has assumed visual space for articulation. He has as well anchored the ultimately permissive overflow of myriad organic materials in Arte Povera, by transforming its physical sensuality into drawing and picture making—retreating into patented esthetic territory. He has a body of work. This body may manifest itself in any two-dimensional medium (or in any combination of two-dimensional media: from photos to collages to sketches to pastels to watercolors to temperas to oils to frescoes to mosaics to books and installations, which are also, in his case, additive compilations of two-dimensional elements in situ). The work is a process of picture-articulation achieved predominantly through the activity of drawing.

Clemente draws in many styles and genres—from high style, according to the craft’s sophisticated standards, to drafting with chiaroscuro, which allows for the grey area of what might be the truth—but the majority of his design is naive drawing. Naive drawing’s posture is that it’s really better than what it chooses to show; it professes to leave accuracy behind to aim for the truth, thus implying morality. It’s a flash-in-the-pan revelation. Naive drawing doesn’t necessitate editing, refinement, polish. It doesn’t have to be consistent. It allows for a whole gamut of consciousness.

The key to the recent outpouring of imagery—a phenomenon in which sheer abundance seems more important than consistency or refinement of technique, a phenomenon with an urgency about defining itself—is drawing. Drawing is the simplest way of establishing a picture vocabulary because it is an instant personal declaration of what is important and what is not. Drawing comes (back) as the most unalienated medium; private, it practically doesn’t have an audience in mind, just the artist’s expression. Because it is private it can be measured by its idiosyncrasies.

There is a pile of drawings over a foot high, wall to wall, almost entirely covering the floor of Clemente’s studio in Rome. As a matter of course, he lets visitors just go through them, pulling them out, catalyzing a surfacing process for layers too long beneath, too long unseen. Clemente’s drawings seem to have been made involuntarily and just deposited there. I doubt if the artist himself ever thoroughly looks through them. They are there like “stuff,” a breathing repertoire, a reservoir—of notations, ideas, full-blown drawings, naive drawings, stylistics, designs, doodles, idiosyncrasies, image, image, image. Some of them may get noticed, preferred, singled out, separated, chosen, by someone else. Sometimes Clemente uses these drawings in installations, as private images that are mutated in a variety of sizes and media for public presentation.

In the course of the perpetual flow of Clemente’s drawing activity, IMAGE seeps through without self-consciousness. Clemente’s images are like post cards written and then scattered around, isolated from, but referring (with flippy rigor) to the situations from which they arise. Loitering on the scenic route of image culture, Clemente’s haphazardly attentive yet softly rolling visual voice quotes a fragment, a memento, anything with a particular visual ambience. There are always innumerable foci of interest in situations from life, and Clemente picks his nebulous, idiomatic inventory from his own hierarchy of bias. “Things” chosen from his immediate surroundings—a watch, an emblem, an animal—have together a kind of nonchalance, the ease of a non sequitur, the rhythm of poetic utterance.

In one collage the artist is seen, from a bird’s-eye view, in the middle of his studio. He is standing on and surrounded by drawings hanging from the ceiling and rolling onto the floor. These drawings are images of “things” that he has appropriated into his world by depiction (just as the bull was “captured” by its image on the cave wall). Forming a paneled frame around the room are motifs of the not-yet-appropriated, the still-outside. This world view is concentric, forming itself around Clemente as he finds images for it.

The new image lexicon uprooted is vast, and artists all have carte blanche. Image painters pick images and put them on essentially blank surfaces. New images do not fall into an iconographic field like a Renaissance altar painting (especially if you consider that for imagists like Sandro Chia the Renaissance altar painting itself can be just one more image on his voided pictorial surface). Image in Clemente’s pictures takes its place within the field of emotive articulation, not in a semantic field. However, if the notion of identity could be accepted as belonging to iconography (and it should be, with Clemente), in turn, its locution, the emotive, could be considered as belonging to a semantic field. Clemente’s proliferation of trademarks, flags, signs, slogans, heraldic imagery as subject matter have the collective character of all being shorthand for the idea of identity. The choice of such consistent motifs must be more than incidental. Clemente seems most intrigued by their declarative character, as proprietary emblems. Exercising creative metaphysics he appropriates the image of a coat of arms, separates its vested visual value from its pre-empted function (making it, for example, into a painting) and thereby recharges it with a new personal insignia as well as new art status. Inserted into Clemente’s floating picture plane, these traditionally axiomatic emblems are flooded with surplus meaning; intersected with multiplicity and disorganized from original orders, their significance is short-circuited.

Doubt, elusion and duplicity of meaning are not negative zones for Clemente. Uncertainty is his sympathetic terrain. This picture land of reverberating, interchangeable almosts is sown with personal indiscretions, distortions and improper references. Hovering over personal particularities and cultural traditions lies the question of which way is truth or which way is esthetic solution.

Ambiguity of interpretation is a characteristic of the visual image. So why not have ambiguity enter at the making of the visual image, enter into the process from the start? Like a grazing animal, Clemente assumes image into his work, and the image passes from one internal venue to another, each ruminating with its own enzyme of fermentation. The products of his ponderings are teeming overlays that have an effect similar to that of patting your head while circling your other hand in front of your stomach. Images play a hide-and-seek of meanings in a forest of coding devices, while codes metamorphose into imagery. Clemente transforms, phases, flexes image amidst various contexts, installations, styles, scales, etc., as he shifts, displaces, scatters and compounds its scope, implication, meaning and even content. Tiny hidden watermarks are disproportionately overemphasized into the stature of painting; philosophical concepts are presented as rebuses; frescoes pose as portable allegorical self-portraits; geometry, meta-linguistics, Oriental religions are playfully crammed into doodles; and humble objects from his environment, boosted with sentiment, take visual value way beyond their downhome, everyday connotations.

Clemente is meddling in the most haunting issue of our time—the big-game hunting of contemporary man—the contest in a hazy land between identity and image. (A contest, by the way, in which there is no open aggression, no open confrontation on an ideological plane.) Image used to be just a clue to self, an embellishment; now it has taken over and almost replaces the self. In fact, the less self you have, the more clearly your “image” can come through.

In Clemente’s self-portraits, manners and gestures as body language, as well as the dramatized evidence of the actions of internal organs, become properties of his attitude towards himself. As Dietrich’s body was for Sternberg a visual projection of his libido (a transvestite in a world of delirious, unreal adventures), Clemente’s transfigurations are for Clemente a nearly Gothic, neurotic and deviant physiognomic ritual (the saga of turning inside out at every orifice). Clemente’s depiction of bodily functions shows streams of waste, washing away toxic effluvia. According to modern Western sensibilities the process of secretion is an involuntary but nonetheless delinquent process, and a state of physiognomic decadence. But what we see are not simply pictures of overheated bio-motor systems in intense, diaristic, navel-centric, erotic eruption, expressing an urge to fix meaning in being. According to Joyce, the artist is a priest of the eternal imagination transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life. Clemente’s radiant, consecrating figure—the body mystical—is itself transformed as it transmutes. Obviously the holes of the flesh are for discharging the fermented innards, but they are also receptors through which the world is channeled into personalized existence, points of high tension where interaction with the world takes place, and they are the domain of direct negotiation. The rendition of the body as a purgative, redemptive machine is imbued with Judeo-Christian overtones. Freudian theory traces personality development to the gradual control of the use of the orifices, but to treat Clemente’s work as merely an illustration of this would be much too simplistic.

Clemente’s representation of human orifices implies expressionist underpinnings to his work, but he is not so much an expressionist per se as an artist fluent in many styles. His treatment of orifices, sexual, sensory and excretory, is obsessional; it serves also as a cunningly employed designating device of diagrammatic representation—he uses dots to indicate the sex of the depicted figures in a gamesome, cool code. Human orifices are vulnerable connecting points with the world; the possibility of drama lies where different elements meet. (Abstract painting, for example, spent at least two decades with the “sensitivity of the edge” as a central concern.) (We know now that we do not see with the eyes or hear with the ears. They are really channels for the transmission, adequate or inadequate of sense impressions.)

Clemente’s inordinate involvement with body orifices is paralleled only by the attention he pays to the mirror—gadget of empirical self-scrutiny. It is not simply Clemente’s visage that appears in his self-portraits, but the physiognomy of a unique type of man with meta-creative redemptive power—a being called the Artist—whose body is often depicted as if in the midst of an autistic ritual, a pantomime about image pronunciation (and form annunciation), performed with features charged in sympathetic pain. Startled by his own movements, thrilled by the most bizarre contortions, he sizes up this figure of the Artist practicing image-exorcism. Seeing himself becomes the emotional boomerang that chops through the torso and the limbs as it returns from and to the sight lines. His eyes, looking at themselves, transfixed with intensity, repugnance and lust; and his neck, frozen in rhapsodic position, imply an eagerness to climb onto his picture surface (reflection), to be fused with his work, with his self-portrait, with his self. (For is not truth in art, as I have said, ‘that in which the outward is expressive of the inward; in which the soul is made flesh and the body instinct with spirit in which form reveals.’) Bugged by the Holy Ghost/flagellated by the Spirit, his gestures signal, as if he were saying: let me rest here in visual space. Let my identity rest in peace.

The frontality necessary for mirror-imaging is what makes his characters glance outward no matter what the orientation of the body. Clones of Clemente in coupled figures populate some of his pictures. In constantly touching configurations, they seem to want to confirm their existence. They are snaps of mirror reflections. These figures come body to body, one to one, whimsically implying clashes of intentionality and physicality. Their gestures are similar, almost mimetic. (It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives are mimicry, their passions a quotation.) They do not look at each other, and their expressions are so homogeneous that they hardly communicate. It is more like talking to oneself.

The extraordinary magic of this series of work is that the particular dispositions of body parts and the interpersonal friction seem to indicate something subliminal and specific, but in fact don’t. A set of body signals is mixed with signs and vernacular gestural slang that are not signals (emanating with precision) but signs, which are iconic, passive, pictorial and cliched. But signs are merely stand-ins (as are clones), and the tableaux get a lot of static but not much action—sneaky cruising, teasing. This is in fact what gives them a more mysterious and intricate status than, say, Neil Jenney’s coupled characters that didactically refer to each other (cat/dog; girl/doll). This recurring theme of double male figures in various wild gestural interactions is one of the most lulling and peculiar features of Clemente’s work. Pushing each other’s eyes out, cutting throats, scratching arses, stuffing fingers into their mouths, embracing, kissing . . . they all have the allure of taboo. Homoerotic iconographic interpretation would be off-base. What we see is associative autoeroticism.

Clemente’s work innately, as well as by association, excites a certain nimble lechery—the lechery of stylishness, chicness, mannerism, taboo. Disguising theory in genteel beauty, erotic eruption in naive compositions, Clemente is such a master of the implied rather than the stated that he makes complex aspects of his work seem too damn easy and attractive. But he is way beyond coy poetic imagery. (I could bear a real tragedy if it came to me with purple pall and a mask of noble sorrow, but that the dreadful thing about modernity was that it put tragedy into the raiment of comedy, so that the great realities seemed commonplace or grotesque or lacking in style. It is quite true about modernity. It has probably always been true about actual life.) Like a gentleman who would knock three times before seducing, Clemente proceeds in his picture-making as if lisping, speaking with a timid, secret and confidential manner, and thus far has managed to sidestep pigeonholing analyses. Clemente’s art is elusive. One chases it. He teases you into going after it. You want to catch it, but not pin it down. His posturings of permissive messiness are protective clutters against the “vanguard” mania for novelty, for newness, which pressures artists to produce an art which appears non-derivative. If there is to be found a lack of sincerity in the mode of his self-expression, it could be elevated to the moral level of purposeful nebulosity. His stance may often be ironic, may often seem jaded, yet it is more like a smile with a particular ambience. This smile, redolent of epigram, racy pun, libertine imagery, dissolves progress into confetti to be thrown in the air of academic traditions. “I don’t have a progressive notion of art—one step after another. Thinking you can change history—that’s not something minor artists can think about,” noted Clemente.

He is wooing art with great esthetic acumen. He is like an existential Orphist. He charms everything (with the grace of art). The aura of the work is like a magnetic field which buoys the art, keeping it out of any of the wretched corners art has had a habit of slipping into so easily. (I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments or his hands forgot their pain . . .) Always seeing itself in terms of “problems,” much contemporary art has had both hypochondria and an allergy to itself. Clemente has the attitude that art shouldn’t lose, that to lose is a consequence, and that to lose has a consequence. As an elegant solution to some elusive calculus problem might appear simply by changing the position of parentheses, so Clemente’s solution is to romance art. He adores it. He likes other artists better than himself; cherishes and appropriates the emotive textures in forgotten masters. One of his major reasons for making paintings recently is that he likes what other painters did, or have been doing, with painting. Besides, he is a picture maker, not so much a painter per se. Clemente’s pictorialism is not cynical, parasitic gamesmanship. When society is not in step with its visionary ambitions, creative ponderers and visual logicians become surplus personae. Clemente deals with this by being more vocational than volitional; by accepting himself as surplus and eschewing progressive notions, he attends to his visual culture and tradition, roaming that scenic road in any direction. He is foot-loose in time, culture and metaphor. His work is an allegory about creation.

Nuancical kinkiness, whimsicality, unruliness—all are like excess circles around him, and generate that field of charming licentiousness. Is this rascal energy a byproduct of the fact that he is trying to be ethical in an esthetic context where few things can be meaningful? (His morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be. . . . His justice is all poetical justice, exactly what justice should be . . . for him there were no laws; there were exceptions merely . . .)

Edit deAk writes about contemporary art.

Since motifs and even entire works appear and reappear in different forms and media within Francesco Clemente’s body of work, the captions accompanying the reproductions in this article identify the source which we used to illustrate the work. They do not necessarily describe the “original” painting or drawing.