PRINT November 1988


Huye que huye de la muerte
De la muerte sentada al borde del mar
—Vicente Huidobro, Altazor, 19301

IN A LIGHT BROWN CANVAS resembling the embalming linen of Egyptian mummies, the stark outline of an empty vessel floats. This might be the ship of a pharaoh, or the ferry that carries souls to the Otherworld (a deserted “Ship of Fools”), or this might be merely a generic sign, like the ones that point the way in our cavernous airports teeming with wandering bodies (bodies in search of a soul, or souls sheltered in the bare semblance of a body). Because it is contained within an almost fluorescent blue frame, a sort of picture within the picture, Francesco Clemente’s Boat seems twice removed from the real world; and yet its very flatness and even the angular sharpness of its contours negate a metaphysical dimension. This boat is just what it appears to be: a negative shape into which all the surrounding light has sunk. With the boat, and the painting as a whole, bare and devoid of all human presence—something rather unusual for Clemente—this work appears at once as Joseph Beuys “poor” and Marcel Duchamp “thin” (mince). Its symbolic density is intrinsic to the simple hieroglyph of the boat itself, for this incisive black image is like a crack between the stones of a large monument through which one might enter a secret burial chamber. It is also therefore a keyhole, but so fashioned that a key might never fit. Like Cheops’ pyramid, there is no getting inside the boundaries to get to the other side.

If Boat, an impenetrable locus of flatness and mystery, is the alpha of Francesco Clemente’s richly enigmatic 1987–88 series “Funerary Paintings,” currently on view at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, its omega is Alpine Grip.2 In this, the final painting of the series, two flat “curtains” of luminous (non-Magrittean) stone might be pulling aside to reveal an even more luminous void within and beyond. Both Boat and Alpine Grip, in their deceptive simplicity of execution and “effect,” express a rare pictorial intention: to paint at once with great mastery and, at the same time, “offhandedly,” that is, with what was known in the Renaissance as sprezzatura—a lightness of touch arising more out of what once was called a spiritual orientation than out of formal technical choices. In this sense, Clemente’s “Funerary Paintings” suggest analogies more musical than visual—more allied, for instance, to the harmonic modulations of composer Morton Feldman than to the subtle transparence of painters Brice Marden or Alex Katz.

This group of 11 paintings is not Clemente’s first actual series. At the 1988 Venice Biennale, along with two large pictures (Sky and Earth, both 1988) that incorporated new versions of his familiar “knot” theme, the artist exhibited a small “thematic” series produced during the same time as the “Funerary” works, in which human and animal figures are inscribed within vaselike shapes. One might title them the “Pot” paintings; Clemente has called them “Invasati”—a pun, since in Italian invasati (potted) can also mean “possessed” or “frenzied.” Though the two series share an atmosphere new in Clemente’s work, their sensuality, and the tainting of their pictorial and iconographic themes with a peculiar (and very personal) eros, closely relate them to the artist’s past ten years of production. Their most outstanding quality, and certainly one of the most enduring, is their delicate balancing between an almost arch detachment from the subject matter and a blunt engagement with it that takes us directly to the heart of the matter: an identification of subject and subject matter achieved through Clemente’s way of painting, as one might say in Italian, a fior di pelle (at the surface of the skin).3 The Biennale “vases” demonstrate this forcefully: they are like a tender and disquieting inventory of desire—simultaneously explicit and half-hidden—displayed in womblike jars that seem to have been x-rayed from afar. Yet in those somewhat otherworldly paintings, the familiar is tenuously grafted onto the unfamiliar like an eerie veil—as though to soften any possible shock effect. In the “Funerary” series, however, what is unexpected comes suddenly to the fore.

Beyond the use of new images, and the deployment of new subtleties of technique, what is most startling about the “Funerary Paintings” is the unpremeditated, almost “surprised” manner with which they appear to have emerged; it is as if the painter, like a medium, had intercepted all 11 paintings in a single séance. One might say that the unity here, in the absence of any obviously thematic one, has more to do with what is “behind” the paintings than with the paintings themselves. In fact, none of Clemente’s past multiple works, not even his equally ambitious “Stations of the Cross,” 1981–82, has been as unified as his “Funerary Paintings.”4 But it is the minor cycle of Clemente’s “Argentario” paintings, 1986, that foreshadows the direction the artist has taken in this series: there, the images were restrained, almost effaced, by a kind of fierce understatement, seemingly aimed at exposing what might be termed their “idea,” the root from which they originate.5

The transformation of one kind of unity into another manifests itself even in Clemente’s titles, which are often strangely misleading. In the already mentioned Alpine Grip, for example, we won’t find an image of an alpine grip—though we do get something like a mountain, with a sort of abstract and haunting “Open Sesame” hollow that could remind us of the nameless gap the author and his companion leap into at the end of one of Carlos Castaneda’s famous accounts of Mexican sorcery, Tales of Power, 1974. But the actual alpine-grip image shows up in one of the two paintings called Tree, where those two hands clasp one another within a dark heart that casts out branches heaped with skulls. Clemente’s flowering heart, then, is the tree—one of the most ancient and universal symbols of transformation in both the Old and New World.

THIS GOING BEYOND THE IMAGE (though starting from the image) is the product of neither mere iconoclasm nor a new technique of abstraction: Clemente’s platonic references indicate only that what is shown might serve as a new foundation for the image itself, and hence for the relationship between an image and its imagining. If one of the primary aims of representation in modern art has been to diminish, even eliminate, the distance between the image and its idea, Warhol achieved this: by his radically nondiscriminating appropriation of images from the mass media, and his totally direct manipulating of them, Warhol offered us a kind of unmediated and thoroughly disenchanted enchantment. In these new works by Clemente, however, the “idealness” of the image is not located in its referent but in its very appearance. In other words, the painted image lies behind the patina of the distant and the extraneous from the start; there is no obvious way to tie it back to any kind of model, however that model may be fastened by the painter or the viewer. In one of the paintings called Island, for instance, a recognizable bird’s-eye view of Manhattan appears as a faded diagram, a kind of self-contained electronic/digital readout that seems to float, as if in deep space, far “behind” a surface lightly covered with horizontal rows of fossillike spines.

Perhaps this radical detachment from the actual reflects Clemente’s peculiar position between two distinct cultures and traditions, and is what has made it possible for him to take this further step in displacing the problematic root of the image. He has subordinated what was once its principle (arché, principium) to what is scarcely here even a point of departure. Thus he transcends the still Duchampian, and therefore, in a way, “romantic,” irony of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and of Pop art, even while remaining profoundly connected to the Warhol spirit and legacy.6

As in Marden’s luminous recent work, these images exist as though by subtraction—and not just by subtraction of matter, but by subtraction of the surface as well. As Wallace Stevens put it:

It is as if being was to be observed,
As if, among the possible purposes
Of what one sees, the purpose that comes first,
The surface, is the purpose to be seen.7

In these large transparent canvases, the surface becomes the place of innovation: after the opaque, token illusionism of the Pop art screen, Clemente now offers us a kind of two-way cathode tube. When looking at the surface of the “second” (and paler) Island, or the (paler) Parliament, for example, it is hard to tell on which side of the image one might be. These great visual meditations, then, do not just question the place of the image but also the place of the viewer. And they do so even more profoundly than the sophisticated, complex, and deep surfaces of Marden’s most recent work, because they question Pollock’s sacred positing of depth as illusion unmasked (by the gesture). In Clemente’s “Funerary Paintings,” the image might be inside the painting (i.e., inside the representation, though not necessarily coinciding with it), or outside the painting (as a “transmission”), or on the surface of representation (as an irreducible image veil, or icon). Taken individually, none of these alternatives defines how these apparitions (or epiphanies) on canvas take their place in the context of modern pictorial tradition, yet each, in some way, represents one aspect of it.

The novelty in this painting of translucence, which represents a form of acceptance, rather than invention of an attitude, reminds us once again of the novel ways Warhol transformed the practice of making art and its “landscape.” It’s certainly true that Warhol used eminently external (ultra-objective) subjects, while Clemente projects (supposedly) subjective images.8 But Warhol’s radical exteriority as much as Clemente’s problematic interiority are two complementary symptoms of an exacerbated receptivity. In these works, then, for the first time, the confluence of an American so-called Pop art (which in fact had nothing truly “popular” about it) and a European post-arte povera (whose poverty of materials, in fact, bespoke a richness of spirit) is achieved, given the fact that Warhol’s attempt to connect with Beuys could not proceed very far. Warhol’s interest in Beuys—he even paid homage to him in a series of portraits beginning in 1980—had been very provoking for American art, and a testimony to Warhol’s unfailing sense of what was truly important outside its boundaries. But the artistic relationship was limited by Beuys’ own misgivings about everything “American” (and who more American than Warhol?). Beuys, as a truly European artist (and Clemente considers him the most thoroughly European of postwar artists), still saw himself as a protagonist of the avant-garde, while Warhol had no such “illusion.” What Warhol did, beyond Rauschenberg and Johns, and John Cage—at least as seen from the perspective of what Clemente is now free to do after Warhol—was to put an end to the avant-garde. It was the 1984 collaborative paintings of Warhol, Clemente, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, in fact—in which two generations of American artists were “linked” by an intermediate European one—that paved the way for Clemente’s liberating power to connect with the American post-avant-garde mode and to transcend his own European roots without betraying them. What Warhol captured, with a sense of utter immediacy, on his silk screens, Clemente rediscovers with infinite, almost archaic slowness, and projects onto the linen canvas, as if onto bands of an endlessly protracted present. This slowness would not have been possible without Warhol, who transposed the perpetual motion of cinema—for the first time seen as an integral part of the environment, that is, of reality, in his interminably static films—to the para-photographic instantaneousness of painting. Without perhaps consciously setting out to do so, Clemente has managed to translate into a haunting pictorial language of almost Egyptian stillness the sense of the ubiquitous electronic images in which we are constantly immersed—that seeing from a distance (as though through the wrong end of a telescope) that brings the world into our own space at the same time as it renders it hopelessly remote, as remote as the realm of the dead seemed just a short time ago and yet a time already so infinitely distant.

The fate of the dead—and our way of remembering (and forgetting) them—is a recurring theme in modern literature, from Henry James’ story The Altar of the Dead, 1895, to Ernst Jünger’s Aladins Problem and Danilo Kis’ The Encyclopedia of the Dead, both 1983. The somewhat funerary imagination behind the seraphic emanations of John Hejduk’s earthly designs and otherworldly buildings, particularly in his 1984 exhibition “New England Masque Anti-Masque,” suggest an almost Lutheran and utopian dimension that is probably quite alien to Clemente.9 Yet Hejduk’s new purgatory, like that of Wim Wenders’ recent film Wings of Desire, 1987—one that slips into and out of every interstice of the urban landscape to create places of the imagination (as opposed to imaginary places)—is perhaps not unrelated to Clemente’s sublunar landscapes. For even the funerary display (masque) in this show is, in effect, a gently melancholic faerie transposed onto a plane of total immobility and timelessness, so that we would not be able to say whether the civilization these paintings cast their shadow on is long gone and forgotten, or whether it is still etched into the surrounding ruins.

And the delicate veil that seems washed over these apparitions is also a sign: a sign of absence of that death-in-life which Christianity has substituted, in our vision of the eternal, for the archaic life-in-death. For the Christian promise of ascension into an afterlife that is essentially posited as our “true” life, and that has dominated the last two thousand years of our history, is gradually being replaced by a collective resignation—even in the face of the “victory of science”—to the belief that death cannot be transcended. And we find this expressed in the eerie, almost tangible silence of so many of Clemente’s (and Warhol’s) images. Objects and beings appear suspended, as at the bottom of a sea, just as we hover on the boundaries of upheavals that threaten to transform our very bodies—through the new alchemy of technological genetics—into biological battlefields where individual organs might seek invulnerability (or at least greater immunity) as they compete among themselves for survival. Thus, our bodies (which, as Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, are the image of the soul) are becoming, literally, emblems of a spiritual emptiness, memories without objects, the dream of death enacted on earth, just as it has been enacted in our myth when, a millennium after the Hebrews fled from Pharaoh to the promised land, the family of Christ, in search of sanctuary, fled back to Egypt.

The “Funerary Paintings,” then, also suggest the following question: where will the soul go if Hell (and hence Paradise) no longer exist? Where will it stray, and where will it alight? And is there still a soul to speak of? It is in and on the genuinely post-Modern (because they are thoroughly modern) surfaces of these canvases that the disappearing soul flickers. That surface becomes once again the place of illusion, but not by returning us to pre-Modernist artifice. Instead, one might say of the “Funerary Paintings” that they are filters, like those of hourglasses, simultaneously revealing and concealing, in fact “playing,” with space and time. So that time, in the fluid immobility of these works, is without duration; it appears to shift continuously. One might say of the “Funerary Paintings” that they contain time rather than that they are in it, or that they are inscribed in a vaster space.

It is no surprise that the fading of the Christian distinction between the gates of heaven, Janua Coeli, and the gates of hell—a distinction unknown to pagan antiquity—so that we might see anew the Roman Avernus, has been accomplished by a Neapolitan, a native of what was Magna Graecia, Southern-Italian Greece. For it is here, at the entrance to the cave of the Sibyl at Cuma, that death is confronted through enigma. Or we might also see these paintings as the place where the mysterious “stone objects” Gilgamesh shattered in a critical moment in his quest for immortality (just before crossing over into the world of death) reappear whole and transfixed. Clemente’s “return to paganism,” in a world deprived of metaphysics and transcendence, points to a new form of obsolescence of death itself, life having become so close to death itself, so much like it, as to almost absorb and obliterate it. Thus an image like the knotted rope in his Chord, 1987, that might once have stood for our link with the realm of the dead, can now only indicate, simultaneously, the broken connection and the identification between life and death. I cannot help hearing, throughout the vast melancholic desolation of the “Funerary” series, a voice of infinite regret—even if intermixed with some delicate cheer—that having been robbed of death, we have also, inevitably, been robbed of life itself. The new sign of the plague—a macabre seal of our all too recent and still precarious “freedom”—hangs ominously over these barren landscapes and emblems. One thinks of Sophocles:

Cypris, my children, is not only Cypris,
She bears the name of many different things.
She is Hades, and she is life immortal
But she is also the wild Fury that rages.10

Place is not an ironic title, though that painting’s spare articulation of a handful of shadow-casting monuments on a vast, bare plain may indeed refer to the aporetical quality of place in modernity: the inhabited place as a deserted place, and the desert as the only inhabitable place. Don De Lillo, in his novel White Noise, 1985, has written of this minimally determined place—a place that is only nominally a place, that is solely defined by its name. But Clemente’s is a place without a name. It is the place before and after a name—after in that it is not named, before in that it is unnamable. And yet one is left to wonder what this “funerary” place might be that looks something like a petrified forest on which a colored veil has been spread. To guess that it is the place of the dead makes one wonder more. For some might imagine this site as one of cosmic joy; yet the dancing Shiva (Eros) that has appeared in numerous guises in Clemente’s earlier work is nowhere here to be found.

In Chord, two ropes—or is it one that has been broken?—stretch across the painting to meet in a fraying knot. And if a knot might be our ultimate hope in an open-air world, populated by bodies stacked in hieroglyphic designs as intricate as those composed by Capuchin monks in their subterranean Roman ossuaries, or as those other ones perpetually settling in the ruins of neolithic cities, where, all covered by white dust, the fineness of the vases competes with that of the skulls, then these funerary landscapes are quite different from the lively images of daily life that wrap around Egyptian hypogeums like wide and colorful protective bands (color, in the traditional and archaic worlds, meant protection). Everyday life, in those protometaphysical landscapes, enveloped death itself as though it were a mummy; and what is a mummy, in fact, if not an almost cheerfully preserved, packed, packaged, and bandaged death? But Francesco Clemente’s “Funerary Paintings” envelop us as though death might once again protect life—and if not a life in the Beyond, at least a life on earth more conscious of its tragic limits. Though they may not be reassuring, they are thoroughly unsentimental and not meant to terrify us: therein, perhaps, lies their joy and consolation.

Francesco Pellizzi is the editor of RES / Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics, and associate in Middle American ethnology at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Translated from the Italian by G. Alhadeff.



1. “Run runaway from death / From death sitting by the edge of the sea.” Vicente Huidobro, “A Voyage Via Parachute, A poem in VII cantos,” 1919, in Altazor, trans. Elliot Weinberger, Saint Paul, Minn.: Greywolf, 1988, p. 115.

2. Though images in the “Funerary Paintings” appear in five other works painted in the same vein, Clemente does not consider these additional pictures as part of the cycle. The series has a pronounced binary character, with four couples of paintings bearing the same title: Place, Tree, Parliament, Island. The titles of the other three paintings are Boat, Chord, and Alpine Grip.

3. One might make something of the fact that such an expression, which in the Anglo-Saxon idiom denotes a form of superficiality, in the Mediterranean one (at least in Italy) stands for a sharpened perceptive state, in fact, for a sort of sensibility that is at once diffuse and heightened.

4. I am including in my thoughts Clemente’s small group of “abstract” paintings from 1986, titled Christ of Eskipulas, after the protector of the penitente village of Chimayo in New Mexico, as well as his group of 108 monotypes, 1987.

5. It’s interesting to note, however, that Clemente first made a very large “jar” painting several years ago, which for reasons now becoming apparent he decided to keep in his own collection: this horizontal painting featuring a series of huge, thinly-painted jars is, in more ways than one, also a mother—as one might speak of the “mother-of-pearl”—of many of his paintings of the last few years, certainly of both the “Pot” and the “Funerary” works.

6. For my greater elaboration on the transcultural aspects of Clemente’s work, the reader might see my “Through India to America: Notes on Francesco Clemente” (in collaboration with Jean-Christophe Ammann), in M. Auping, ed., Francesco Clemente, New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1985, pp. 152–63.

7. Wallace Stevens, “Note on Moonlight,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York: Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, p. 531.

8. For a broader discussion of the nature of this subjectivity see my “Images of the Material and the Manner of Taste: Reflections (from Francesco Clemente),” Parkett 9, June 1986, pp. 44–66.

9. “New England Masque Anti-Masque” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1984, also featured the work of Morton Feldman, David Shapiro, and Anthony Candido.

10. Sophocles, fragment 855, verses 1–4, quoted in Plutarch, Erotikos (Dialogue on Love), in Moralia, Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical library, vol. IX, 1969, p. 352. Fragment translated from the Greek by the author.

All works are by Francesco Clemente, from the “Funerary Paintings” series, 1987–88, and arc pigment on canvas. The series will be on view at the Dia Art Foundation, New York (the Chelsea space), through the spring of 1989.