PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

Francesco Clemente

BROOKS ADAMS: Why do you think we’re talking about the ’80s now? Was it a heroic age?*

FRANCESCO CLEMENTE: [Laughs.] New York had an extraordinary texture at the time, when I first came from India in April of 1980. In India I was familiar with the word tantra, which means texture, weave. The city itself was this weave of diverse experiences.

BA: Who were the first painters you became friends with here?

FC: David Salle and Julian Schnabel.

BA: What affinity did you see with Salle?

FC: I was very fond of the early Salles, where you have just the monochrome canvas with the charcoal drawing and one other element of disturbance. I could relate to the timidity of it, to the understated eroticism of it, and to the irony of it. Understatement, irony, timidity—these were all, to me, good values.

BA: In January of 1980 you were in Madras making these billboards, these big gouaches. Did you know you were coming to New York two months later?

FC: No. I didn’t. But sitting in Madras at the Theosophical Society for several years, I was reading Indian authors who were familiar with the writings of Emerson, of Thoreau. So in India the prophets of America were already calling.

BA: Tell me about the world you discovered at the Mudd Club.

FC: My first night at the Mudd Club I spent discussing Rome’s Fascist architecture with the club’s owner Steve Maas. It made me feel right at home.

BA: And you saw art there by Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf?

FC: Upstairs. In fact, there was a small exhibition that Keith Haring had organized [“Beyond Words,” April 1981]—small in scale but dense in meaning. It included Haring, Kenny Scharf, Futura 2000, Fab 5 Freddy, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

BA: Did you meet these artists through their work?

FC: In my second exhibition in New York, at Sperone Westwater [May 1981], I decided to make a room of frescoes that were peopled with emblematic figures with attributes. I imagined that frescoes were the equivalent of movies, in terms of having an extremely wide screen, a cast of characters, and strong communal value. So I had Diego Cortez cast my room. That is how I met a lot of those figures: They posed for me. Rene Ricard was in there also.

BA: Did Haring and Basquiat have a very different energy from you?

FC: Not really. To see Keith dancing at the Paradise Garage was to know what that work was about. And which audience he imagined his work to help.

BA: Did you dance too?

FC: I danced. And with Jean-Michel it was the same. To know that his father was from Haiti, to know that the Caribbeans possess a treasure of poetry and literature, was to know what that work was about.

BA: In Perseverance [1982], you painted yourself with the Pantheon in your arms. Did you paint that in New York?

FC: Yes. The first night I slept in the studio in New York, I had a dream where shit was raining from the sky. This painting came after that dream, with the Pantheon sort of protecting me from this rain of shit. What that means, I don’t know. One should remember that downtown New York was a city of ruins back then.

BA: Did New York seem as ruined as Rome at the time?

FC: Exactly. It was an archaeological site with the Roman gods still walking around.

BA: It seems to me that two artists very important for the making of something new in your generation were Beuys and Twombly. Had you met Beuys?

FC: Yes, several times. Beuys had a connection with a lot of those 1920s anthroposophical thinkers I was fond of. So there was a resonance.

BA: For us in New York, Beuys’s show at the Guggenheim in the winter of ’79–80 was a revelation.

FC: A childhood fantasy of mine was to become a Beuys with a sense of humor. Twombly had to do with the question of how far you have to go through the Mediterranean roots to be able to actually turn them into something living, with an urgency for our time. Twombly had to do with an ethical stance, which I was looking for.

BA: Twombly, of course, lived in Rome. Was he supportive of you as a young artist?

FC: I’ve always kept a policy of staying away from the people I admire. Although we would cross each other’s path in the morning.

BA: But he never looked at your work and commented on it?

FC: No, I really wasn’t ready for that back then. There was a longing for but also a diffidence toward modern art, let’s put it that way.

BA: When we look at your work today, we see links to people whom we didn’t really know about at the time, like Luigi Ontani and Alighiero e Boetti.

FC: Boetti was my mentor. We would see each other every day in Rome. He had an extremely original mind. Boetti was very aware of French thinkers like Foucault and Lacan. It’s to Boetti that I owe my awareness of the fragmentation of self, how the self is an unreliable source of centering.

BA: I think that one of the most powerful things about your work around 1980 was the presentation of this multiple, many-armed, Shiva-esque self: Edit deAk called her famous Artforum article about you “A Chameleon in a State of Grace.”

FC: That title remains one of the most successful for that moment.

BA: Let’s talk more about timidity. It’s a great strength. I don’t know if that’s a paradox or not. Is it part of your temperament? Did you have to learn timidity?

FC: I still feel that for a painter the task is to put an object into the world that is not going to be an answer to anything. It’s going to be a reality of its own. This was a reaction to a heavily ideological stance that belonged to the generation before mine. History can lead you into a dead end from time to time.

BA: With the whole ’70s performance angle: Were conceptual strategies still present for you?

FC: Even more relevant. In Italy we had Ontani. Joan Jonas, in particular, provided a source of inspiration in terms of how she related her own persona to the proliferation of images—in the mirroring and multiplying of her persona, and in the ideas of mask and of metamorphosis. I was very aware of all that work—the composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the performance artists Simone Forti and Steve Paxton. I saw them all in the early ’70s.

BA: You began a series of paintings in 1981 called “The Fourteen Stations” that was shown in January ’83 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. Every time I see them, they’re a shock. Was it a calculated departure? Were you engaging with the Germans?

FC: One of the strategies I had in mind was to actively evade a signature style. I wanted to impersonate, to activate from time to time a different persona.

BA: Who was the persona in “The Fourteen Stations”?

FC: He’s a nighttime persona. “The Fourteen Stations” to me were my night paintings, where I didn’t go from image to painting but from painting to image.

BA: Did you have a dialogue with Brice Marden?

FC: I was aware of Brice’s work early on. In the ’70s, in Paris, I’d seen his “Suicide Notes” [1972–74]—modernist dogmas and sensibilities collapsing within the edges of this new, vulnerable self. That had made a huge impression on me. And again I felt there was this vivid connection with the Mediterranean past, with Greek sculpture and its relation to nature.

BA: How did you meet the composer Morton Feldman?

FC: We met through a friend, Francesco Pellizzi, a scholar who was very close to Feldman. And again, I felt in his work there was a scope that went far beyond the modern. Feldman said the most beautiful line: “When a composer hesitates, he falls. When a painter hesitates, he becomes immortal.”

BA: You were so lionized back then. How did you survive as a person? How did it not go to your head?

FC: One of the Indian mystics, Vivekenanda, after he visited America, said that in India the surface was very sad but the underground soul was very joyful. In America the surface was very joyful, but there was an undercurrent of grief. At the time I felt this was very true. That sort of protected me.

BA: So you saw this huge sadness coming at you.

FC: The nature of painting is to redeem an undercurrent of sadness. That’s what every painting is about.

BA: Those were very depressing times. Did you think you would live through the ’80s?

FC: No, of course not. It’s so vulgar to go on living.

BA: In ’85 you went to India with Raymond Foye. You’d just created Hanuman Books.

FC: Raymond was extremely important to me. He was my connection to the poets I had in mind as a teenager, who were the sound of the city itself. Through him I met Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, John Wieners, Robert Creeley, and started my collaborations with them.

BA: Could you have just stayed in Italy? Or gone back from India to Italy?

FC: I would have died.

BA: Literally or metaphorically?

FC: I would’ve literally died, I think. History’s dead end in Italy in the ’70s meant that people my age got very heavily involved in terrorist activities. I wanted to take a vacation from history into geography.

BA: What would your paintings look like if you’d stayed in Italy?

FC: They would look small.

BA: You became friends with Warhol, didn’t you? What did you learn from him?

FC: Warhol was the master of what was left unsaid.

BA: What did he leave unsaid to you?

FC: In India I had met mystics who reminded me of Warhol in their ritualized, mirrorlike presence. They attracted everyone’s gaze and remained invisible at the same time. That, again, was a great ethical guideline.

BA: You have said that with the “Funerary Paintings” of 1987–88 you were turning your back. Was it on celebrity?

FC: You know, there is a time where you want to be in touch with the sensibility of your time. And then there is a moment where you think you’ll do without that. I think the dynamic of that particular group of works had to do with the fact that I really could not come to terms with so many losses. I just really thought that the work should be as obscure and unresolved as my feelings.

BA: Were those paintings consciously intended as an elegy?

FC: I had visited Egypt and saw the Valley of the Kings for the first time in December of 1986. The palette for the “Funerary Paintings” comes from there. So I thought of them also as walls.

BA: When you say walls, I immediately think of Philip Taaffe. Did you respond to his work at this point?

FC: Yes. In his case the affinity has to do with the fragility of the surface, contrasting with the solidity of the patterns and, again, the intensification of elements, the inclusiveness.

BA: The Orientalism, the exoticism?

FC: I refute those terms, especially now when the other world is seen more and more like either a tourist resort or a terrorist den. I never think of my relation with any of these places, be it Italy or India or America, as being romantic in any way.

BA: Are you an American citizen?

FC: I could be. But I became a resident—Henry Geldzahler and Warhol recommended me. At this point, I would like to be a citizen. I would like an American passport because I would like to cast my vote, which is the only right I don’t have.

Brooks Adams is a critic based in New York and Paris.