Francesco Clemente

There is something in the art of Francesco Clemente that is like the woman who prides herself on never sweating—a triumph of appearances over function. The ambient, limpid character of his frescoes and watercolors is fervent, even fevered at times. Ingestion and excretion, and their sexual, morphological possibilities, are his predominant themes. He is very often his own protagonist. Yet Clemente offers no bacchanalia, no Rabelaisian adventure. His work, rather, is a kind of gestating Decameron in which all components, all figures, all references and styles wend their way to an incomplete and fluctuant eschatology. The volupté of Europe’s posturing is fretted with asceticisms and orientalisms. Self-portraits bear a message of world-weariness, or of “I have seen this before in another life,” and are rendered in the hand of a (suave) nail. Colors from the heavens of Classicism or Mannerism give form to Freudian nightmare fragments which, in turn, are turned sanguine by the feckless current of line.

At their most explicit Clemente’s images are at their most inexplicable—the necessary recipe for the Modern sensualist: pornographics without external reason, erotics as the rhythms of utterance. For all the apparent nonchalance of his figures’ placement, for all his improvisations, Clemente is a fantastically conscious and self-conscious artist. The delicacy of his line registers as a rebuff to overstatement. The poetic disjuncture of his compositions, both pictorial and literary (for an example of the latter, see his frontispiece in the catalogue for the recent “New Work on Paper 2” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), seem part of a campaign to make anything that smacks of the literal feel like the kiss of death.

For these and other reasons Clemente chooses most often to work in what one might call the distaff mediums, those associated with the less “aggressive” practices of decoration, illustration, and sketching—mosaics, frescoes, miniatures, watercolors, drawings. In these mediums he has so far done his best—certainly his most beautiful—work. It is precisely their connotation of “minor” that allows him to maintain his pose of dilettantism (glamorous but quite false) while proceeding with the more serious business of formal, post-Minimal, post-povera, bogus-historical, semi-nationalist games. Example: portable frescoes? Quel contradiction in terms! Sets of terms, or corresponding terminologies, form webs of associations. A skeleton, for instance, will link up “appropriatively” to the work of James Ensor, backward to the woozier associations of medieval religious fears and alchemical reverberations, then forward again and south to the not-so-simple fact of Naples, where Clemente is from—a city infected with a simultaneously morbid, romantic, and realistic sense of its perpetual vulnerability.

The smallness, lightness, or portability of his work insinuate. One becomes aware of the tactile and mobile possibilities of one’s relationship to it. A long, languorous, scroll-like drawing in the MoMA show necessitates both time and motion; this show too suggested a soft-pedaled exigency. Joining his now-familiar frescoes were a group of four-paneled, freestanding, foldable screens. These hover between an incidental decorativeness and thorough “specificity”—of site, mood, occasion, etc.; between East and West; between awkwardness and elegance, pattern and arrhythmia, prudishness and prurience. Though painted on both sides in luminous watercolors on paper, they imply a near-lapidary hardness of surface.

Lisa Liebmann