Francesco Clemente

Drawing is the preferred mode of art making for Francesco Clemente, the mode in which he is most at home. This exhibition traced the development of Clemente’s drawings, in a variety of media, from the early ’70s through the present. Each one is an introspective fragment, sometimes dashed off in a single gesture as though the hand never left the paper, sometimes elaborated almost to opulence, with an oddly excruciating intensity that is inflammatory beyond what it images. Almost every drawing seems awkward and elegant at once, mingling an air of jaunty impertinence with labored delicacy. And the final image in the exhibition, for all its familiar parts, compounds the impertinence by its ingenious incoherence.

Whether figural or abstract, the drawings are emblematic and revelatory, as though initiating one into a privileged wisdom. This attitude of spiritual enlightenment reaches a climax of sorts in the series of 108 mystic/abstract watercolors that Clemente made in 1985 in Adayar, India. Other drawings are more obviously about a condition of self, often sexually self-conscious or arbitrarily aggressive, but more often in a vulnerable state of suspended animation. Willful masochism—a generalized sense of victimization, needing no victimizer—seems to be the chief emotional mode. In the first self-portrait to be designated as such by the artist, the mature Clemente articulates himself in vulnerable nakedness, as though newborn through the act of drawing. The vulnerability is compounded by the suspension of his figure in emptiness; he is Lazarus being raised from an abyss. There is, indeed, for all the knowing violence of many of the drawings—the sense of plunging into an abyss of the forbidden—an air of otherworldly, helpless innocence to them.

In this as in other media, Clemente’s visual grammar is wide-ranging: from heavy to whimsical touch; from drawings with brazenly forward color to bare line renderings in which the spell of simplicity would have been broken by the addition of color; from drawings overloaded with elements in various states of chaotic, symbiotic connection to drawings with a single fugitive figure or sign (language figures heavily in many works, another plaything to be “rearranged”). His mastery of such a variety of means is one indication of his restless, unsatisfied curiosity.

Drawing is perhaps the best medium in which to pursue the quicksilver effect of the uncanny that Clemente favors. Many of the drawings seem like transitory, feverish visions, fast-frozen in all their incompleteness, which often gives them a quasi-cartoonish look. But there are also more finished works, such as the profiled skull with an upright egg in its mouth, which conveys the alpha and omega of existence in a single image. By manipulating familiar icons and playing with them in unfamiliar ways, Clemente exploits the flexibility of the most flexible medium for “self-expression,” the medium in which one is most able to make one’s impulse to go wrong come out good.

Reviewed by Donald Kuspit.