Francesco Clemente

A lot has been written about Francesco Clemente’s reliance on the self-portrait as a primary vehicle of expression and, in this exhibition of 20 years of work on paper, it is clearly the image with the greatest staying power. The 125 pieces displayed here explore a wide range of media and announce the artist’s facility in more than one. Yet, with all of their diversity, they manage to make significant, individual statements, exceeding the category of preliminary studies. It seems apparent that this is work about the self but not in the obvious, narcissistic sense that the overwhelming number of self-portraits might suggest; instead, the significance of Clemente’s art appears to reside in an abstract idea of self that celebrates its own discovery.

The title of the exhibition, “Three Worlds,” makes reference to the cities Clemente calls home—Rome, Madras, and New York—and the influences of these different cultures weave in and out of his imagery. Clemente happily borrows whatever corresponds with his own vision, and gladly leaves the dogmatic weight of specific systems behind. As geographically wide as the concept of “three worlds” introduced in the title suggests Clemente’s gaze to be, his actual field of inquiry is rather circumscribed. The artist looks in, out, and back at himself again and again, and the aspects of portraiture that read as particular (Clemente’s face being the most obvious example) are finally reduced to their universal core.

While the earliest works represented, from the ’70s, announce the body as an image of initial concern for Clemente, they also introduce a selection of characters from the animal kingdom as critical components in the artist’s reflection on the question of self. In these early works, the use of photography and the emphasis on the framed image were timely nods to the conceptual climate of the ’70s and, as such, were quickly discarded as Clemente’s work developed. The presence of animals, however, remains essential to his endeavor; a gouache painting entitled Map of What Is Effortless, 1978, depicts a large human hand, palm facing the viewer, with a different animal balanced on the tip of each finger. The Bestiary, 1978, another large gouache from the same year, presents five floating animals, each with a nude male figure hovering above it, imitating the animal’s body language as if something could be learned from such physical devotion.

In a series of eight pastels called The Celtic Bestiary, 1984, the earlier sense of innocent wonder has given over to something more emotional and mysterious, as a different animal in each image signals a different mood. One work in this series depicts a rabbit standing over a fornicating couple, while a large, white, egglike form floats above in a golden field. With its irrational scale shifts and “rabbit light,” this work evokes Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” with its swerving logic and sense of self-conscious delight. The Indigo Room, 1983–88, a separate installation in the form of a charcoal drawing on 123 sheets of dyed paper, offers the most mysterious configuration of humans and animals. In this dimly lit space, the boundaries of their forms appear uncertain, as they define the horizon in the dark and watery landscape they inhabit.

In Self-Portrait: The First, 1978, several types of birds crowd the artist’s shoulders, on which they are perched. The obvious association would be with Saint Francis of Assisi, but a less apparent, though no less convincing reference is also made to another self-portrait with birds by Frida Kahlo, entitled My Parrots and I, 1941. Like Clemente, Kahlo is an artist who has pursued self-portraiture with obsessive insistence. The similarities include the abundant presence of animals as well as the willingness of both artists to penetrate the body’s skin. In Telamon No. 1 (and No. 2), 1981, Clemente reveals internal organs with the delicate touch of combined etching techniques. Interior Landscape, 1980, is a fiery pastel of the intestines filling the image and slipping out of the body like a small tail through the hole of the anus. Kahlo’s interior views, on the other hand, offer a less abstract poetic, as they are tied to the particular physical and psychological pains of her life. While there are many likenesses between these two artists (the small head within the head is most striking), the comparison serves best to illuminate their differences. Clemente moves in lightness; his images are less a discovery of particular form than a perpetual invention of spirit.

Eileen Neff