Francesco Clemente

In this exhibition of Francesco Clemente’s Early Morning Raga, 1996-97, the artist elevates quotidian detail to the realm of cosmic symbolism. His procedure in the collection of eighteen watercolors assembled as an unbound book is disarmingly simple. With the strict schematic format of a grid, he apportions images of approximately the same size, nine per page, whose subject matter is a compendium of his migratory and cross-cultural calendar. Clemente and his family live in New York; Rome; and Madras, India, and the watercolors are emblazoned with representations of bicycles and soccer games, keys and a clock, a winged Pegasus and court jesters, and frequent appearances of the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, sometimes bearing the likeness of Clemente himself.

At first the viewer is tempted to pursue a narrative or to unlock a visual conundrum. But it is the cumulative effect of each sheet as a whole, the almost staccato rhythm of the interfacing, that releases their significance—like the strumming of stringed instruments or the flipping of pages. A raga is, after all, a melodic pattern, a resolution of musical tones in an extended performance that evolves over time toward a harmonious meshing of parts. By presenting h figures close-up, compressed within their borders, Clemente compacts each one into an ideogram and emphasizes its significance. But all the images are rendered with a breezy, slapdash facility, the transparent, lambent medium making them seem to float and fluctuate, as if in a kind of childlike exuberance. The naivete and spontaneity of childhood are also invoked in Clemente’s seemingly artless presentation and the sunny spirit of his bright colors.

The artist’s use of vibrant, sensuous hues—tangerines, ochers, lime and emerald greens, lapis lazuli blues, and deep purples—heightens the iconic and autobiographic vocabulary of his motifs. At the center of Clemente’s happy congeries of Western and Indian forms is his family—the two heads of his twin sons, a voluptuous apsara, or maiden (perhaps one of the artist’s teenage daughters)—alongside ripe apples and luxuriant vines sprouting hearts. There are other sensual images as well: couplings of mouths and heads, the doubling of hands and feet, and the expansion of vast vaginas and monumental phalluses, embraced by rising suns and glowing moons, chains of serpents, and coiling spirals. These are juxtaposed with the artifacts of culture—jesters, skulls, a mask, Ganesha, and all-seeing eyes, spectral and mandala-like. Taken together, these disconnected motifs read like fragments of dreams, invested with vital and mystical texture.

The pages of Early Morning Raga almost yearn to be handled. This is a diminutive and intimate discourse, one that relies on proximity for its symbolic power. The bleached walls and large rooms of the standard museum display drained these works of their jewel-like scale. Seeing them presented conventionally as an almost continuous frieze (as if they were so many mosaic tiles), one wished for a more integrated setting and the possibility of a slower engagement.

Joan Seeman Robinson