New York


Let me confess at the outset that I was genuinely disappointed by Francesco Clemente’s exhibition at the Guggenheim, but not, perhaps, for the right reasons. Certainly, I was disappointed not because one expects better from the Guggenheim (one doesn’t) or because we deserve better (we don’t), or even because I expected to see a serious retrospective exhibition (I didn’t). What I expected was a fragrance, an essence, as advertised by the exhibition’s trademark title, “Clemente”—as if murmured by one of those Euro-teens who trip up to you in Bloomingdale’s, squeeze an atomizer, and becloud you with the latest scent. As light and fragrant as “Clemente” is, however, I would have wished it lighter and more aromatic, because I came looking for what I thought I had detected in Clemente’s work over the years: a confirmation of the Mediterranean way of doing things, some visible evidence that, in the bookish, prudish, guilt-ridden, crypto-gothic murk of late-twentieth-century high culture, an artist might live a cosmo-politan life in the sunshine of lovely places and make an art that speaks confidently to the virtues of that life—to its complexity, mobility, and exteriority.

I expected a more courageous frivolity, in other words, but I didn’t find it. Because it wasn’t there. Because I had done with Clemente’s work what critics do with the work of artists who arouse their selective enthusiasm: I had credited the artist with what I loved about his art and forgiven him what I hated. I had attributed the mondo primitivo vulgarity of his oil paintings, their pervasive miasma of abject swank, to the depredations of ’80s taste and credited Clemente himself with the charm and vivacity of the gouaches and watercolors, whose impudent and undisguised nostalgia for a deco beau monde seemed at the time like a manicured finger in the eye of squinting propriety. Even now, the sheer, deadpan panache of presenting the New York art world with what can only be described as West Hollywood Beauty Parlor Art elicits my awe and respect, and it still packs a punch. The finest and most artful aspect of this show, in fact, resides in those moments when the deco sprezzatura of Clemente’s watercolors resonates with the deco aspirations of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building, and one seems to be strolling down a ramp through the most elegant beauty salon in the universe.

These moments are few and far between, unfortunately, but they remind us that the appeal of Clemente’s sensibility has always been that he is a lover not a fighter, a connoisseur and not a critic—and that the best thing about lovers and connoisseurs is their gift for disappearing with a light heart and a generous spirit into the atmosphere of the thing beloved. Clemente can do this. He can dissolve into the stylishness of the visible occasion, and one could easily select a Grand Tour of such translucent, cos-mopoli-tan moments from the artist’s oeuvre. Instead, the Guggenheim has chosen to foreground the New York Clemente—the virtuoso chameleon with identity problems (which is to say, the chameleon not doing its job). At every point, the organizers of this exhibition have chosen to downgrade his quicksilver facility and tug their forelocks to the tribal myths of Manhattan’s art culture, which fears the sunshine as witches fear water and loves suffering better than pie.

So what we get at the Guggenheim is “Clemente the Neo-Expressionist”—rainy-day angst in exotic climes—which is not, in principle, such a bad thing. Narcissistic turmoil is no deterrent to the creation of good art, and, if Clemente’s odyssey were invested with a smidgen of moral ardor, it might easily recall the pere-grinations of D.H. Lawrence (whose paintings Clemente’s most closely resemble). It is not so invested, however, and we are left with a rather excruciating passel of faux-naïf excursions into genteel Dionysian shamanism—Francesco as Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer; Francesco and Alba as Dalí and Gala, as Lawrence and Frieda, as Jean-Paul and Jean—all so breathless, hopeless, and unilluminating that I am completely at a loss to explain the apparent vogue of Clemente’s maudit manner.

If the klutzy smear of these paintings is meant to persuade us of emotions so strong as to have impaired the artist’s motor control, I am unpersuaded—which is not to say that the “expressive” manner is entirely inexpressive, only that it is not expressive of much. A sufficient infusion of quick cash and sleazy fame might send any one of us scuttling about the globe muttering “Who am I?” to the adjacent succulents. This does not make it a rich occasion for making paintings, and in Clemente’s case, it’s a poor occasion indeed. The fragrance of his limpid encoun-ters with the world is everywhere preempted by his sterile contemplation of himself. And to what end? Clemente is an artist who can actually evoke the irrevocable, joyful anxiety of giving oneself up to the exotic, and, given this option, what possi—-ble use could we have for front-cabin narcissism that dissolves this bright anxiety into a gooey, entropic stew of placeless, timeless hybridity?

Most critically, what use do we have for the complacency this dissolution implies? This is the real question, because, finally, the most troubling aspect of this exhibition is the ease with which we can imagine the moral of the artist’s endeavor expressed with a wan smile of soigné world-weariness: You know, little friend, one may go in search of oneself in exotic locales all over the earth, seek insight into oneself at the feet of masters, gurus, lovers, mentors, poets, and visionaries, seek to express oneself in exotic manners and materials selected from the breadth and depth of human endeavor, and sadly enough, in the end, as in the beginning, one is still the same trim, fashionable blue-eyed Italian dude, hair optional. So, (sigh) why bother, really? The reason to bother, of course, is that, as grotesque as Clemente’s grand gestures can seem, he is one of those artists who can remind us that making art is a joyful industry, neither prohibitively difficult nor physically painful, and, at its most generous, easy as breathing and redolent with pleasure. Fully a third of this ex-hi-bition argues trenchantly for the virtues of joyful industry. The rest doesn’t argue trenchantly for anything at all.

Dave Hickey