Francesco Clemente, Museum Tent (detail), 2012–13, tempera on cotton and mixed media, 19' 8“ x 13' 1” x 9' 10".

Francesco Clemente, Museum Tent (detail), 2012–13, tempera on cotton and mixed media, 19' 8“ x 13' 1” x 9' 10".

Francesco Clemente

Blain|Southern | Berlin

Francesco Clemente, Museum Tent (detail), 2012–13, tempera on cotton and mixed media, 19' 8“ x 13' 1” x 9' 10".

It’s been nearly three decades since Francesco Clemente’s last big show in Berlin, at the Neue Nationalgalerie in 1984. And yet the three large “Tents” (all works 2012–13) featured in his recent exhibition of the same name make it clear that, far from running out of steam, this hard-to-classify artist is still pushing the limits of his art. Despite his new works’ scale—each measures about twenty by thirteen by ten feet—their effect is as light as a sorcerer’s touch: With them, Clemente turns the notion of artistic visibility by grace of institutional programming on its head. These “Tents” also give a new twist to what canvas can be: not only a ground for painting but also a portable space for presenting it.

Never literal, Clemente’s art summons a number of commingled ideas, questioning the processes of seeing, naming, and comprehending. For some viewers, the spectacular size of these “Tents” may evoke the imposition of colonialism on India. Others will see in them a novel type of portable shrine. And then there will be those for whom the tents could be utopian dwellings, up-to-date communal lounges. Each position can be sustained by the imagery of one or the other of the tents. The brightly colored, anthropomorphic forms stamped and painted on the interior of Standing with Truth recommend it as a place of ritual celebration. The Museum Tent shelters gallery of self-portraits. Any reading of these self-portraits, however, as purely narcissistic is broken down by two aesthetic tendencies that run counter to each other: the ornamental—embodied by their huge rococo frames, whose transcendental linear quality dwarfs the faces they enclose—and the monochromatic, as evidenced by the gigantic, single-color backdrops that isolate these effigies, thereby further dematerializing their presence. These qualities draw attention to the artist’s long-standing concern with surfaces, their partial erasure, and superimposition of new codes upon them.

The palimpsestic nature of Clemente’s surfaces is also evidenced by the bits and pieces of words of the most basic Vajrayana vow—a tantric Buddhist mantra—sewn onto fragments of cotton on the exterior of Taking Refuge. That invocation commences with this phrase: NOT FOR MY SAKE ALONE, BUT FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL BEINGS. The undulating, colorful shapes that seem to effortlessly unfold on this tent’s huge exterior surface contrast with the words sewn painstakingly there and with the hand-stitching via which they are affixed to a background of pale-pink cotton. A darker, apotropaic note is sounded by the scraps of this prayer sewn on black strips of cloth winding around the supporting posts of the entrance and interior of the tent. Inside, haunting, exquisitely detailed animal heads painted in shimmering gray and black tempera tones await the viewer. Each animal protectively enfolds in its lap the prey it instinctively seeks. Hunting, killing, and consuming are evoked as essentially transformational.

Clemente’s notion of the “political” in art initially had at least two springboards: R. D. Laing’s Politics of Experience (1967) and Joseph Beuys’s “social sculpture”—in particular, Beuys’s bent toward the irrational, as in his concern with shamanism, evident as well in some of Clemente’s drawings from Il Viaggiatore Napoletano, 1973. Upstairs from the tents, A Table for Beuys made the connection patent. The table is strewn with forty-two woodblocks used to imprint motifs on the tents’ interiors. Keys to the work downstairs, they remind us that the tools of the artist are akin to the housings for his painting: both utilitarian and ritualistic. Just as portable as these exhibiting structures, the woodblocks underscore, too, the utopian dimensions of Clemente’s art, one that has long sought to unfold in a territory beyond status-quo “avant-garde” practice.

Pamela Kort