Francesco Clemente, Black Flags Blue Sky II, 2016, oil on canvas, 71 1⁄4 × 87".

Francesco Clemente, Black Flags Blue Sky II, 2016, oil on canvas, 71 1⁄4 × 87".

Francesco Clemente

Accustomed to collaborating with poets and writers—among them Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Rene Ricard, and Salman Rushdie—Francesco Clemente allowed himself to be seduced by Poet in New York, the recently retranslated collection of poems that Federico García Lorca wrote between 1929 and 1930 while a student at Columbia University. With a sort of foresight, Lorca saw the city as a merciless meat grinder that devours the most vulnerable, the destitute, and innocent children. His critique of the capitalist world led him to write of Wall Street: “There, as nowhere else, you feel a total absence of the spirit.”

The poem from which Clemente has taken most of his paintings’ titles, “El rey de Harlem” (The King of Harlem), overflows with grief like a funeral lament, yet also reflects the vital and creative energy of Harlem, where the poet’s Mediterranean sensuality clashes with the harsher eroticism of New York. In his desire to live openly as a homosexual, Lorca feels the call of flesh and blood; he is drawn to it and in turn calls back with a repeated cry: “Negros, Negros, Negros, Negros.” Clemente captures these seductive interactions in the seemingly subtropical atmosphere of a racially diverse city where he finds music, poverty, cruelty, the sensual softness of bodies, and a devastating beauty. Staying close to the poem in a sort of discrete parallelism, the artist collects these dissonant suggestions in twelve medium-size oil paintings that feature figures, animals, and symbols derived from various artistic sources, ranging from Indian tantras to Brazilian candomblé.

“I have gone back to happiness,” the artist says, in reference to this group of paintings. The freshness of this joyful work comes from a poem that doesn’t seem to have that quality but is full of such fierce passion that we can find it if we look for it. Clemente drags us into an erotic hunt within an apocalyptic landscape, in search of love in the abyss of devastation, where sensuality offers a possibility of redemption from melancholy and solitude. The weeping figure in prison garb wearing a jester’s crown in Great Prisoner King, 2017, is a defeated character, aware of his subjugated position. But other images evoke liberation: In the Breast of Landscapes, 2017, releases a vital energy through a luminous sword extracted from a spinal column, while the intense eroticism of the naked female body in Salamanders of Ivory, 2017, splits a starry night in two in a symphony of dazzling pink. Barely controlled drips of paint or certain dull orange backgrounds as crusty as chipped walls call forth a sense of time passing through the painting, a transparent wave dissolving everything. Clemente captures the moment before everything disappears and once again becomes dust, as in the gentle apocalypse of three heavenly bodies run aground at the edge of the sea in Colonies of Planets, 2017.

Black Flags Blue Sky I and II, both 2016, are part of a different group of works, created during the last half of 2016, around the time of the presidential election. The dark flags are insurmountable walls, fences, frontiers that divide and separate; as raw as possible and painted at one go, they are naked and crude images—the blue of the sky like the last contact with a shared humanity. With the subsequent paintings inspired by Lorca, Clemente redeems that darkness with poetry; they are a song of love for New York, revealing a mutable reality in a multiplication of doors and passages that allow the gaze to enter anywhere, into gaps and shadows, even into desolation, never losing touch with the truth of humanity.