Spiritual Portraits: Q+A with Francesco Clemente

Study for Nostalgia, Utopia, 2012, gouache and sanguine on paper, 9½ by 10¼ inches. Mary Boone Gallery.


Francesco Clemente is well known for his endlessly mutating images that draw upon diverse sources and his nomadic lifestyle. In his current exhibition, “Nostalgia/Utopia,” at Mary Boone in Chelsea, Clemente suspends time and space with 10 paintings and 18 drawings that reference Indian sculpture, Buddhist mandalas, Renaissance painting and modernist pictograms.

The paintings are imagined scenes in which represented figures co-exist with real sculptural objects affixed to the canvas. In one of four untitled paintings from 2012, an African mask is attached at the center of a radiant sunflower shedding a string of pearl tears to the floor. On another one, actual barbed wire in rainbow hues stretched across the upper band of the canvas. Below, painted eyes were tied to the fingers on hands surrounding a blindfolded head. In a third work, colorful transistor radios were placed in a row atop of an image that includes patterned quilts, Piranesi prints and crescent moons on a blue sky.

Clemente spoke with A.i.A. about William Blake and imagination.

CAMILLE HONG XIN How did you choose the title for this exhibition?

FRANCESCO CLEMENTE The title, “Nostalgia/Utopia,” implies a longing for a past that maybe never existed and for a future that may never come to be. The goal of my paintings is to anchor the viewer to the present, but there is no present without memory of the past and the hope for the future.

XIN What does “utopia” mean to you?

CLEMENTE There is a political connotation to the word. By imagining a perfect society we imply that we may not agree with the tenets of the society we live in.

XIN: Your work in this exhibition seeks to intertwine vastly different vocabularies. Can you explain what happens when these iconographies are forced to share space?

CLEMENTE: I believe there is such a thing as an imagination shared by the different contemplative traditions. My goal is to collect images and references from these traditions and connect them with the emotions from the present-day, and common experiences.
XIN Your work might also be perceived as esoteric.

CLEMENTE My work is always in flux and in transition, changing according to the context. The only constant factor can be described as “the continuity of discontinuity.” I would not be disturbed if sometimes I find my own work hard to understand. When I look at art, and at the world, I long to encounter something I don’t understand. Stendhal, writing about Raphael’s Rooms in the Vatican, said that whoever walked in them and said he understood them and liked them would have to be lying.

XIN Another constant in your work is a sense of mystery.

CLEMENTE There is a self-portrait by de Chirico in which he inscribed the words “Quid amabo nisi quod enigma est?” It means, “What shall I love if not the mystery of things?” I believe in the distance between the intention of a work and the making of it. There must be some event I cannot predict.

XIN Although precise reading of your works is impossible, I’d like to try to decode a few, at least in part. In an untitled 2012 work I see a kind of self-inflicted prison or blindness; in Trungpa [2012], I see a spinning wheel of fate, knowledge and awareness; in The Artificial Princess [2012], the illusive beauty or temptation; and so on…

CLEMENTE Just as there are narratives before the making of a painting, things I saw or I heard, so there are new narratives after the painting is finished, and they come from the viewer. The painting is the transitional space where the experience of the artist and the experience of the viewer meet.

XIN This is the first time you have attached objects to your paintings?

CLEMENTE Yes. I wanted to enrich the images and, in a way, give it a context of my own choosing. I look at these objects almost as architecture. There is also irony, the playful quality of the miniature yellow cabs and the transistor radios. It’s important to me to have an understated humor.

XIN Do you think of your combinations as surreal, or as somehow unlocking the subconscious?

CLEMENTE I don’t think my work belongs to the Surrealist tradition. The Surrealists regarded the life of mind as happening in finite space. My work doesn’t suggest that at all. I have always been fond of a Zen quote: “When we point our finger to the moon, we shouldn’t end up looking at the finger.”

XIN Looking at your drawings, I thought of what Derek Walcott said, “The shadow precedes the subject and the echo precedes the word.” Are they studies of your bigger paintings?

CLEMENTE Yes. But I drew them after the paintings were finished, hence they are studies after the paintings. I often do this: drawings to illuminate the ideas and sources of the paintings, and the relations between them. If the paintings are dots, the drawings are the lines that connect the dots.

XIN The paintings use a strategy you’ve often use, splitting the canvas into fragments.

CLEMENTE In ancient Greek the word symbolon indicated a coin that two friends would split before separating as a token of fidelity and as a promise to be reunited.  Fragmentation implies the possibility of wholeness. Our experience of life is fragmented, but this fragmentation suggests a potential for unity.

XIN Three of the paintings are divided horizontally into two parts. Does this visualize what you believe in the hermetic tenet “as it is above so it is below”?

CLEMENTE Yes. The image of the cross is important to me. Not the cross from any religion; rather the horizontal line representing the mechanical experience of life bonded by time and the vertical line indicating the timeless experience of self-awareness. We live in the center of these two lines: mechanical life and intuitive life; life in time and timeless life.

XIN In your portraits, you often create fierce emotion, confrontational and vulnerable but always passionate and revealing. Here your works are comparatively calm, sometimes insouciant or even passive.

CLEMENTE Well, serenity itself is an emotion, no? Among other things, my work is also a record of my life. Many great artists essentially make one painting all of their lives, deepening their experience of that painting and of their life. Other artists, and I am among them, keep on anchoring each new group of works to the unfolding narrative of their lives. When I look at the works in this exhibition, I see a certain measure of serenity.

Serenity comes, like everything else, from the imagination. All contemplative traditions, teach that everything that makes you miserable is an imagination, so you might as well train yourself to imagine something that doesn’t make you feel miserable. Having said that, serenity is a relative value, too. One should be able to embrace whatever is there, including conflict. I don’t believe in peace. Our mind is always in conflict. Serenity is probably overrated.

XIN The bird is a longstanding trope in your work. In this exhibition, it appears in Trungpa and in many of your drawings.
CLEMENTE There is an engraving in my studio by William Blake of a man digging his own grave and teaching a bird to sing. In Hindu mythology, the tree of life has two birds on it: one is eating, and one is not. Traditionally a fish and a bird will be emblems of silence and song. But to explore the iconography and the vocabulary of contemplative traditions doesn’t mean just to make a list of these emblems. It means to bring them back to life.

XIN The bird in your Self-Portrait with Bird (1980) is like yourself, both in appearance and in emotion. The fierce big bird has been transformed in your recent paintings and become simpler.

CLEMENTE There is always more than one narrative in a painting. For example, the little red dab in the middle of Trungpa could also be seen as a drop of blood, or a little flower. I tend to approach painting as poetry: a minimum of words for maximum meaning, as Allen Ginsberg liked to say.

XIN Barbed wire is also a recurrent motif. In fact, strands of actual razor wires affixed to one of your untitled paintings. Does it signify prison? Or a threat?

CLEMENTE In everything I make, what is gentle is often presented in a harsh way and what is harsh is presented in a tender and seductive way. In this case the barbed wires is also painted in the colors of the rainbow.

XIN Another motif stands out: a person inside of something, such as an animal (fish, tiger, bird, horse) or another person (womb, vagina, eyes and ears) or underground.

CLEMENTE When we talk about being inside of another person, this could be an erotic image or a philosophical image. The infinite possibilities of the erotic life have always been seen as a metaphor of the infinite unfolding of the so-called spiritual life.

XIN That’s why I think your non-portrait paintings are your spiritual portraits. In one of your untitled paintings from this year, a decapitated head quietly looks at his headless body inside of a tomb or a womb. I read it that being buried in the underground and being reborn in a mother’s womb are essentially the same. Death can be seen as rebirth.

CLEMENTE Once, in Mexico, I witnessed an anthropologist asking a shaman technical questions about his practice. The shaman dismissed the questions, saying, “The only things I care about are life and death.” I’m not ready to say that the only things I care about are life and death, but I think one could see in my work an interest for the boundary between the two, and a desire to enhance the ambiguity of that boundary.

XIN I’m reminded of something you said about looking at contemplative traditions from the outside. In a conversation with Pamela Kort, you said, “to look at them from the outside means we are cut off from them.” It also reminds me of a work of yours, Unborn [1994], in which you depict yourself sleeping inside of a caged tiger.
CLEMENTE I have an interest for ambiguity and fluidity. The head versus the body, life versus death, self versus others, male versus female. I tend in my paintings to blur the boundaries between all these opposites.

XIN Do you think modern art viewers are too rushed when browsing contemporary art shows?

Clemente: It is okay to run. Art can be a place to come to rest, or a ripple of oxygen in a stagnant pond. William Blake defined Satan as the unprolific and opaque. I hope my work suggests a sense of proliferation, and of transparency.

XIN Speaking of poetry, you collaborated with Allen Ginsberg on two books, Black Shroud and White Shroud. How did you come to collaborate?

CLEMENTE We both shared a passion for William Blake. We wanted to make our own illuminated poetry. Ginsberg was very meticulous.  He prepared the paper, and he came to my studio and wrote. Then I illustrated the manuscript. At other times he wrote after my images. For examples, I had a show “Ex Libris Chenonceau” [Chateau of Chenonceau, France, 1995] with 108 pastels. He wrote 108 short poems called “Pastel Sentences” in 17 syllables, haiku style. His courage and simplicity were inspiring.