Life Is Paradise: The Portraits of Francesco Clemente
by Vincent Katz
Passing through a long tunnel, I was revealed in the temperate February light to have become what I always knew I was, but which was kept hidden from me for days on end, even as one who lives in extreme deprivation. I hadn’t yet committed thoughts to word. They were still in the state of sensation, where I’m most comfortable with them. For a moment, as I saw the Woolworth Building proud against the Twin Towers and the sprawl of docks, waterways, and shipping concerns, I could relish being after the before, before the after.
I think of Francesco Clemente as a poet of inner space. His images seem to take place inside a room, inside a body, inside a mind. This is so despite the proliferation of sexual and other orifices and the flow of matter -- sometimes organic, sometimes inorganic -- through and between the bodies. His classic style has more to do with his own sensations and thoughts than with depiction of the outside world. The omnipresence of Clemente’s own visage and body in his corpus strengthens this epistemological position.
That is the why the portraits are so startling. Here, for the first time, we are face to face with a wide sweep of people who make up the artist’s world -- the famous and the unknown, the beautiful and the plain, poets, artists, musicians, collectors, and those who fascinate not by what they do but by who they are, or perhaps it would be better to say, how they are.
Clemente has done portraits since early in his career, but they have rarely been exhibited. In the last several years, he has added to this body of work, confirming his unexpected concern with personality. The portraits are not often full-body; usually, they are bust-height or closer-up, head shots. As such, they have little to do with the history of Western portrait painting, which anyway would embody a social passivity of no interest to Clemente. His portraits are not emblems of status but rather proofs of two people talking --”the intelligent contact through the eye.”
The portraits comprise several bodies of work: 18 large frescoes done in 1980-81; 50 watercolors from 1981-87; 30 oil paintings on wood panels done in 1985; 18 pastels of women from 1995-96; 12 pastels of actors from the film Great Expectations, 1996 (for which Clemente also created the artwork featured in the film); eight pastels and five paintings of poets done in 1994-97; and Devi, a series in progress of horizontal oil paintings on canvas of women. In addition to these discrete formal series, there are portraits of friends and family, including the artist’s wife, Alba, and their children, Chiara, Nina, Andrea and Pietro. Portraiture plays a prominent role within the artist’s most recent efforts, reflecting a significant shift in emphasis.
Even if we discount the ubiquitous self-portraits (saying they are not so much portraits as permutations of a persona engaged in a range of acts, as metaphors for all of humanity), early fresco portraits of Massimo Audiello, Bruno Bischofberger, Sandro Chia, Diego Cortez, Edit De Ak, Mario Diacono, Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite), Keith Haring, Taylor Mead, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel attest to an abiding interest in depicting people.
The watercolors give a vivid picture of a world -- albeit a shifting, elusive, one. We look and remember, even if we never saw it, the gaunt physicality in one portrait of Rene Ricard. Turned slightly to the left, his right shoulder raised, he seems slender. His watery blue eyes are exploding. In another portrait, his look is more open, spirit emerging from pastel space in lipstick-red lips, blue eyes boyish yet piercing (and also pierced). We are surprised at the callow, slight, Julian Schnabel with dark hair, focused eyes, and a curving brow.
Each watercolor portrait was done in a single sitting. They are records of moments, not long-term projects the artist could adjust at leisure. We observe, and are observed by, John Ashbery, David Bailey, William Burroughs, Michael Chow, Dennis Cooper, Bryan Ferry, Molissa Fenley, Raymond Foye, Nell Garret, Gary Indiana, H.I.R.H. the Archduchess Karl of Austria, Erich Marx, McDermott & McGough, Rammellzee, Gregor von Rezzori, H.R.H. Princess Maria Beatrice di Savoia, Kenny Scharf, Steven Taylor. For some viewers, the names alone are enough to elicit the precise scent of a summer night. The series of individuals -- each with his own successes, failures, and illuminations -- makes for a compelling collective story.
In the double portrait of conductor Marcello Panni and his daughter Atena, tight edges define the features, signposts amid airy tones that seem breathed onto the paper, barely there. In Panni’s shirt, there is a sharpening near the fabric borders. The hue is particularly fine on the woman’s face: a hint of pink in her right cheek. Eyes focused, clear green, she looks to the left, he casually to the right. Both are essences, rather than flesh and blood people, and the same can be said of all the watercolor portraits.
“Enzo Cucchi is wearing a mask of himself,” says Clemente of his watercolor of the painter. A yellow splotch like a war wound streaks down from the left side of Cucchi’s cranium in front of his ear to his neck. His eyes, dark grey, also look to his left, as if to examine the strange yellow division. One can discern the outline of a second ear, next to the completed ear, and a different chin line. A double view of the head pushes the skull back, leaving the face dangling, masklike, in front. Cucchi’s mouth is deftly etched in a defiant purse. Pensive wrinkles between the eyes are offset by the boyish optimism of his circular upside-down-halo collar.
One can wallow for days in these faces: Allen Ginsberg’s youthful eyes, delicate nose, and debonair collar; Mary Boone’s sexy tumble of hair. The blue of Lauren Hutton’s eyes is mirrored in the blue washes of her background, while her eyebrows and lips echo the bright red tones of her shirt. Red vertical stripes on Raymond Foye’s shirt provide a contrast to the horizontal blue ones of Erich Marx’s sweater. Burroughs is a deathmask tough, hardness of wrinkle lines, eyes, and mouth melting into the blur of jacket and tie.
The gestures suggest personality traits perceived by the artist. Composer Morton Feldman leans heavily toward the left, chin resting on a massive hand, large lips scowling. Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat look casually toward the viewer, in complementary positions. Henry Geldzahler sits in a vertical frame, the only vertical watercolor portrait, in hat and coat opened to reveal his naked chest. Clemente himself leans in from the left, his head in Henry’s lap, Henry’s scar from a recent operation visible through Clemente’s forehead.
Essential to the group is each person’s stance. Seen usually from midway up the torso, they are positioned on the uniform sheets of paper (14-1/4 by 20 inches) in slightly different alignments. In an overview of the series, one follows the drama attained by variations in position within the frame, as well as the torque of body and face. Foye is shifted a little to the left, and his head turns even more. Rammellzee is shifted to the right, and his gaze is frontal. Victoria Niarchos leans forward, projecting her face, while Bryan Ferry’s twist, accentuated by raised fist and sullen mouth, renders him more aloof.
Extremes of interpretation can be found in Lauren Hutton’s erect elegance versus Francesco Pellizzi’s intellectual’s slouch, an almost photographic precision to his hair highlights, eyebrows, and eyes in contrast to her more generalized grandeur. Faces and features are given precedence, while garments and even skin may be left evanescent, shimmering. The backgrounds, of course, are all dreamy washes, so that these figures are not seen in any particular social setting, but rather in the act of posing for, and at the same time, encountering the artist on an equal basis.
The watercolors do not recount appearances; they tremble with their subjects’ spirits. What we sense -- instead of physical texture -- is the attitude, the glow of the person, as perceived at a certain time by Clemente. It is important to remember that, although each watercolor was painted in a single sitting, it represents a brief passage of time, an afternoon or morning. These watercolors are the opposite of photographs, which expose in an instant a multitude of information the eye does not notice. Clemente’s sensibility and hand choose those details that interest him, conjuring pictures which are not “shots” but “breaths” of personalities, as they paused in front of him.
The watercolors were a direct response to a component of New York life. Clemente’s treatment in them, while elusive in locating his subjects in an environment, is nevertheless unambiguous in the one-to-one relationship between author and character. This is different from his non-portrait watercolors, in which mysterious mythical and ritualistic subjects often lead to greater formal variety and even, in some cases, to complete abstraction.
The Oil On Wood series embodies at once a more classical approach to portraiture and a further degree of abstraction. The format and even the medium of these small-scale works remind us of the great Flemish tradition of portraiture, but the backgrounds are pure twentieth century. The actual poses vary from those of Fab 5 Freddy and Luigi Ontani, which make traditional gestures, to Wendy Whitelaw, whose head cocked to one side, combined with her hairstyle, evoke the Audrey Hepburn era, or in this case, one of its reinventions. What makes these pictures so striking, aside from the exquisite accuracy of the drawing, are the flat backgrounds in a range of 1950s colors. As in the watercolors, there is no explicit social setting, only what we can glean from the characters’ hairstyles and names. In Oil On Wood, Clemente moved away from the high society glamour of the watercolors, becoming more interested in younger people, whose shine makes New York’s nightlife continually vital.
After these paintings, there followed a hiatus of roughly ten years, during which Clemente did few portraits. When he returned to portraiture, in the mid-1990s, it was with irrepressible energy, both in terms of output and variety of format, size, and medium. The pastels in New York Muses, although unlike anything he had done before in terms of scale, bear a similarity to the watercolor portraits, in that they too are the consequence of straightforward confrontation of a specific level of reality. This approach produces results that are more stark and more uniform than in his non-portrait pastels. The distinction -- in the cases of both the watercolors and the pastels -- between portraits and non-portrait works, is based on the difference between empirical examination of data in the visible world and pure imagination. This disparity is the result of divergent approaches to art -- one rooted in the pragmatic, objective, “scientific” tradition of Western art, the other in the metaphysical, inventive, spiritual traditions of Eastern and early Christian art. Clemente’s desire to work in this former tradition is the fruit of his relationship with the city of New York and its artistic history. Early in his career, he distinguished himself by his knowledge and application of non-Western traditions. Now, he confounds those who would pigeonhole him as an orientalist by confidently staking territory in a Western genre, albeit clearly on his own terms.
The bust-height images of young women in the New York Muses pastels are large-scale and severely cropped. They manage to be simultaneously monumental and intimate, possessing a tactile presence. In fact, they are quite large at 40 by 33 inches. Because of the extreme cropping, the women appear to be in close proximity, face to face with the viewer. Clemente’s fascination with forms -- the contours and shadows that outcroppings of flesh create are surrogates for landscapes, which rarely are subjects in his work -- adds to the physicality of these women. They are somewhat anonymous, compared to the panoply of celebrity in the watercolors. Their varieties of skin tone, hair color, lips, eyes, cheekbones, and chins seem arbitrary. More important is their common form, a suite of Caryatids confronting the viewer. The young women in these portraits have specific intensities, but they become generalized as Muses in their shared quality of overpowering beauty.
One notices that the eyes are often larger in scale than the mouth. In several images, the top of the head is larger than the bottom -- nose, philtrum, lips, and chin are contracted against hypnotic eyes. As one adjusts to the shifts in scale, these women come vividly alive. The alterations in scale are echoed by an alteration in technique: from rich, polytoned, eyes to mouths that are drily etched in. Dry painting has always been one of Clemente’s fortes, a gift few artists share. The precision of fine, delicate, lines is unusual for pastel. One marks an equilibrium between technical virtuosity and uninterrupted, coherent, vision. Clemente has usually preferred complexity over simplicity, yet these pastels embrace the idea of a unified image.
In Greek mythology, the Muses were nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. As a group, they provided inspiration to artists and writers. It was only in Roman times that they acquired specialities -- as Calliope, Muse of epic poetry; Clio, Muse of history; Erato, Muse of elegiac poetry; Euterpe, Muse of music; Melpomene, Muse of tragedy; Polyhymnia, Muse of lyric poetry; Terpsichore, Muse of dance; Thalia, Muse of comedy; and Urania, Muse of astronomy. Their favorite haunt was Mount Helicon, where they would sing and dance in the company of Apollo. In a sense, Clemente returns the Muses to their Greek origin by formally emphasizing their shared qualities.
Within that framework, the distinction of one Muse from another is effected not formally but in details of physiognomy, hair, skin color, and attitude. Color in the faces is applied in observation of relationships within a tonality, and to effects of dimensionality and light. It can vary from the Fauve quality in Tsegumi, where areas of bright yellow sparsely punctuate the face and neck, highlighted by smaller areas of light green, to the more naturalistic coloring of Anabel, to an almost grisaille effect in Goli.
Differences are also drawn in the characters of the different women. Jill stares with smart impudence, one eye slightly larger than the other. Her cock-eyed sneer, impatient scowl, large earrings, and night-black hair are pressed by the frame, occluding sight of anything but a flash of red behind her. Akure, on the other hand, has a gentle sweetness to her expression -- relaxed lips and calm eyes which seem to look to the left, past the viewer. Virginie’s lips are slightly parted, giving her an air of anticipated movement, while Lysa looks caught in a moment of surprise. In most cases, these Muses gaze directly at us with mesmerizing intensity, whether their pupils be dilated or contracted. There is an expressionism to the proportions, particularly in the eyes, but it should not surprise us that an artist who has such a predilection for poetry, and particularly for the Beat poets, should emphasize the sense of vision.
These pastel women, along with the poets and the Great Expectations portraits, signal a new tendency in Clemente’s oeuvre. His early non-portrait images relied on obsessive revelation -- of sexuality, of excrement, of menstruation, of wounds -- a relentless flood, without which life ceases. In those works, Clemente felt the need to clarify a visceral connection to the hidden underbelly of life, which flows along constantly with us but is often submerged by the politics and politesse of society. This current has been rarely seen in Western art (it makes an appearance in Bosch), yet has frequently erupted in this century -- in the highlighted genitals of Picasso’s nudes, the Surrealists’ disturbing sex-cum-architecture, and the unedited revelations of the Beats, who claimed no thought is shameful.
In his recent portraits, Clemente has modified his stance, adopting a vision that is less explicit and just as intriguing. The women in New York Muses are stunning, perhaps more shocking than his sexually graphic images in that they are more palpable. We are encouraged to supply situations, formulations of vision -- women encountered in social settings, up close: at parties, at openings, on streets, in bedrooms. Because we never find the answer, the images retain their mystery as icons. They continue to glow, because their look is never exhausted.
The difference in subject produces different techniques and strategies. If the watercolors were one-shot meditations on personas, with, as Clemente has said, no preparatory studies, and the frescoes also were exercises in urgency, some of his new work results from the decision to build in stages toward a desired goal. A modification in approach from the rapid to the studied has resulted in portraits like those in the Poets series, which were done first as pastels, then blown up using enamel and silkscreen on canvas.
Most of the poets Clemente has painted are American. They are all poets of the body, that is to say non-Academic. The strength of their individual characters is implied by demarcations more strongly lined than in other portraits. Features are depicted in bold outlines with minimal coloration and detail. The harshness of the treatment seems to be a response to the uncompromising nature of their poetry, which puts them at the head of Clemente’s pantheon. Clemente has frequently collaborated with poets, and he gains not only solace but his philosophical basis from them. The scale in the poets’ portraits is also heightened, and the point of view -- as in the New York Muses -- is close-up. These images have a photographic clarity, except that much is left out or lightly included.
In one portrait of Allen Ginsberg, attention is focused on the burning eyes and sensitive lips (the mouth is smaller scale than the eyes). Michael McClure stares with a birdlike, impassive, gaze. The eyes predominate, steely discs standing out distinctly from orange-toned shadows on cheek and neck, lined patterning of garment, and greying, swept-back, hair. One recalls the eyes of the New York Muses, how penetrating they are, enlarged, almost doll-like. Robert Creeley’s one eye is largest of all, peering sideways through glasses, handsome haircut cropped by frame, natty beard softly drawn above thick contour lines of shirt, shoulder, and collar. Rene Ricard leans dubiously to the left, farthest poet from the viewer. One can see his whole upper torso, shirt, arms, and hands. A felicitous cropping creates a diagonal from shirt sleeve at lower right to the poet’s head at upper left: Poet in the shape of an X.
The Great Expectations images are similar to the poets, though with more variation in format, from close-ups to middle range views. This body of work includes portraits of characters in the film, portrayed by the actors Anne Bancroft, Robert DeNiro, and Gwyneth Paltrow. We see Anne Bancroft’s face and bust with heavy black beads; another time, she is pulled back so we can see her entire upper body and the cat she holds on her lap. Robert DeNiro occupies the left side of the “screen,” a three-quarter view much like the image of Creeley, although the poet’s head is more cocked, and the actor stares with a more glowering intensity. A beautiful watercolor of Paltrow complements several pastels of the actress, including three nudes, whose facial expressions transmit a refreshing intelligence.
In the series Children, motifs and colors retrieve the subjects from mundanity and restore them to the glamorous possibility of being very young. Magnus sits under two grey snakes who lick him and a huge, multi-colored, ice-cream cone. A girl in a bright yellow space listens to the sounds of two spiraling cornucopias. These children are a little distant, living in their private Yellow-Submarine-like fantasies. They sometimes seem disconcerted by it, but it prepares them for adult life in the city, no doubt.
Voices, a varied group of oils, pastels, and one encaustic, shows friends and acquaintances in frontal and three-quarter views, close-up and in middle distance. These portraits of Minnie Driver, Philip Glass, Annabella Sciorra, Gus Van Zandt and others are exceptional in their depictions of repose, introspection, or even inquietude. The double portrait of the painters Walter Dahn and Jiri Georg Dokoupil has a nostalgic air about it. In their melodramatic poses, these two appear to aspire to having been habitués of cafes in Montmartre or Zürich. Fab 5 Freddy is canonized, his head surmounted by a graffiti halo drawn by Fred himself, a spray can in front of him serving as his saint’s implement.
Comparing the scale in the portraits of Evan Dando, Minnie Driver, and Annabella Sciorra, one sees how Clemente is capable of precise variations to achieve maximum effect -- from Driver’s excessive frontality, accentuated by blood-red eyes and Medusa-like blue hair, to Sciorra’s cool remove, implicit in her distance from the viewer, the turn of her body away, the askance look of her eyes, the muted tones of her face and hair, the black of her clothing, and the subdued tone of her background. Where Driver is an attacking Fury, complete with Latinate inscription of her name, Sciorra is enigmatic, and the point at which the bottom frame bisects her torso, along with the elongated grace of her alabaster neck, give her figure a subtly intoxicating sensuality.
Clemente’s most astonishing new pieces are the friezelike paintings that make up the series Devi. All are of refined, cosmopolitan, women -- Fran Leibowitz, Gita Mehta, Toni Morrison, Her Serene Highness the Princess Thurn und Taxis among them -- hence the title, which means goddess in Hindi. All the woman are reclining, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say floating, as no furniture or other support is apparent beneath them. The frontality of these faces, which Clemente had developed in the New York Muses, is a bold attack, elaborated by the innate glamour these women possess and set off by their tastefully jarring monochrome backgrounds.
The first of this series to be completed -- of Clemente’s wife, Alba -- is the only one in which the figure’s head is at the left of the canvas. This portrait is remarkable not only in the now-familiar way Clemente manipulates bodies to his own ends, making the head much larger than the torso and tiny feet, twisting the head so that it just fits against the left edge of the frame. It is remarkable too, in the way that all Clemente’s new work is, for its directness, which is not the same as simplicity. Built into each of these stunning images are layers of cultural and esthetic meaning.
We are looking at a particular person, but we are also looking at a woman as a symbol of earthly or unearthly power. In the case of Alba, she is the companion of the artist over the decades of his evolution, who looks at us now with clear-eyed grace. There is no judgement in her eyes. We don’t know if she’s on the border of sadness or joy. We bask in Alba’s calm -- dark hair tied above her head, golden globes of a bracelet circle her arm above the elbow. We luxuriate in the passionate red fabric of her dress along the bottom of the picture frame, the spunky fancy of her simple orange shoes. Alba is squeezed within the frame, but not uncomfortable: floating in light blue air, she shares with us a gaze at once introspective and outward-looking.
Clemente has not done many portraits of Alba, but he has done a shocking series of watercolors with portraits of Alba and himself superimposed. Two sets of eyes, two mouths, two noses, two beings coexisting in harmony, they form the ultimate couple portraits.
There are a few historical models for the formats of Clemente’s recent portraits and also for their restrained elegance. Not surprisingly, one finds precedents in the arts of those cultures in which Clemente has immersed himself. In Naples, where he grew up, resides the fresco portrait from Pompeii of Terentius Neo and his wife (mid 1st century AD). The double portrait brings to mind Clemente’s watercolor of Marcello Panni and Atena. Terentius positions a papyrus roll under his chin; his wife holds a waxed tablet and presses to her lips a stylus for writing on it. She’s in front, looking slightly off to the left, tight curls dripping down her forehead. He, with sable hair and thin beard, looks straight at the viewer, darker in complexion than she is. Both are well groomed and clearly of a certain sophistication. While they were once thought to be bakers, and he is now believed to be the lawyer Neo, he could easily be a poet and she a business lady. The background -- a monochrome, undefined, space -- shares with Clemente a certain attitude towards setting.
Terentius’ large, staring, eyes are typical of Roman portraiture, a quality shared by the funeral portraits of the Fayoum, an oasis about 60 miles south of Cairo, where, from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD, under Roman influence, portraits painted in encaustic or tempera on wood or linen replaced relief masks on mummies. The frank looks these painted faces give into the viewer’s eyes were meant to engender feelings of shared humanity in their survivors.
When Constantine, in 323, moved the capital of the Roman empire to Byzantium, thenceforth called Constantinople, it ensured there would be ever more interchange between East and West, not only the East of Asia Minor but as far as India. Already, at the time of Alexander the Great, classical Greek sculpture had been introduced to India, and Indian ideas had come back to Asia Minor. One of the main changes in Western art, as a result of contact with India, was in the eyes, which began to play an essential role. Enlarged, gazing fixedly, accented by the thick arc of dark eyebrows, they stare at the viewer.
Frontality, which is the result of both eyes looking directly towards those of the viewer, is a determinant in many Buddha images, such as the eighth-century Yakushi in Nara. Eastern images are actual objects of devotion, not secular artworks, so the relationship between viewer and artwork is different from that in Clemente’s work. Eastern religious icons are meant to exert a certain control through eye contact, but this force is also present in Clemente’s Muses. Eye contact allows for communication, whether the relationship be one of human empathy, power determination, or a combination of both.
Although it is not easy to sort out the back and forth of influence, it appears that Buddha was first depicted in human form during the 1st century AD in the Gandhara province of northwestern India (now Pakistan), as the result of influence from late Hellenistic and Roman sources. While the forms in Gandharan sculpture were westernized, the iconography -- including the urna, or third eye, and ushnisha, or protuberance on top of the head, indicating vision and wisdom -- is Indian.
We find striking parallels for the extreme frontality of Clemente’s New York Muses in the 6th century AD mosaics of the Empress Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna. The pale, gazing, face of Theodora, with her enormous, penetrating, eyes, is surrounded by the precious stones of her diadem, earrings, and necklaces. Theodora comes from an artistic tradition which had its origins in the Hellenized East and was foreign to the Roman West. The Ravenna mosaics, as well as those at Hagios Dimitrios in Thessalonika (mid 7th century), are masterpieces from First Golden Age of Byzantine civilization, inaugurated by Justinian I, who ruled at Constantinople from 527 to 547. Frontality also plays a prominent role in the Christ Pantocrator in a mosaic in Daphni, Greece (1100 AD). The Christ-image usually occupies the central dome or main apse of Byzantine churches. This awe-inspiring Christ is an Eastern contribution, powerful and distinct from the suffering human of Western Christianity.
From Italy, there comes a pale Mannerist elongation evidenced in Clemente’s pastels. In the Uffizi, one may find Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of Eleonora de Toledo with her son Don Giovanni (1545-6, oil on wood). One experiences a haunting contact with the eyes, similar to that found in the Cimabue and Duccio Madonnas (c. 1300, tempera on wood) -- an exchange between sitter and artist that gets transferred ultimately from subject to viewer. There is something “beat” in their expressions, not found, for instance, in Dutch portraiture or in Hans Memling (c. 1435-94), whose format Clemente’s most closely approximates. In Memling’s Portrait of Maria Portinari, in the Metropolitan, we find a partial counter example: a similar luminosity in the gaze, but the eyes are averted.
In our era, it is only relatively recently that Western artists have been making pilgrimages to India, and Clemente was part of this phenomenon, although of course, he decided actually to live in Madras, so his experience of India was long term and in depth. The two major Indian religious and artistic traditions, Buddhist and Hindu, have both influenced Clemente greatly. Buddhist art represented an ascetic ideal, withdrawal from the physical world, existence on a plane of pure spirituality. Hinduism, which came after Buddhism, provided almost the opposite approach -- spirituality through the pleasures of the body. Sexual union was regarded as symbolic of human union with the divine. We have seen how these two elements are present in Clemente’s portraits, as they are in all his work -- a dreamy, floating, dissociation from daily life, exemplified in the portraits by their unspecified settings, and an urgent confrontation with the corporeal, witnessed in the portraits most starkly in the extreme frontality of certain images but present to some extent in all of them.
We have to wait until the twentieth century before we find further formal parallels for Clemente’s portraits. Rouault painted scaled-up bust-height images, even with dotted lines and thick contours like the mosaics in Ravenna. The social cataloguing in Clemente’s portraits reminds one of Warhol, but Warhol was consumed by the inhumanity of mechanical reproduction -- he wanted his artistic relationship to his subjects to be as superficial as possible -- which is clearly not the case with Clemente. Chuck Close’s frontality is similar to that of the New York Muses, but Close requires awareness of the division between technique and image, causing one to contemplate the significance of representation in general.
The closest parallel would seem to be the portraits of Alex Katz, who also likes to paint elegant women and men, sometimes in ambiguous settings. Katz’s series of women with hats (nine paintings from 1979) and smiling women (seven paintings from 1993-94) have formats and subjects similar to Clemente’s. Though Katz’s settings are usually specifically defined, he painted portraits with monochrome backgrounds in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and he has since had employed this strategy on occasion. The source for the use of monochrome is the same for both Katz and Clemente: post-war American abstract painters. The example was set not only by those painters who actually used monochrome, such as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, but even those with complex imagery, like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Their example of large-scale painting remains a powerful symbolic influence, as strong as Ravenna or India.
The American abstract painters established in the twentieth century a standard of monumentality -- that a painting can have equivalent force to a cathedral or an opera. Although Clemente’s portraits are not large, the power of their simplified images, stressed by extreme cropping and frontality, contribute to a feeling of monumentality that, along with the monochrome backgrounds he often uses, specifically relates to the example of American abstract painting. The fact that, unlike Katz, Clemente never depicts his subjects in a realistic setting, along with the anatomical distortions noted above, puts his portraits in a different category. Clemente’s portraits are not realistic, nor should we expect them to be, since none of his work fits into the established tradition of realism. Rather, Clemente, in his portraits, creates a surrogate for the person -- not a depiction but an emblem of a person’s existence. This quality relates again to Buddhist and Early Christian art, both of which create not representations but images which embody spirituality on their own, removed from time and space.
Much has been made of Clemente’s nomadic nature, how he has divided his time between Italy, India, and New York. It is possible to find, in Clemente’s work, elements of Italian and Indian art. In his portraits, we have evidence of Francesco Clemente as New Yorker, not only literally in the faces of people who make up the social scene there, but also in the modes of painterly conduct Clemente has chosen for these endeavors. As in all his art, Clemente works selectively but respectfully from a wide knowledge of varied traditions, which he then illuminates with a singular vision. Clemente’s defining quality is his restlessness, expressed in the recurrent desire to move into new territory.
In Clemente’s studio on Broadway, one is reminded of Willem De Kooning’s comment about Frank O’Hara: “There was a good-omen feeling about him.” There is a good-omen feeling about Clemente’s studio. The large, curved, windows let in ample light on the wooden floorboards, columns, grand piano, and artworks strewn casually around. One wall is covered with photographs and mementoes. Near the door, a piece of fax paper bears an unsigned poem with the lines:
“...the sweat of a dry knowledge,
Our own, claims our youth, our innocence...
Within his skin a man proclaims his diverse lives.”
As with everybody, Clemente’s knowledge has claimed his youth; in his new work, he proclaims his diversity. In the same poem one reads, “life is paradise,” and in Clemente’s studio, for a moment, it seems true. For a moment, there is a significance to all the wading through contradictory, disturbing, elating, sensations. For a moment, everything is just right, and it resonates.