“Elegant and elusive, Francesco Clemente’s paintings embrace ambiguity in life, death, and art, often translating the chaste into the erotic with unholy glee,” wrote Lilly Wei in Art + Auction in 2006. Clemente is an extraordinary iconographer. He draws from a cacophony of timeless symbols, themes, cultures, periods, media, and ways of thought, and of life. He has said that the tradition of art “gives truthfulness to any image you come across.” Clemente’s signature concerns revolve around the body, sexuality, and self-portraiture.
Clemente was born in Naples, Italy, in 1952. After early academic training in classical languages and literature, he briefly, in 1970, studied architecture at the University of Rome. Throughout the 1970s he made drawings based on childhood memories and dreams. His first solo exhibition was at the Galleria Valle Giulia, Rome, in 1971. The following year, Clemente met Alighiero e Boetti, whom he considered a mentor. Clemente first visited India in 1973, a country to which he would return for numerous sojourns. In 1974 he met Alba Primiceri, an actress in the Italian theater, and later married her. She would become a frequent subject of his art. In 1981 Clemente moved to New York City, where he currently lives and works.
He has often engaged in collaborations. In Madras, India, he has worked with sign painters, miniaturists, and local papermakers. In New York in 1984 he collaborated on a number of works with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. He has published illustrated books in conjunction with poets Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and René Ricard. He made his first prints at Crown Point Press in 1981.
His works on paper were the focus of a retrospective organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1990, which traveled within the United States and to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1991. Clemente’s comprehensive body of work was the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1999. It traveled to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain.
Clemente embarked on a series of midsized alla prima paintings in 2003 with tarotlike emblems, many of which were accomplished in a single day. This Tandoori Satori series was exhibited at the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome, in 2006. Of these paintings Clemente has said, “They are a return to the source, to drawings I made in the ’70s. I hold them fast, they are like a charm. They are amulets to protect myself with.” In 2004 Clemente began a fresco project for the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina in his native city of Naples. In 2005 he exhibited self-portraits at the Gagosian Gallery in London. They reincarnated his perpetual themes of birth, death, and rebirth. Clemente has said, “A self-portrait is a way to register the constant appearing and disappearing of the self.” Francesco Clemente’s work is collected by many museums, among them the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Collection in London, and the Kunstmuseum in Basel. He is represented by the Gagosian Gallery, New York.
- Dana Zullo