Francesco Clemente, born in 1952 in Naples, has pioneered an extraordinary pictorial language that draws on a variety of timeless symbols, myths, cultures, and philosophies. Frequently charged with eroticism, his oeuvre also has a profound religious quality. The variety of mediums which he employs and the subject matter of his work are deeply informed by Clemente’s nomadic artistic life. Since the 1970s he has continually travelled between Italy and India, adding New York City to his preferred places of residency since 1980. This exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle is the first comprehensive showing of his paintings and drawings in Germany in more than a quarter century. The exhibition, which will be on view from June 8 until September 4, 2011, brings together some forty works made between 1978 and 2011. Taking as its starting point Clemente’s early works on paper, the show also includes both large format paintings and more recent, spectacular monumental watercolours. Conceptualized in close cooperation with the artist, the exhibition brings to light for the first time the close resemblance of Clemente’s aesthetic to the manner in which references are actualized in a palimpsest: effacement, partial erasure, and superimposition of writing surfaces. In so doing it reveals a concern at the centre of his oeuvre: Clemente’s conviction in his role as an artist as a kind of universal witness of consciousness.
Realized in a variety of media such as pastel, fresco, oil, gouache and watercolor, Clemente’s work interweaves traditional likenesses and narratives with more personal motifs and stories. In his paintings forms and lines seem to emerge and recede forming multilayered records of experience. This aesthetic is quite similar to the technique of the palimpsest, employed in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Applied on used scrolls of parchment, it involved scraping, erasing and washing the older manuscripts to yield a clean sheet for reuse, although in fact traces of the original texts often remained visible.
The similarity of his method of working to a palimpsest is far from coincidental. Instead such a technique points back to the origins of his artistic inclinations. As Clemente recently put it: ‘The original impulse in my life as an artist was to write and to break from writing into image.’ His concern with language was already evident at the young age of twelve, when a collection of his poems, Castelli di Sabbia was published. Thereafter he studied Greek and Latin in high school, before moving to Rome in 1970, where he increasingly came to believe that art was the ‘last oral tradition alive in the West.’ It was then that he first saw it as his task to make work that had a political valence. Clemente came of age as an artist during a time when the need for a renewal of consciousness was the call of the day. Since then he has single-mindedly pursued giving form to images that might help bring about an increased awareness of the need to break with established notion of Self in order to expand awareness.
It was this goal and his deep interest in philosophy and spirituality that led Clemente to India for the first time in 1973. He would spend more than half of the 1970s, at irregular intervals, particularly in the southern city of Madras on the east coast, present-day Chennai. He lived a simple life with actress Alba Primiceri, whom he met in 1974 and married soon after. It wasn’t long before he had set up a studio, begun to collaborate with local artists and exchange ideas with members of the Theosophical Society there. In the late 1970s art critics increasingly linked his work the socalled ‘Italian Transavantgarde.’ Although the ‘group,’ which also included painters Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi and Mimmo Paladino, attracted a great deal of international attention, Clemente soon disassociated his work from theirs.
Clemente visited New York for the first time in 1980. Soon after arriving he not only began to collaborate with such writers as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, but the contemporary composer Morton Feldman. In 1981 - at the same time the so-called death of painting was being fervently proclaimed - Clemente decided to explore even more intensively the possibilities of this medium. Part of this activity resulted in his collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. His non-conventional techniques of painting as well as his openness to collaborating with other artists contributed to Clemente rapidly becoming a rising star of the international art scene. His works were exhibited both at documenta 7 in Kassel (1982) and the Venice Biennial (1988, 1993 and 1995). Solo shows were held at such renowned institutions as the Nationalgalerie Berlin (1984), Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover (1984/85), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1994), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1999), and MADRE Museum, Naples (2009).
The exhibition ‘Francesco Clemente. Palimpsest’ at Schirn Kunsthalle is divided into three distinct gallery spaces. The first section is dedicated to three monumental watercolors, collectively entitled ‘A History of the Heart in Three Rainbows’ (2009), each measuring over 18 meters long and 185 centimeters high. With their scroll-like format and fluid, metamorphosing forms, the works, appear to be almost natural, powerful palimpsests of the human spirit - landscapes, as it were, of spiritual evolution. These large format watercolors, composed of constantly changing layers of color, evoke various states of consciousness, which ebb away only to then take on new dimensions.
For the second gallery space the artist has created a series of large, semi-abstract photographic images transformed into a kind of ‘wallpaper.’ Applied directly to the walls of the Schirn rotunda and extending more than fourteen meters in length, it features fragments of letters, objects, works and snapshots from his Broadway studio in New York City. This ‘wallpaper’ evokes the poetic and culturally eclectic context from which Clemente’s art continues to emerge.
In the third and last gallery space visitors encounter some thirty of Clemente’s key works from 1978 to 2011. More or less installed chronologically, they unfold as a kind of painted palimpsest. At once epigrammatic and expansive, these works attest to the artists’ continual processing of visual information in which some forms survive, while others die out. Following the September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, a site just a few blocks from Clemente’s studio, he increasingly felt the urgency to continue making art that might help building bridges between people and worlds.
Such works as ‘For a History of Women’ (2009) and ‘Camouflage Paradise’ (2010) push even further to the limit the possibilities of using ‘contemplative languages still alive in spite of the onslaught perpetrated by industrial society.’ Their expanding and contracting sequential like forms, articulate to his growing conviction in his role as an artist as a kind of universal witness of consciousness. Far more than a mere collagist, over the past 40 years Clemente has been steadily pioneering a new kind of history painting with a quiet, yet insistent mediative power.