They call the show “Clemente”—just “Clemente”—like Brando or Callas. Before Francesco Clemente’s full name appears in the show’s catalogue we’ve already seen a 1982 Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of the artist wearing an elegant overcoat, clasping his hands as if to support an invisible, wounded dove. The invisible part is his modesty, the wounded part, his exhibition.
The youngest person ever to receive a full-scale retrospective at the Guggenheim, this 48-year-old Italian Transavanguardia artist is seen by his supporters as a mystic guru superpainter, a melancholic Warhol, an exotic creature in designer suits. He is the toast of Vanity Fair,a celebrity among the aristocracy of the art world, a man with important friends. See Clemente paint Alex Katz who paints Clemente who paints Allen Ginsberg who photographs Clemente who paints Robert Mapplethorpe who is godfather to Clemente’s children. All the catalogue’s guest authors have been painted, including Ettore Sottsass, who has written, “Francesco never says stupid things.”
But leave it to the poet Rene Ricard to know that if you’re going to laud someone, this bantam back-scratching won’t do. You’ve got to beatify them. In his romantic, extravagant “Chronology,” Ricard traces Clemente’s roots to 14th-century Spanish nobility, breathlessly tells us of the artist’s audience with a “miracle man who materializes objects and urinates rose water,” recounts dark nights of the artistic soul, and rhapsodizes over the maestro, who, on one of his numerous trips to India, “arrived with the monsoon at Pushkar Lake, Rajasthan.” Ricard turns gossip into magic, and you think, “Wow, this is a charmed life. I should arrive with the monsoon somewhere.”
It’s too bad Ricard couldn’t have breathed batty life into this flawed exhibition. If organizer Lisa Dennison and the artist had presented half as many works (editing is always a problem for these two), dispensed with the celebrity portraits, and shunned the hagiography, one might have been able to get an idea of how special Clemente can be.
The “monsoon” Clemente arrived with was the return to painting in the 1980s. Part of the international phalanx of male figurative painters then in ascendancy, Clemente has never been as formally inventive as David Salle; he lacks the material chutzpah of Schnabel, abstains from Kiefer’s sweeping history, and avoids the roughness of Basquiat. Clemente is not about rupture, he’s about rapture. Subsequent hobnobbing and New Age mumbo jumbo have confused the issue, so it’s difficult to see how seditious his initial move was. The ambitious Clemente, who must have had it up to here with local aesthetic turf wars, shunned the tactics of Italian Arte Povera and conceptualism for a more hands-on, personal art. In the mid 1970s, Clemente began painting people; he reinvented the private body and reclaimed a singular self. (Remember, at the time, everything you did, you did in groups.) Coming to New York in 1980 put him on a big stage at a big moment.
The first time I saw the small gouaches that make up his Francesco Clemente Pinxit, in 1981, I was blown away. Installed at the Guggenheim, these gorgeous Indian-like miniatures depict little figures on intricate decorative grounds (it turns out they were painted by members of an Indian artisans’ workshop). I now realize that I may have been responding not so much to the work itself but to the permission it gave and to the thresholds he moved through so effortlessly. It was a powerful experience, like a movie that changes your life. Clemente’s art told me that anything was possible; that subject matter and fantasy were in the air, and within reach; that mediums were in play.
Although his early oil paintings (1981?1985) burn with awkward, artless energy, it turns out Clemente is best in pastel, watercolor, and gouache. He’s a major talent of the so-called minor mediums. His main subjects are myth, self-portraiture, and the body—especially the female body, or, more precisely, the power of the vagina. The guy has female genitals on the brain: not exactly sex, but inside-outside stuff. He loves holes. Things are always probing, protruding, or slithering into or out of them; people stick fingers, tongues, or feet into every orifice. Sometimes his work is hot (the Kama Sutra?like watercolors from The Black Book or The Indigo Room), but his is a philosophy of insertion: penetration as metaphysics. In Two Painters (1980), two naked men wrestle in an Arcadian landscape trying to plug each other’s openings, blocking one another’s senses. Interior Landscape (1980)—also part of that ’81 exhibition—depicts a glowing red mass of karmic magma passing out of a cosmic anus, and in the Five Senses (1990), a tongue with a vagina gives birth to a head.
Installed beautifully, in eight sections according to some quasimythic scheme—”Unborn,” “Sky,” “Bestiary” (the worst section), or “Amulets and Prayers” (the best)—the show includes more than 400 separate images, but it feels thin. Without a chronological layout, there is no growth: Everything turns to subject matter—which may be what was intended. Clemente fabricated a fantastical persona: part Warhol, part Picasso, part holy man. He plays the seer and the fool, the passive prodigy who is simultaneously prolific and innocent. The problem is the persona has ceased being atmosphere and has become content, and this shadow Clemente eclipses the light of his best work.