Francesco ClementeBetween Silence and Knowing

photography by Guy Aroch
interview by Becky Elmquist


Alba, oil on canvas, 1977


Francesco Clemente by Guy Aroch

“At an early age I had a vivid, transformative perception of my own mortality. Psychedelic drugs led me to question how substantial the ego could be. To be an artist seemed a way to ask: how do we know what we know? What is worth knowing?” —Francesco Clemente

I had the pleasure of visiting Francesco Clemente in his original Soho studio that neighbors Keith Haring’s old studio, with its facade still sporting an iconic Haring print, before the madness of the holidays ensued. These studios with their cavernous spaces flooded with light, and windows that extend from beautiful wood floors to intricately vaulted ceilings, cannot be replicated today.

Clemente’s patience and kind temperament balanced the chaos of the panicked eleventh hour holiday shoppers on the busy street of Broadway below. His dress belies that of a traveler, a mix of Eastern and Western style with an inherent personal touch that is dapper yet bohemian. At 62, Clemente has a youthful glow and demeanor. Surrounded by a few drawings, his signature large-scale paintings, and hundreds of trinkets, his studio is filled with character, and everything is strategically placed. His space appears as selectively curatorial as a museum where no item lacks character or personalization. A beautiful Baby Grand piano fills the left corner of the studio opposing two beautiful 60s era Frank Lloyd Wright chairs where I was invited to take a seat. Our conversation quickly and easily drifted to that of literature, family and his extensive travels.

Clemente began exploring at a very early age. “I left Italy because I had no affinity with Catholic and Marxist ideas. I was looking for a vantage point, a place in which being ‘outside’ would allow me to see the ‘inside’.” Later, he traveled to Afghanistan, Brazil and China. However, India proved to have the strongest draw for the artist. Today, Clemente spends many months of the year in India and has established a community for himself full of writers and artists much like the community he has established in his consistent home base of New York. Perhaps curiosity drove Clemente to India. “I did not cultivate a romantic fascination with India. Instead I decided to enjoy the texture… the richness of its rural culture manifesting in ritual, pilgrimage and story telling.” In India he saw the layered chaos that is so heavily influenced by the country’s turbulent imperial past. Clemente’s work Two Tents, shown at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea in 2014, and Blain|Southern in Berlin in 2013, express fully his tie to India. These large-scale, ready-made installations/paintings (they are identified differently based on the observer) are fully painted, walls, ceilings, and all. The structures elicit a multi-sensory experience for the viewer, at once referencing cave paintings and frescoed chapels. They also represent Clemente’s nomadic perspective as an artist and are meant to be utilized in this way.




Having traveled to India since the 1970s, Clemente says the cultural sphere is now, “animated by a grand debate on the nature of the nation.” His work, erotic and fantastical in nature, often serves as a narrative for his life. Celebrated as a nomadic artist, Clemente uses his subject matter and potent hues to imbue the trance like nature of a mantra for the viewer. Clemente has cultivated lasting and dynamic relationships in the artistic community environments of both New York and India. Like many, I am fascinated by the way Clemente is viewed within the art community. Similar to that of the European Expressionist artists of the early 20th century, his work is at once collaborative and esoteric in nature.

Clemente is resilient and remains unscathed by the ever-changing, habitually trend-driven art world. His wife, Alba Clemente, cannot forgo mentioning. She serves as a muse for Clemente and many other artists. Of Alba, Clemente says, “in Hindu mythology, it is said Siva without Shakti is a corpse. I believe in the feminine nature of Energy. Alba has been the great equalizer of the uneven flow of my energy. She has also made fun of me along the way, a vital element to stay relatively sane.” Alex Katz, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel have all captured Alba’s beauty and allure.

Clemente is self-taught and originally attended school for architectural design. He says of his work, “my paintings are too conceptual for the academician and too painterly for the conceptualist. My guide is an emotional pitch, which has to be consistent through the work.” The more traditional mode of portraiture is also a common element in his work, and reflects time spent with, and pays homage to his contemporaries throughout his career such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, and Alex Katz, to name a few. His portraiture often includes himself as a subject, serves as a gauge of time and a visual diary into his peripatetic lifestyle. His portraits possess exaggerated features that typically focus on the eyes. Clemente explains that, “it is said in mystical traditions that perception itself, being dualistic, is exaggerated. I simply paint what I see.” In addition to the interesting people he meets in travel and travel itself, literature has always served as a passion and reference point for Clemente. Among his favorites works are Jane Bowles’, Two Serious Ladies, Jack Kerouac’s, The Subterranean, and Ronald Firbank’s, Five Novels; he is currently reading the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, a key text of the Trika school of Kashmir Shaivism.

Clemente has been involved in the art world for more than 40 years now and there is no sign of him slowing down. The day I met with Clemente he was closing shows at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea and coming to a close was a five-month show at the Rubin Museum of Art titled “Francesco Clemente: Inspired by Italy” in February. He doesn’t consider his work as evolving, “or in any linear narrative.” Instead, he prefers to refer to his work as, “expanding in a circular narrative where you return to the same places and see them anew.” Showing the photographer and I photos of his two grandchildren, whom he calls as, “different as night and day,” he spoke of future travel to the frescoed caves of Dunhuang and Isfahan. When thinking in retrospect of his past and then future work, he says, “I have kept the door open, my life nourishes my work and my work my life, what else is there? Silence maybe?”


Alba’s breakfast, mixed media on paper mounted on canvas, 1984
The Fourteen stations XII, oil and wax on linen, 1981-1982