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Francesco Clemente

American (born Italy, active New York and India), born 1952

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Francesco Clemente was born in 1952 in Naples, that ancient city with its looming volcano and chaotic history that layered Spanish over North African over Roman over Greek, each culture in turn leaving residual fragments of art and artifice. Through the advantages of a prominent family, he received a classical education as a child and enjoyed exposure to the intense painting traditions of Baroque and Rococo Naples. Clemente studied architecture at the University of Rome at the beginning of the 1970s but was largely self-taught as a painter.

His early work was contemporary with the Arte Povera movement that dominated the Italian field in the late 1960s and 1970s, but unlike his contemporary Giuseppe Penone, Clemente chose to work within the confines of the traditional mediums of oil paint, pastel, and watercolor on their supports of canvas and paper (see Ann Percy in Francesco Clemente: Three Worlds. Exhibition catalogue by Ann Percy, Raymond Foye, et al. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1990, p. 20).

A significant figure to young artists in Europe at the time was the German Joseph Beuys, whose use of such potentially repugnant materials as animal skins, felt, and fat was not adopted by Clemente (though it was in harmony with the work of the Arte Povera people) but whose copious, totemic, symbolically charged use of drawings influenced the younger artist's own drawings, of which he produced thousands in Rome during the 1970s. The American Cy Twombly was also in Rome, having settled there in 1957, and Clemente speaks of having learned from Twombly's drawings "a certain elegance and sense of editing" (quoted in Francesco Clemente. Exhibition catalogue by Michael Auping. Sarasota, Fla.: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1985-87, p. 13).

Another fruitful contact was the Italian Alighiero Boetti, with whom Clemente traveled to Afghanistan in 1974 and whose interest in collaborations gave him "the sense that if the hand of the artist is removed from the procedures of making art, far from reducing creativity another mystery enters into the equation" (see Lisa Denison in Clemente. Exhibition catalogue by Lisa Dennison. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1999. p. 29).

In 1973 he made the first of many trips to India and continues to return there regularly, as well as to Italy, although he settled permanently in New York with his family at the end of 1981 and also maintains a home and studio in the desert of New Mexico. The Indian visits resulted in a series of twenty-six miniatures, Pinxit (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond), executed in 1980 and 1981 in collaboration with young Indian illustrators. For the sources of his imagery, Clemente has abjured raw nature in favor of tales of magic and transformation, found in such literature as the Metamorphoses (better known as The Golden Ass) of the Carthaginian Roman writer Lucius Apuleius, which recounts the misadventures of a man changed into a golden ass by the machinations of a sorceress and ultimately restored to humanity by the Egyptian goddess Isis. The appeal to Clemente of this second-century smorgasbord of oriental, classical, and Christian elements was that it represented a time when, in his words,
"there was a kind of world culture. The world was at the same time one and totally split in a thousand different possibilities. You could find Egyptian people painting Greek pictures, Greeks singing Latin songs, and Latins praying to Eastern gods" (quoted in Francesco Clemente. Exhibition catalogue by Michael Auping. Sarasota, Fla.: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1985-87, p. 13).

In New York, the persona and art of Andy Warhol quickly became an important ingredient in Clemente's attraction to the city, with its intense energy level, its cross section of nationalities from around the world, and its blending of high and low culture. He also became the friend and collaborator of many poets, especially among the Beat writers, whose approach to their literary art resembled his conception of picture making (see Raymond Foye in Francesco Clemente: Three Worlds. Exhibition catalogue by Ann Percy, Raymond Foye, et al. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1990, pp. 118-23). Mutability and fragmentation, rich and layered, and the imposition of a poetic vision on a seemingly realistic presentation were associated with the Transavanguardia movement of the early 1980s, of which Clemente was a part, and these qualities remain features of his work.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 77.

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