Alex Bacon visited Francesco Clemente in his Greenpoint studio to discuss the painter’s political, spiritual, and aesthetic convictions as someone who came of age in Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s alongside an older generation of Arte Povera artists—Alighiero Boetti, Pino Pascali, and Michelangelo Pistoletto. They conclude by bringing all this to bear on Clemente’s latest exhibition, Clemente > Brazil > Yale, at the Yale School of Art, April 1 – June 2, 2013.
Alex Bacon (Rail): In the late 1960s and early 1970s when you were studying architecture what happened to turn you on to art making?
Francesco Clemente: I was already aware of contemporary art at an early age, by 16, and I had been looking at certain Italian artists, like Pino Pascali or Michelangelo Pistoletto, who appeared to my teenage eyes capable of bridging life and art. But I actually became an artist only by default. I didn’t want to partake in any of the social dynamics I was witnessing; I didn’t want to be either master or slave and to be an artist seemed the only means to be free.
Rail: So for you was it more a political or a personal act?
Clemente: It was a political act, if the refusal to take sides in a violent civil strife is a political act. I lived in the middle of serious social unrest. My generation had become a terrorist generation. There was a sense of growing hopelessness about what was going on—you never knew if the person next to you was a terrorist, an informant for the secret service, a provocateur, or a plain lunatic of the kind you find in a Dostoyevsky novel. It was also a personal act, and one of self-preservation. At that time I had been engaged with psychedelic drugs—I was forced to review the idea of the Self I had entertained up to that moment, and I discarded the notion of the Self as a permanent reality.
Rail: What was so inevitable about those factors coming together, such that they ended up pushing you to become an artist?
Clemente: The moment you want to detach yourself from your own connections to society, you have to accept that you cannot stand on your own, and so you start to look for some sort of alternative lineage. I looked for that lineage among the artists of my time. I believed the only way to be an artist was to be able to dialogue with the artists I admired.
Rail: And what was the artistic vocabulary that initially attracted you when you were becoming an artist?
Clemente: My favorite artists were of the generation preceding mine. Luigi Ontani, Alighiero Boetti, and I, all newcomers in Rome, were pushed together by proximity; the Italian artists of that generation were very sectarian and territorial. Ontani was my link to the world of performance, and to the idea of generating objects out of a performance, and Boetti was my link to an art that could be both esoteric and seductive at the same time: the process was esoteric, the result was seductive. I was attracted by this ambiguity.
Rail: Would you also say that there was a conceptual language that you were inevitably struck by, considering that you came of age as a young artist in that particular moment?
Rail: It really strikes me how you use that conceptual logic—say, the act of framing, or the use of photography—but in this early work, you have already introduced elements that surpass that logic, especially in terms of the body. There seems to be a trope in your work where the body appears as a sort of conduit. Of course, the body itself is a kind of system, but then it’s a system that is never fully controllable, never fully logical. It makes sense to me, then, that your touchstones were the Arte Povera artists Boetti, Pascali, and Pistoletto. In the work of those artists, as well as in your own, there is a certain perverse, excessive, and subjective role given to the body, which is not part of the more familiar, American branch of conceptual art.
Rail: You have been talking about this moment of politicization in Italy, and it seems to me that the late 1960s in general was a moment in which, in concert with this, the body remerged as a central concern for art. I don’t want to say that this is entirely a response to an earlier, repressive logic but, nevertheless, the body’s status in modernism was nothing if not fraught. But then gradually after World War II, and especially by the end of the 1960s, the body had returned in full force, particularly in the context of new genres of art like video and performance. But this is not the same body as the one that had concerned, say, the Abstract Expressionists, or the Dada artists before them.
I think that one can see the moment of radically reduced abstraction that characterizes much advanced art of ’50s and ’60s as a kind of lesson in these more abstract systems that regulate our conception of the body, but in such a way that, with time, the artist is able to step back and reimagine what new conditions the body might necessarily be subject to in the aftermath of the terrors of war and the subsequent economic crisis of Marshall Plan-era Europe. At this time tactics of deskilling give way as the artist “reskills” him or herself.
Rail: As the ’70s progressed you wanted to escape these social dogmas, which is why you went to India.
Clemente: All these fresh, utopian ideas that the decade had opened with had turned on themselves. The atmosphere in Italy became more and more violent and more reactionary, and social conflict became stronger and stronger. It seemed to be a moment when history was arriving at a dead end. I was thinking, “If history can’t be the territory for my work, then maybe geography can. So I’m going to look at my work not through the lens of history, but through that of geography.”
Rail: How would you characterize the impact India had on you?
Clemente: I was looking for a place that could provide me with alternative images of the contemporary world. What was interesting about India was that it was a contemporary country that did not partake in all the images, fetishes, and dogmas of the West. But it was not a country from another time; it was the same year there as it was in Europe and America, but lived through a completely different sensibility.
Rail: So was that trip for you the result of this anxiety about history? Because what you were articulating first was that you realized that the progression of history was slowing down, perhaps even coming to an end, so that led you to think less linearly and more horizontally, spatially. Instead of moving inexorably forward, you’re spreading out more and more and then, in India, it seems like you found a place that was sympathetic to these intuitions, in that it felt to you both of, and outside of, Western conceptions of time.
Clemente: I wanted to map my work in a non-linear, expansive way, mimicking the language of contemplative traditions. At the foundation of Indian thought there is the idea that knowledge is a given and that our itinerary is not towards knowledge, but originates from knowledge. The initial moment of our journey is a moment of absolute knowledge, and from there we enter the stage of a play that has the potential to develop in all directions. We are witnesses to contradicting choices and embrace all of them and let them unfold.
Rail: It seems like in those early years you were really struck by a lot of things, which in traditional, Western terms, we wouldn’t call high or fine art. You were very interested in the movie posters, cigarette wrappers, etc. that you found in India, and also in the folk art traditions you discovered in your travels—painters of miniatures in India, embroiderers in Afghanistan, and a number of other craftsmen and women, with whom you have since collaborated on many projects over the past several decades.
Clemente: It was certainly to distance myself from my own hand. Collaborating with craftsmen in India was a way to do that. Among them were the painters of gigantic billboards advertising Bollywood films. Working with them, I, an Italian artist who had the ambition to make paintings that would be relevant outside of Italy, and I who could not be an American Pop artist, could at least aim at being an Indian Pop artist [laughs]. This Pop element in my work has really never been mentioned, but I suspect it is there, in these earlier works made in India.
Rail: At a certain moment it seems that you ceased to be so concerned with distancing yourself from your hand. When would you say that happened?
Clemente: This question of distance has many layers. I was aiming to reach a state of flux, where I did not belong anywhere, where my work was not being defined by stylistic signature, where what I was doing was just recording the flow of my experience, without proposing any dogma, or any notion of progress. I wanted to reach a state of stillness, a static place that did not respond to anything, that was completely self-sufficient. This was probably also due to what I saw my peers and the Arte Povera generation doing in Italy. In the sense that all those works around me were always an answer to something—an answer to Minimalism, a spoof on the latest object that had come out of New York. All this seemed too mechanical and I actually believed that an original thought could only come out of nothingness.
Rail: Does that make you, as an artist, a kind of seismic register of what’s going on around you? Which is to say, recording not only your own thoughts and experiences, but also what is happening outside of you, in the world? Is that the ideal? Is that the still point where what is coming through is as unmediated as possible?
Perhaps one way to get at it is to talk about the relation of your work to the legacy of Surrealism. While on the surface it seems that your work cannot but be placed in this legacy—in terms of its engagement with the body, eroticism, fantastical imagery, etc.—I was struck by an interview in which you say instead that you are, in fact, not at all interested in Surrealism, and that it’s not an aspect of your work. You instead brought up Eastern spiritual and intellectual traditions as often being the models for, or sources of, the imagery that appears in your work.
Clemente: I see Surrealism as eminently materialistic, as connected to psychoanalysis and a closed view of human experience, whereas I always thought that, in my work, I was aiming at a non-materialistic view, which means to notice that the mind is mind even when silent and still. And the image, in my work, is not conceived as an arbitrary fantasy, but rather as something with the power to teach the mind to stay still. When you do that, when you still your mind, you open to the iconographic wealth of contemplative traditions, both East and West, where the value of images is to remind the Self of its limitations and at the same time, of the possibility of an endless journey.
Rail: Something that interests me, as a historian of art of the ’60s and ’70s, is the emergence in this period of these aesthetic values: of clearing the mind, of “reducing” incident on the work’s surface and, more than anything, the sorts of heightened perceptual and phenomenological experiences that were central to so much of the advanced art in that period—whether we are talking about Minimalism, process art, or performance, etc. At first glance, it seems the result of a shared vocabulary and interest in abstraction as an aesthetic mode and strategy, and yet I wonder if this was not just a momentary gesture that allowed for a clearing of space, so to speak, so that the terms of representation might be refashioned and updated.
For example the physical body, in and of itself, is perennial, but what changes are new historical conditions that emerge and affect the nature of embodiment, which is to say how the body processes, and thus makes sense, of the world around it. In modernity any number of technologies have been introduced that mediate experience, bodily or otherwise—whether we are talking about photography, or television, or now digital technology, etc. All of these unavoidably alter the way we perceive the world through our bodies.
By extension, we need to reevaluate what art historians have called, in a derogatory way, the “return to order,” when they speak of the purported turn away from abstraction in art of the late teens and 1920s, or, of, say, Neo-Expressionism in the context of your own art as it comes on the heels of conceptual, performance, and postminimal art. Such moments in art history increasingly seem to me, looking out from the vantage of a longer historical view, less a regression, and more the result of a younger generation having assimilated the aesthetic lessons of the “paring” down enacted by their elders, such that they can reimagine the terms of representation.
In your case it seems that this realization, intuitive as it surely was, nevertheless occurred in response to your conviction that the body should again become an explicit subject for art, and further that it might have become newly possible to represent the body, rather than simply make it physically present in all its mundane materiality, as was its role as the spectator of the Minimalist object, or as the subject of a piece of performance art.
This was your tacit reaction to the new conditions of embodiment in the global society and culture of the 1970s that you arrived at as the field of possibility for your work. Knowing so well the work of Arte Povera that had come before, and being so close, personally, to several of its key members, it was natural and even inevitable that you would enter into that language, and work through it, in your art. In this way, already in your work of the early 1970s one sees a juxtaposition, in that you’re trying to imagine how the body could come through—but it’s not a nostalgia or compensation for something irrevocably lost; in fact it’s a new kind of language, and one built out of nontraditional aesthetic strategies like pastiche and collaboration.
Clemente: The reduction that the Minimalists had achieved appeared to be a form of authorization for me to embrace, with complete freshness and liberty, the themes of the body, of eroticism as a metaphor for knowledge, and to rediscover the imagination, imaginatio vera, as a legitimate tool to generate images. Everything was newly open to me because of this context of reduction, and against that context, what I did could actually be perceived, not as a return to the past, but as an inevitable unfolding. There’s the possibility for an unprecedented openness and relativization of values in the aftermath of the tabula rasa of the ’60s. There was no optimism in my work. It’s not a celebration of the status quo, it’s more of a political and utopian position that seeks to question the status quo, playfully.
Rail: What do you think is the utopian aspect of your work?
Clemente: For me “utopian” means that the world we live in is not the best possible world, and it is not the only possible world. My notion of utopia is a non-authoritarian one where the path is what counts, not the goal. It is a descriptive stance, not a prescriptive one.
Rail: That’s interesting because, in terms of your reception, and the narrative that has been written about your work and career, the 1980s is seen as when you find your great success, being championed in the context of so-called Neo-Expressionism, which is a genre of art that many of the most intelligent critics of that generation tied to a regressive stance, both aesthetically and politically, in that the work associated with it has been figured as making grossly manifest the basest capitalist drives of 1980s society and culture.
Clemente: That’s the amusing thing—you don’t know what the world is going to make of your work once it leaves your hands.
Rail: Right. Neo-Expressionism is, of course, not a term that you were using yourself, but was rather a construction invented by critics and curators to categorize a group of younger European painters who seemed to be doing something related. What that relationship was, exactly, became the fraught question for those on each side of the debate over the relevance of Neo-Expression, as either an authentic or inauthentic expression of the then-emerging paradigm of postmodernism.
This debate incessantly circles back, again and again, it seems to me, to the question of the new importance, politically charged as it then was, that representation took on in the context of postmodernism, and which was evident in everything from your work to that of a Cindy Sherman or Sherrie Levine—to give just two examples of those artists who were championed by your detractors. I wonder, then, how you feel about those once central issues of the politics of representation? Do you feel like you were always doing your own kind of work, with no correspondence to that of anyone else around you? Do you think there is any kind of relation to the work of others who have been categorized as Neo-Expressionist? Say, Anselm Kiefer, Sandro Chia, Jörg Immendorff, or Julian Schnabel?
Rail: How does one tap into the imagination in a non-Surrealist way?
Clemente: Imagination is a function of the mind, which is somehow connected to those fundamental experiences we cannot live without. So imagination is not an arbitrary activity; it’s a discipline that connects you to fundamental needs, forms, traditions, and gestures which are there and always will be. It’s a way to relate to the bones of the mind, to the path of the mind that does not change, that is not affected by technology or by cultural devices.
Rail: Anytime one deals with representational art the easy cop out is to talk about the work’s iconography and, correspondingly, a lot of the literature on your work focuses on the meaning or symbolism of the different forms you use. Obviously this could be a legitimate, and potentially even enlightening, way to view your work, but I would like to think that, ideally, the work stands on its own, without the viewer knowing every single aspect of its iconography.
Clemente: It can be very misleading to try to analyze the painting’s iconography, because every single moment of the unfolding experience of the work is just a pretext to move on, to move forward from that moment. It’s never supposed to be a beginning or an ending, it’s supposed to be a transition. I know that images cannot stand alone, and they’re not supposed to, they’re just supposed to appear and disappear, and the kind of substance I want to give them is a transitional one. I don’t want them to be rigid, I don’t want them to be static, I don’t want them to be dogmatic; they’re just moments, that’s it, no more and no less. And I emphasize the “no less,” because how many chances do we have to live a moment right now, that is not mediated, that is not imposed, that is not taken for granted?
Rail: For me that is the necessary, utopian aspect of the best art. It seems that the moment you try to capture is one that resists co-option. The result is a productive utopia, in the sense that when you’re looking at one of your paintings, ideally you’re not simply outside of the world, but looking back at it critically.
Clemente: There is a political value to this—the inevitability of a moment that has not been planned, that has not been dictated, that has not been imposed by some external dynamic, the origins of which no one really knows.
Rail: There is a lot of darkness in the works that you are showing at Yale. You use isolated, almost heraldic emblems that give the paintings a very frontal orientation, and there’s a lot of play with the quality of metals, some metals that are cold and hard, but also those that are very luminous and almost diffuse—the steels versus the golds, etc.
Clemente: The concerns of a painter are always the concerns of an abstract painter. The images that I use need to be detailed enough to preserve their inherent narrative, and at the same time they have to be open enough not to be too locked into that narrative. For either the abstract or non-abstract painter, the question is exactly the same: how do you hold onto detail and openness at the same time? In the case of these particular paintings, yes there are the metallic grays of the Atlantic Ocean. There is also the red that is contained in the name “Brazil.” But the images are not limited within that context; they open up by association to a lot of other connections and places.
Rail: Is the ideal that your paintings will ignite dormant areas of consciousness?
Rail: But nonetheless, you are, by your own admission, currently in a dark period in your work. So perhaps pleasure and enlightenment do not necessarily have to be the extension of “upbeat,” easy-to-digest subject matter.
Clemente: Pleasure is scary. When I say pleasure, I don’t mean the romanticized, sentimentalized notion of pleasure that is current in our daily life. I don’t mean pleasure as entertainment. I mean pleasure as a threatening situation where your assumptions get completely shattered.
Rail: Pleasure as the dissolution of the ego, right? This is the force attributed to pleasure as jouissance discussed in different ways by the likes of Lacan, Barthes, and Bataille. A line of access to that which you can’t control, and to truly experience it you have to release yourself to something larger and more abstract than yourself, which can be the hardest, most terrifying thing. Do you think that this applies at all to this current suite of paintings? For example, is there a connection to the seductive, pleasurable aspects of metallic colors and effects—luminosity, coldness, etc.—that were so prevalent in this series?
Clemente: Well, hopefully [laughs.] It’s interesting, I didn’t think about it until now. It’s true that from the beginning of time the transmutation of metals has been a metaphor of psychic transformation, and I’m not surprised I have encountered the language of metals. It’s part of the play, it’s part of this timeless vocabulary which is not my own, but rather belongs to that endless shifting of experience I am so attracted to.
Rail: The significance of metals in this body of work really struck me when I saw the translation between the watercolors and the paintings they ended up becoming. For example, in the watercolor “Actors of the TerreiroVI” the central image of the boat is rendered as if made of cold, hard steel. But then, in the painting, “The Ship of Time” the same shape appears, but is now given a golden luminosity. There’s a corresponding power, directness, and vitality there that is not as present in the watercolor.
Clemente: What you’re saying is interesting because it makes me look at the watercolors as more descriptive. It’s almost as though the watercolors are a description of what you actually get to touch in the paintings. I’ve never thought about it that way. But the paintings really seem to carry the substance of the experience where the watercolors indicate what the experience was, but after the fact, and that explains why I had to make the paintings. You know, chronologically, the paintings came after the watercolors.
Rail: In connection to this I cannot help but see your use of the materials and imagery of the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé as subject matter for this series, perhaps perversely, as not unrelated to the primacy placed on direct, emphatic phenomenological experience by Minimal and Postminimal art. After all, religious ritual is all about creating an intense, heightened experience for the viewer. This is why, historically speaking, art and religion have so often been closely entwined. In our present moment the link is no longer self-evident, such that it has become another one of those things that we have to reconstruct, because it too has been co-opted, instrumentalized, and spectacularized by the culture industry.
Clemente: The tradition of ritual is broken, but because I’m not an academically trained painter, I’ve always seen painting as a reconstruction of the implements of rituals, which are mnemonic keys that you use to remind the viewer and yourself of a broader worldview than the one dictated by our times. And this broader worldview includes a function of our mind we are told is no longer within our reach: the sense of the sacred.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.