Entering Clemente’s vast Broadway loft is like opening the gates to an old grave chamber in which time is dissolved; the invisible barriers that normally separate past and present, the feeling of then and now, are pulverized like old newsprint, leaving but a musty scent of decomposition, mixed with the smell of oil mediums, turpentine, and various toxins –cigarette smoke, dust and lacquered wood.
This Broadway loft, his studio, is the embodiment of Clemente’s sensitive response to life, to literature, to religion, philosophy and mysticism. This, in turn, echoes his yearning for the harmony created when balancing opposing elements and phenomena that are contained within the human constitution: the physical and the metaphysical intertwined. His latest series of paintings that are attached to the columns supporting the ceiling – huge canvases – deal primarily with physical and metaphysical bonding, received through mental and sexual interventions.
Clemente’s paintings deal with the self, a self defined by one’s sexual desires and the yearning for harmony, security and “protection,” as Clemente would term it, against the grain of society, and against Satan, as described by Blake: The unprolific and opaque whose realm of obscurity devoid people of their speech.
Johan Falkman: In your work from the early eighties one senses a feeling of alienation. There seems to be a dialogue – a silent lovemaking – between the two opposing sides of your inner self: the unhampered warrior and the unborn mystic. How would you describe these two sides of yourself and their relationship?
Francesco Clemente: I don’t know if I can describe any aspect of myself, but I can definitely look at the strategy of my own work and describe what that strategy has been. My goal has always been to treat what is harsh with tenderness and what is tender with harshness.
Could this be seen as a reversed love-relationship between the two opposites, or is there a silent war going on between the two aspects? My goal has always been to treat what is harsh with tenderness and what is tender with harshness.
The proliferation of the self, the one splitting in two is the very source of any endeavor. It was described in the past by the word Symbolon. The original meaning of Symbolon is a broken coin that is split between two friends at the time of their separation. Thus the word Symbolon evokes a sense of longing. This in turn can be seen as a metaphor for giving and receiving, penetrating and being penetrated, seeing and being seen, underlying themes that you will find in many images of my work.
My goal has always been to treat what is harsh with tenderness and what is tender with harshness.
In the painting “Unborn” you have depicted yourself asleep inside the body of a tiger. To me the tiger seems to represent uproar, strength and the offensive side of your personality. I also see it as a challenge to the surrounding world. Could you tell us about the tiger? Who is this creature that seems to protect your slumbering alter ego?
You neglect to mention that the tiger is in a cage (longer pause). A painting is always a meeting place of many stories and various emotional registers. Very often the excuse for a painting will come from something one heard. Like a poem. In this case I happen to remember what the poem was. It is written by Sandro Penna, a tormented and gentle bohemian figure in Rome during the 1950’s. The poem says:
I wish I lied asleep
In the center of the heart
Of the world I wish
I had never been born at all.
There is also an element of humor, I hope, in what I make. To declare yourself a tiger and then to declare yourself a tiger in a cage and to declare yourself as this urbane creature asleep in the heart of this inexpressible violence is a paradox. And a paradox is always key to sense.
Behind us is one of your later self-portraits that was exhibited in New York a few years ago; you are depicted inside the vagina – the painting makes one think of Courbet’s the origin of the World – and it appears as though you are finally allowing yourself to be delivered into world, having matured for close to 30 years. Is this a correct interpretation, or are you perhaps still encaged inside the tiger?
I don’t believe in maturity. There is always room for the next mistake. The focus of this work should rather be seen as dealing with the “gate” that separates the outside world from the inner-world. Actually, we don’t really know if we are being born or if we are being absorbed anew, in to the inner world. We are standing on a threshold, not sure in which direction the tide is taking us.
That’s a wonderful metaphor for life and death. Would you describe your relationship to death? What are your thoughts on death, and I don’t specifically speak of our physical death?
Death is really the impulse that has led me to returning, over and over again, to the self-portrait as a reflection on impermanence, the impermanence of the self rather then the continuation of the self.
Our impermanence is something most of us find hard to accept. Recognition of the fact seems to contradict our nature. You are not only talking about the impermanence of the flesh – our bodies – but you are talking about the impermanence of the self, the seizing of thought, feeling and awareness. To make this a primary issue in one’s work demands an acceptance of the way of nature that many find hard to reconcile with. It demands strength. How would you define strength?
Strength to me is the feminine side of the world in terms of adaptability. To be able to adapt to change is a feminine quality. The quality of movement, conferred to the rigidity of the male side.
So the male is weaker?
Balance is the outcome of movement not of stillness.
You have depicted Purgatory—hell—in several of your paintings; perhaps the “underworld” is a better term. Wouldn’t you say that hell is a place within you, to which you can retreat? Hell is generally perceived of as a place for the rejected, and according to your perception of Hell, it can offer acceptance to those alienated; it’s a place for the outcasts. Do you see yourself as an advocate for the rejected, for the outcasts, not embraced by society?
But who is the outcast? The outcast is a person who has been stripped of his means of expression. In that sense, we are all outcasts.
Who then, deprives us of our means of expression?
It is Satan, in the sense of the opaque. William Blake talked about Satan as the unprolific and the opaque. The social dynamics of Satan have no heads, no tails, no beginning and no end. They create this obscurity that deprives us of our speech.
You are embraced by the American art scene – viewed by many as an American icon – but also looked upon as the man who turned the development of art in the “wrong” direction. Why?
Maybe every new artist is initially rejected when he exposes new aspects of vulnerability, of fragility. This goes against the grain of product, and “product” as you know, is the respectable cipher of our time. Vulnerability and weakness are viewed with suspicion. On the other hand America is not only the birthplace of consumerism but also the land of great mystic poets from Whitman to Allen Ginsberg via Ezra Pound, all of them prophets of fragility.
Wouldn’t you say that your friend and collaborator Andy Warhol was then in fact an opponent of yours, going, as he did, with the grain of product?
For Warhol “product” was just subject matter, certainly not a formal solution.
You collaborated on several canvases with both Warhol and Basquiat. Did you grow and develop from this collaboration or did it minimize your true expression – your unique voice?
Since I am a believer in the multiplicity of the self I can easily include others in my endeavors without feeling threatened. I am already more than one person when I do what I do.
Your visualization of sexuality, an eerie combination of your physical desires and your inner vision of your sexual desires, creates an underworld fantasy. Would you explain this relationship?
There are many traditions that have adopted lovemaking as the metaphor of spiritual quest and spiritual fulfillment. It’s a tradition of image-making that has been there from the very beginning, starting in the East. But you don’t necessarily have to look at the East to find out that the flame of Heaven and flame of Hell are one and the same. It is just the interpretation of our perception that changes it. On a mundane level these images may question timidly the given classification and determination of sexual preferences and attitudes.
Are we happy with that?
There are countless occasions when we don’t know who we are and we don’t know what we want. There are countless emotions and feelings that have no name in our vocabulary. Paintings cannot give names to these experiences, but they can remind us that they exist and are legitimate. Maybe what an artist does is to offer a path of expression to those willing to travel on it. Thought is not a weapon. It doesn’t fight. It doesn’t go in a straight line to break against the wall of dogmas defining our age. It just takes an oblique path around it.