FLATT Magazine - Patrick Painter


FLATT Magazine - Patrick Painter


Of an Historical Nature





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Regarding painting - The experience of

‘surprise’ is a holy moment. This may

be the only moment necessary. It’s not a

state of the mind nor body, but one of the

spirit. Goya perceived this revelation in

the mental asylum of Saragossa, Van Gogh

among the wheat fields of Arles, Pollock

on the ground in East Hampton - the best

painters always and must - Francesco

Clemente as well. Granted, of the above

mentioned names (to sight a few),

Clemente is the only ‘Italian’, and as we

know - Italian painters require a bit more

desertion. Let’s begin with Alighiero

Boetti... Although Boetti was/is classified

as a ‘conceptualist’, the historical nature

of his work resonates beyond mere

ideas to embrace whole-heartedly the

urgency of poetics, leaning towards a

painting mindset. A direct correlation

can be drawn between this notion and

the early works on paper of a then

younger and impressionable Francesco

Clemente. Boetti was Clemente’s active

mentor during the time-frame of the late

1960’s early 70’s. While the accompanying

geographical travels that were undertaken

by both Clemente and the senior artist

of ten years, Boetti - led to Afghanistan,

it became the southern locale of India

where Clemente had his artistic revelation,

his ‘holy moment’. (I decided to write

this piece independently of interviewing

Francesco Clemente, opting instead for

a broader interpretation from one painter

to another.) In past interviews though,

Clemente mentions various inspirational

troupes of the 1960’s as touchstones that

eventually would act as pillars as well as

springboards for his early iconography.

Ancient wisdom, various architectural

spaces, The Beats, eroticism, global

religions and the esoteric, Hendrix, LSD,

ex-pats and the muses - these are just a

few examples of the deep content needed

in order to fill the active imagination of

a serious painter not willing to accept

mediocracy and easy outs. So, Clemente

created an encyclopedic volume of

drawings while traveling in India - pastels,

graphites, pen and inks, and watercolors.

This early body of work located what

would later blossom into the defining

backbone of Clemente’s oeuvre, a selfreplenishing

well of images that he would

return to again and again. The intellectual

rigor of artists coming up at the same

time as Clemente under such giants of

influence as Joseph Beuys and Andy

Warhol, created a new way of looking at

the world through the use of contemporary

art. Reintroducing traditional aspects of

the figure, self-portraiture, and classical

materials - this challenged the very notion

of the conceptualists’ stance of the period

prior to the 1980’s. The advent of the

digital age had yet to present itself, artists

were still capable of getting ‘lost’, and

there was no other example of an artist

more diligent and aligned to this task than

Franceso Clemente. His travels took him

throughout the world, discovering and

dissecting world cultures and adapting

them to a bracingly beautiful sense of

painting. From ephemeral frescos to

heavily ladened oils on linen, temperas,

miniatures (which he would employ local

artisans to assist in the production), textiles

to a degree, and paintings on assemblages,

etc. Endless imagination... which begs the

question, “Where do you go when you’ve

gone everywhere?” You go to New York!

New York is ever the port city. A home

away from home of Clemente’s original

birthplace of Naples, Italy. It makes perfect

sense that New York would eventually

become he and his wife’s nest, along

with their family of four children. New

York City has a specificity to it as well

as the ‘otherness’. A walking city lends

itself to an explorer, as it did and does

for Francesco Clemente. Exhibiting

throughout the 1980’s primarily at

SperoneWestwater in New York,

Clemente’s work arose to the world stage

and consciousness. Collaborating with

various poets on illuminated texts, such

as ‘White Shroud’ with then good friend

Allen Ginsberg in 1983, or Savino’s

epic masterpiece ‘The Departure of the

Argonaut’ that Clemente illuminated

as well in 1983. These poetic outlets

expanded the vision even more so and

were beautifully installed in Clemente’s

mid-career Guggenheim retrospective

in 1999. Also, within the collaborative

framework, in 1984 Clemente was

approached by the Swiss art dealer Bruno

Bischofberger and asked to begin passing

some paintings around with Andy Warhol

and Jean Michel-Basquiat. These rather

large canvases resulted in a tremendous

collaborative body of work between the

three painters and now only grow stronger

with age and time. Exhibited recently

in their totality at The Federal Art and

Exhibtion Hall in Bonn, Germany - the

Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente collaborative

paintings resound with buoyant innovation

and focuses each of the three painters

artistic temperaments. Then, in the winter

of 1987 - February 22nd to be exact - Andy

Warhol died at New York Hospital-Cornell

Medical Center in New York City of a

heart attack related to surgery. The New

York art-world would never be the same. It

had lost it’s great sage, the king was dead.

Shortly thereafter Jean-Michel Basquiat

died of a heroin overdose on August 12th,

1988 in his downtown Manhattan atelier.

Granted, Francesco Clemente’s ‘star’, if

you will, rose way above the isolation

of stardom that success had brought to

the likes of actually both of the a-formentioned

painters above. Clemente is

and remains to be primarily a ‘painter’s

painter’. Mourning past... the 1980’s past...

new modes of artistic expression were

ushered in via the 1990’s approaching

the new millennium. Clemente continued

to exhibit regularly in New York and

abroad, most notably at Gagosian Gallery.

Exhibition after exhibition would unfold

continued chapters of Clemente’s ever

evolving body of work. From shows such

as ‘Testa Coda’, ‘The Black Paintings’,

‘Purgatorio’, ‘Anamorphosis’, ‘The

Book of the Sea’, etc... these are not your

average post-modern paintings. Only

relentless questioning along with an almost

unconscious or sublime sense of self can

produce such pictorial weight. Looking

at Rothko, Kline, even DeKooning - the

true foundational painters of the New York

School, including Philip Guston - this is

what Clemente became as a painter in

the late 1990’s, a true New York painter.

But what is ‘truth’ in relationship to the

idea of a New York painter? Or the New

York School for that matter? It’s not a title

that belongs strictly to the Greenbergian

painters of the 1950’s, on the contrary - the

‘truth’ is an old tire, worn out on the road.

Miles and miles of canvas, tons of paint, a

thousand brushes and rivers of linseed oil

and turpentine, dinner parties stretching

deep into the night and wee mornings,

discussions in crazy and refined places

with some of the most absurd, wild and

endlessly intriguing minds of an age. THIS

is the truth of a New York painter... and

then 9-11.

Arguably, Clemente’s greatest and most

significant body of work had yet to be

produced. The period was 2000-2003.

The exhibition that Clemente mounted

spanned the entire West 24th Street gallery

of Larry Gagosian. The art-world was

still very much reeling from the epic

attack and devastation brought onto the

city on 9-11. Francesco Clemente faced

this narrative head on in one of the most

epically charged painting exhibitions in

New York City history. It was a full meal,

and was permeated with an indelible

feeling of loss and sadness. One could feel

humanity slipping away. The figure was

reduced to emblematic material of other

forms - a house of cards, musical notes, a

torn libretto, an overturned bowl, a drifting

cloud on a mundane horizon. The works

included in the exhibition ranged from

smaller paintings on linen, to monumental

tempra paintings on denim, and frescos

on plaster panels. The show was panned

by critics across the board. Maybe it was

still to soon for such an intimate statement

by one of New York’s greatest artistic

sons. Because as we know, sometimes the

subtlest move can be the grandest gesture.

But the painters got it, they understood

the level of commitment of that particular

exhibition of Clemente’s. Now that history

has again moved on in some time, one can

look back and appreciate the immensity of

that particular body of work. See, paintings

stay exactly the same. It’s the world

around them that changes. To the degree

that Clemente was able to pinpoint the

feeling of that loss of innocence for New

York City, as well as the reverberance felt

throughout the other locales of the world

in which Clemente had ties to, this was

meaning, this was structure as a whole, yet

fractured, like America on 9-12-2011. It

would be the final New York exhibition to

date of Francesco Clemente’s at Gagosian


A garden compost pile is made up of old

debris and detritus. The organic waste

is spread on young top soil. The waste

then becomes a replenishing fertilizer

for new growth for new plants. In the

years to follow leading up to present

day, Clemente made changes. He moved

his primary studio from Manhattan to

Brooklyn, yet keeping the old location

in Manhattan as an additional space.

He walked and biked across the bridge,

back and forth and back and forth. He

was creating again anew with a returned

focus. Portraiture had always played an

important roll in this work. Clemente

continued work on a series of portraits


House of Cards


Oil on linen

68 x 60-1/2in.

Fisher Landau Center for the Arts, New York

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of friends, family, colleagues, artists,

musicians, poets, collectors, socialites - a

newly minted courtesan painter for the

new millennium. The paintings were

actually rough in appearance. Again, one

might revisit the example of Goya painting

the Spanish aristocracy by day, and the

madness of the insane asylum inmates by

night. There had to be overlap... it was

inevitable. With Clemente, he was also

concentrating on large scale watercolors

in a series aptly titled, ‘A History of the

Heart in Three Rainbows’. The watercolor

series was exhibited at Deitch Projects

in 2009, and the portrait paintings were

exhibited earlier at Mary Boone Gallery

in 2007 - both galleries being located

in Manhattan respectively. This is good

stuff, because it opened back up the

exploratory aspect of the work. There

also seemed to be a revitalized humor

in the work. The palette became lighter,

more ‘Mediterranean’. The proliferation

of images and the outpouring of effort

resounded in exhibitions of Clemente’s

shortly thereafter in Rome, Madrid,

Frankfurt, and other cities abroad - most

notably a museum show at The Uffizi in

Florence, Italy of ‘The Tarots’. The Tarots

series is a collection of individualized

Tarot cards that were created by Clemente

depicting real life people close to the

artist as particular symbolic characters,

and the artist also characterized himself

into the fold. Of course The Uffizi houses

Botticelli’s great masterpiece, ‘The Birth

of Venus’, an appropriate metaphor for

another re-birth of Clemente’s artistic self,

much like the sprouts in a new garden at


So where does all of this stuff eventually

end up? Museums? Estates? Archives?

Private collections? Auction houses? Etc...

The answer is in the oral history of the

medium itself. That is where these works

belong, and dare I say that Clemente

is very conscious of this. Painters are

guided by other painters. The illusion

that a painter exists independently is

absolutely ridiculous. There would be

no ‘so-and-so’ without ‘so-and-so’. And

herein is found the treasure of inspiration,

the gift, to other generations to come.

Even with Picasso during his triumphant

late period, he was in absolute dialogue

with those great Spanish painters who

came before. Ripping apart Velasquez’s

body of work and rebuilding it in his own

image. Yes, the muses were there too. But

it is this dialogue, this acknowledgement

- that there are links within the chain

which makes the whole odyssey worth

embracing the call to adventure. This

is what Francesco Clemente has done

and continues to do. We are invited to

participate as active witnesses. It still has

yet to be seen where history will place this

complex body of work. That being said, it

is the silent dream of every great painter to

save their best for last.

In conclusion, this essay is meant to act as

a proposition as much as a brief overview

of the work and development of Francesco

Clemente. It’s an essay for painters, to

open the doors of possibility. To say to the

reader that anything is truly possible, and

not. It remains up to you to do with the time

you have - to really step up, to go beyond

the borders of country, self, and other...

to challenge the known and embrace the

unknown in order to make the unknown

known. This is the quiet quest, the loud

journey. ‘Surprise’ is found in these spaces,

our holy moments.

- John Newsom May 31, 2012 NYC

John Newsom is a painter based in

New York City. He is represented by


Patrick Painter Inc., Los Angeles.


A History of the Heart in Three

Rainbows (III)


Watercolor on Paper

73 x 145in.

Private collection

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This Spread:




Watercolor on paper

45 x 46in.

Private collection

Right, left:

Previous Spread:

Jean-Michel Basquiat,

Francesco Clemente, Andy Warhol



48 x 66in.

Private Collection

The Fool (Self-portrait)

2008 - 2011

Watercolor and Gouche on paper

19 x 9-1/2in.

Private collection

Right, right:

The Star (Alba Clemente)


Watercolor on paper

19 x 9-1/2in.

Private collection

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