Modern Painters, November 2014
The Art Market Boom of the early 1980s famously resuscitated painting, a medium whose death had been proclaimed many times over during the previous two decades. Clemente was among the era’s young figures who rose to fame. Associated with the Transavanguardia movement, the Italian-born, New York-based artist had his first show with Mary Boone Gallery in 1983. He opens his latest at boone this month. Through February 2, 2015, Clemente’s work can also be seen in “Inspired by India,” at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art. Modern Painters senior editor Wendy Vogel met with Clemente in his studio just north of houston Street to discuss painting, writing, the persistence of cultural ideals, and a gentrifying New York.
Wendy Vogel: What is the focus of the Rubin Museum show?
Francesco Clemente: “Inspired by India” is a survey of my lifetime engagement with Indian culture. It includes five large works from the early 1980s in collaboration with billboard painters who were making Bollywood advertisements. It also features a group of erotic watercolors made in Odisha, in the vicinity of a great Tantric temple; four new sculptures related to the early works; and a group of watercolors combined with calligraphic miniature work.
WV: When did you first travel to India?
FC: When I was 19 years old, in 1971.
WV: How much time did you spend there now?
FC: A third of the year.
WV: In an essay about your work, Salman Rushdie wrote, “Italians are the Indians of Europe.”
FC: Well, the dysfunctional side of Indian and Italian societies is somehow similar. My friendship with Rushdie is based on this very entertaining symmetry–that I think I’m the only one who understands the country, and he, for a number of very understandable reasons, is running away from it. So I make fun of his iconoclastic stance, and he makes fun of me for being a gullible foreigner who buys into Indian fantasy.
WV: What do you mean when you say that you’re the only one who understands India?
FC: I have a true affinity with some of the formative ideas of that cultural narrative. But I also have an affinity with the formative American ideas–I’m an admirer of Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman. I don’t really pay too much attention to the incidents of a cultural narrative. I pay more attention to the roots, because my work is about expressing a cultural or human stance in the most concise way.
WV: Which fundamental Indian ideas are most important to you?
FC: The notion that we are eternal but not immortal–that these two conditions don’t overlap. We can aspire to be absolutely present. I think this is a very useful notion.
WV: What’s your relationship to your home country of Italy?
FC: I come from a very specific place. Naples has a strong sort of pagan undertone. It’s a city where the persistence of the ancient culture is really an obstacle to the possibility of experiencing today’s culture. Recently, I found out that my main interest is the persistence of experience.
WV: Will your show at Mary Boone relate to the Rubin exhibition?
FC: The show will include two tents made in collaboration with local craftspeople in India. They are the fulfillment of a very long-term aspiration. They are painted inside, and outside they have block printing and embroidery.
WV: What is your process of collaborating like in those instances?
FC: I’ve never made it into an industry. I wasn’t interested in that. Rather, I wanted to break the boundary of my own taste or sensibility. On the other hand, there is an extraordinary wealth of Indian craft that is now directed simply to the tourist trade or to certain commercial ventures. I wanted to allow these craftsmen to give the best of what they have.
WV: For the Rubin’s public programming, you’ll be in conversation with a number of artists and writers, like Patti Smith. Is literature a key interest of yours?
FC: I’ve always been very attracted to writers and the lineage of 20th-century poetry. I founded the Hanuman Books imprint with editor Raymond Foye in the mid 1980s. He came to visit me in India, and I showed him this little prayer book that the Hare Krishna Ashram was publishing. Our books were based on those. We published all the Beat poets: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, John Wieners. We also published obscure, secular mystics from the 1920s and ’30s in Europe, like Simone Weil, René Daumal, and Henri Michaux. This is my universe. This is where I draw my energy.
WV: What was New York like when you arrived in 1981?
FC: I was very fortunate because, as you may have noticed, culture and wealth do not necessarily prosper synchronically. I arrived to a bankrupt city, where south of 14th Street it was almost like a dead city, except there were some people living there, artists and dancers and musicians. It was really an extraordinary set of conditions. All of that ended by 1987 because of the city’s economic recovery and the AIDS epidemic. This was the second most dangerous block in New York, after Bond Street. That was where Robert Mapplethorpe and Brice Marden had their studios. Lauren Hutton lived in the same building.
WV: You had a show at James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai last year. How was China?
FC: China was an extraordinary experience. I thought that culturally, I was 5,000 years too late, because I was in love with the ancient writers–the Zhuangzi, Laozi, all the Taoist writing. And then I went to China three years ago. That’s when I realized I was interested in persistence. China’s relationship to ancient culture is almost asymmetrical to India’s. In China they lament about losing this ancient culture, but I don’t think they have at all; the culture is so alive. Whereas India is always bragging about how faithful they are to their culture, but that culture may be severely broken. The other surprise was that, for once, my Italian background was helpful. For political reasons, the entire generation now in their 40s in China had very little access to information from abroad during their formative years. But somehow, something filtered in from Italy. So this whole generation knew my work at the moment when they were deciding what to make. I had a very warm reception from the artists. I was surprised and very touched.
WV: You mean they had access to the Transavanguardia movement?
FC: Yes. There was an exhibition where they saw some work in the flesh in the late ’80s or early ’90s. I was called an ancestor more than once, which apparently is a compliment. I definitely feel like an ancestor.