A leading figure of Neo-Expressionism, the Italian artist defies categorization with his complex symbolic visual language. Illustrated with works from the Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann
‘To be a painter I needed to be an exile,’ said the Italian artist Francesco Clemente in a 2020 interview. ‘To be oneself is not that interesting. To be lost in between states of being opens a door.’
Born in Naples in 1952, Clemente studied architecture in Rome before making the first of many trips to India in 1973. His extensive travels and study of artistic and cultural production around the world — from woodblock printing in Japan to Indian miniature painting — have informed his diverse works across painting, drawing, and installation, which offer elliptical, symbol-rich meditations on erotic and spiritual themes.
The poet Derek Walcott, who drew comparisons between Clemente’s enigmatic iconography and those of Marc Chagall and William Blake, said of Clemente’s paintings: ‘I value the joy in their patience, in their emphasis on the painter’s — every painter’s — evaluation in symbol and mystery, in their open piety … To sanctify delight is to be what Wordsworth called Nature’s Priest — not of landscapes, but of our mental travel.’
On 5 August, Christie’s New York will present Francesco Clemente: Works from the Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann, a private selling exhibition that will run through 4 September in Southampton.
Influenced by Twombly, Arte Povera, and Beuys
Arriving in Rome at age 18, Clemente encountered the work of the American painter Cy Twombly, who had lived in the city since the ’50s, as well as Italian Arte Povera artists such as Pino Pascali. He was inspired by their transformative and radical works, as well as those of Joseph Beuys, the title of whose 1971 exhibition in Naples declared ‘The Revolution is Us.’
In Rome, Clemente also met the Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti in 1973, who became a close friend and mentor. Boetti and his wife, Anna-Marie Sauzeau, exposed Clemente to the ideas of thinkers including Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari, spurring on his philosophical exploration of the self.
A nomadic and curious student of culture
In 1974, Clemente travelled with Boetti to Afghanistan, where he learned about Sufi mysticism, got to know the weavers and embroiders of Boetti’s tapestries, and experimented with a variety of drugs. That same year he met the actress Alba Primiceri, whom he would later marry and who is a frequent subject of his iconic portraits.
In the mid-to-late ’70s, Clemente also made a number of trips to India — learning Sanskrit and studying ancient Vedic texts at the library of the Theosophical Society in Madras. Clemente was drawn to the deep spiritual connection to the past he found India.
‘The gods who left us thousands of years ago in Naples are alive in India,’ he has said. The colourful and often arcane imagery he came across at ancient sites as well as in contemporary advertisements and signage there fed into the artist’s burgeoning visual language.
From 1980-81, he collaborated with miniature painters in Orissa and Jaipur to produce Francesco Clemente Pinxit, a series of twenty-four gouache paintings on antique handmade rag paper.
At the forefront of Transavanguardia and Neo-Expressionism
Alongside the artists Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria, and Mimmo Palladino, Clemente became associated with the Transavanguardia movement — a branch of Neo-Expressionism — in Italy in the late ’70s and ’80s, marking a return to figurative art and symbolism in contemporary art following the dominance of conceptualism. Clemente himself rejected being categorized into a particular school based on style, instead emphasizing the importance of the content of the work.
In 1982, Clemente moved to New York City, where he was warmly received into the lively downtown scene. He collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, as well as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. He set up studio at a loft on Broadway and embarked on one of his most ambitious projects to date, The Fourteen Stations (1981-82).
For this series of twelve large-scale paintings — four of which are featured in the upcoming exhibition — Clemente worked in a medium outside his comfort zone: oil on linen. In doing so, he took on the tradition of Western painting from the Renaissance to the present, marking his arrival among the era’s foremost painters in New York.
Exhibited widely throughout the world
In 1999, the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a retrospective of Clemente’s oeuvre, galvanizing his reputation as a highly influential contemporary artist. Since then demand for the artist’s works — including his renowned portraits depicting subjects, often cultural luminaries themselves, with oversized eyes — has continued to grow.
This past May, Clemente set an artist record at auction with the sale of The Fourteen Stations, No. XI (1981-82), also from the Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann. The iconic painting sold for $1,860,000, shattering its pre-sale estimate of $80,000.
In addition to the Guggenheim, Clemente has had solo museum shows at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Sezon Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna of Bologna, among others.
Beginning 27 July, the ALBERTINA Museum in Vienna will feature a comprehensive solo presentation of the artist’s work, focusing on his self-portraits and the itinerant travels that link his ongoing transformation as painter and subject.
The writer Salman Rushdie situates Clemente in the tradition of self-portraiture as an eternal shape-shifter: ‘Clemente is a metamorph par excellence — actor, clown, mask, avatar — and, as slippery as the legendary Old Man of the Sea, he wriggles hard when you try to pin him down. You have to hold on tightly, and for a long time, while he mutates ceaselessly to elude your grasp…’