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Francesco Clemente: Spanning Two Worlds at New York’s Rubin Museum

Francesco  Clemente, "The Four Corners" Private Collection
Francesco Clemente, “The Four Corners” Private Collection

By Bobbie Leigh

Francesco Clemente’s curriculum vitae, like his art, is filled with ambiguities. He played a psychiatrist in the film “Good Will Hunting.” He once modeled for GQ magazine and in 1999 at age 47, only mid-career, he had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Disenchanted with the political and social realities in his native Italy, Clemente began visiting India in the 1970s. Since then, he has lived and studied in various Indian cities, always involved with local arts and culture. Clemente became well known very quickly, eventually collaborating with poets and artists including Allen Ginsburg, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol.

Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India, an exhibition now on view at the Rubin Museum presents some 20 works created during the artist’s 40-year engagement with India. Because of its small scale and beautiful installation on the museum’s sixth floor, the exhibition concentrates on the artist’s highly personal interpretations of Indian motifs. In some cases, his work seems to be inspired by childhood memories and dreams. In others, Hindu mythology and religion. Your best bet is to let the work wash over you, just enjoy it, rather than search too closely for meanings in what is clearly a personal vision. In Clemente’s work, there are no borders, no signposts, everything changes from the point of view of the observer.

The highlights of the show are five billboard-scale paintings from the 1980s, created with the assistance of unnamed Tamil sign painters from Madras. “The Four Corners,” 1985, is probably the best known of Clemente’s large-scale works. A large hand rises from the sea with the thumb pointed to the bottom knuckle of the pinky finger. According to curator Beth Citron, it is a representation of the number one in a certain form of traditional Indian finger counting. Across the palm is a suggestion of a world map, highlighting Africa and parts of Asia. In this work, countries, like his art, have no clear boundaries.

Francesco Clemente, "Moon." Collection Museum of Modern Art.
Francesco Clemente, “Moon.” Collection Museum of Modern Art.

Even more ambiguous is the 1980 “Moon,” depicting a man dragged out of the moon by a huge boulder attached to him by a cord around his neck. He plummets head first from a white-yellow tinged moon surrounded by twirling seas. Is he drowning, dreaming, or just sinking into oblivion?

In a small gallery, almost a niche similar to what you might find in a Hindu temple, are canvases that draw on the erotic temple sculptures in the eastern state of Orissa. These magenta-hued watercolors from 1989 are highly personal expressions of Hindu temple iconography.

Francesco Clemente. "Sixteen Amulets VII"
Francesco Clemente. “Sixteen Amulets VII”

Also in this small gallery, Citron has mounted a little gem, the Pinxit series, referring to a court culture genre. Clemente’s “Sixteen Amulets for the Road,” are small-scale watercolors on handmade paper, roughly 20 x 22 inches. Here is where you can best see the influence of Mughal miniature painting in Clemente’s work. In number VII in this series, a figure is weighted down with chains, similar to “Moon.” The background is a Mughal architectural drawing while around the frame are tiny Mughal figures.

Alexander Gorlizki "Downtime"
Alexander Gorlizki “Downtime”

The artist Alexander Gorlizki became aware of Cemente’s Pinxit series years ago at the Guggenheim retrospective. “I responded to Clemente’s approach to story telling that is open to interpretation, using a visual language that is whimsical and playful,” says Gorlizki who also works within the tradition of Indian miniatures. “There is a correlation in Clemente’s work not only with early Indian paintings but also medieval western manuscripts that often deal with morality while using absurd and surreal relationships and puns.”

On view through February 2, 2015; www.rubinmuseum.org

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
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