Art Inspection

Francesco Clemente, Alchemist of Water

All summer on Standard Culture, we’ve been exploring the wonderful world of wetness—from the founder of WET, the '70s and '80s cult magazine of gourmet bathing, to the charmed life of Narcissa's dewy lettuce. Now we turn to something a touch more elusive, if no less liquid: the role of fluidity in the life and work of the artist and East Village icon Francesco Clemente. 

Clemente is a familiar face at The Standards, whether attending a reading by the young poet Cleo Wade in The Penthouse of The Standard, East Village, or dining with Purple pals at Narcissa during fashion week, but somehow he remains a mysterious, dare we say, mystical figure. One of the living legends of the 1970s and 80s downtown art scene, Clemente is best-known for his watercolor portraits—moody renderings of faces both well-known and anonymous—that teem with life and emotion. However, the water runs deeper. While much of Clemente’s work involves portraiture, and often self-portraiture, the pieces are less concerned with representation than with the fluidity, or indeed, the slipperiness of the self.

In talking with Clemente it becomes clear that fluidity is something the artist thinks about a great deal. Which is why we were intrigued to learn that the centerpiece of Clemente’s current exhibition at Mass MoCA are encampments—tents, in fact—with frescos created by the artist and Indian artisans. We wondered if, perhaps, the artist was finally setting up camp. Not so. The latest works are as fixated on the transient as ever.   

“Fluidity is really what I’m looking for. I’m against dogma, I’m against authority—I’m against anything that is not based on community and mutual…comfort.”
Detail view of Encampments at Mass MoCA 
STANDARD CULTURE: How is the fluidity of your materials a factor in making your work?
FRANCESCO CLEMENTE: Fluidity is the source of the work. Fluidity is the goal of the work. The best definition of fluidity I've ever heard is 'an effortless effort.'

There seems to be fluidity to your working process, in that you do not have a predetermined approach to creating imagery. What is it about working in this way that appeals to you? 
But I do have a set approach! What I do is to set it again and again in new fashions, so as to play with consonance and dissonance with myself and others.

What is your relationship to water as a subject matter and a motif?
To say: 'The wise man goes to the water,' is a cliché. Luckily or sadly, all clichés happen to be true.

In the materials for your MoCA exhibition, you stated that, "I believe in this movement of generating and dissolving, and regenerating and dissolving again. This is a technique for the mind to become and remain awake." Is transience a mental state that gives rise to the works, or is this something that you want the viewer to experience?
Both. If there is anything I can experience, that means anyone else can experience it too. 'Want' does not enter the picture. Hope maybe or, even better, acceptance.

Left: A young Francesco Right: Mr. Clemente enjoying the company of a beautiful woman at the annual Purple Magazine dinner at Narcissa. 
Collaboration with other artists and artisans, from Basquiat and Warhol in the '80s to your current collaboration with artisans in India, has been a continuous aspect of your work. Is this a way of melding different points of view? Do you find collaboration to be a fluid process? 
Fluidity is also the power of transformation. We cannot be others than ourselves, but painting can blur, open or even confuse our preconceptions on the borders between self and other.
What is something that transfixes you? 
Compassion. Not my own.
What is your strongest memory of water or wetness? 
I would like to say a kiss, but I don't think it is allowed.
From Clemente's current show at Mass MOCA, "Encampment" 
Years ago, you said in an interview that in New York, “…it's enough just to be a good swimmer in your rough river.” Is this still the case for you? 
When you are young you like to swim. Older, you'd rather drown.
What role has New York City, specifically the East Village, played in your life as an artist? 
I saw sublime beauty in the burned out buildings of the Lower East Side, and divinity in the artists inhabiting the downtown of that age.
Your daughter is the chef of our Hollywood restaurant. What role did you play in her choice of vocation? Do you feel that you imparted a love for food to her?
Nina cooks for love. She learned this from my wife Alba. Nina has also a sense of respect for the visual pleasures of food. I like to think she learned this from me.

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