Francesco Clemente is a characteristic dandy of the late twentieth century, a hothouse Narcissus who reflects the merging worlds of society, fashion, and art. An Italian-born painter who was a young art-world star during the Reagan years – when vanity and the yearning for celebrity came to dominate culture – he rarely disappoints a camera. In glossy magazines, he appears gaunt and dark-eyed, with a sensual expression that suggests both restlessness and satisfaction. He dresses with stylish nonchalance and wears a face that looks carefully unshaven – he’s a man of silk and stubble. He refuses to be confined to one place but prowls among New York, Rome, and India; he cultivates the air of an aristocratic alley cat. It’s not irrelevant to discuss his appearance in this way, because Clemente himself makes it central to his art: Not only does he act seduced, intoxicated, and bewitched by his own body, but he also seems philosophically impressed by its carnal and spiritual significance. More often than not, the “form” his art takes is his form.
A dandy of this kind is a special taste. To skeptics, the scale of the current retrospective of the artist’s work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum may seem florid and outsize, a monument that mirrors the artist’s own narcissism. (Brooklyn Museum bashers might also call the exhibit decadent, as it treats Catholicism irreverently.) Organized by Lisa Dennison, the show includes more than 200 works in a variety of media – oil, fresco, watercolor, pastel, sculpture, book illustration – and it fills most of the museum. The catalogue is enormous as well. At the age of 47, Clemente is the youngest artist ever given a full retrospective at the Guggenheim. Few artists at mid-career look their best under this kind of spotlight. Clemente is prolific but uneven, and there’s a similarity to his focus – despite the protean variety of his subject matter – that sometimes makes the show seem just more of the same. The size of the exhibit also detracts from his best pictures, which are often small in scale and intimate in tone, like a dirty aside whispered prettily in your ear.
But Clemente’s art also captures an important psychological mood – or sensation – found in our culture. In his pictures, there is an impatience with limits. No boundaries are tolerated around “the self,” no firm or fast edges define or restrain the play of the imagination. (That may be why he is best at pastels and watercolors, media that melt and blur.) The artist’s “self” floats outward, procreating and multiplying at will, denying itself nothing as it pushes and spills into the world. The best way to embody this kind of egotism, of course, is by creating a vision of endless erotic combinations. In the painting Scissors and Butterflies, several dreamy creatures, all of whom look like Clemente, appear to be mutilating or castrating one another with scissors. But there is no suggestion of terror or loss. The creatures already seem to be both male and female, and the reddish, steamy atmosphere is charmingly poisonous rather than bloody. The scissors create new Clementes – together with a collection of bright genital-butterflies, which float through the space.
In Clemente’s art, there are also no borders around cultures. The artist wanders at will across the earth, incorporating into his art whatever strikes his fancy. It might seem difficult to create an art that brings together New York, India, and the Mediterranean, but Clemente does it as if by right. He sips and tastes; he relishes the surface glint. He displays no reticence before another culture, no fear, for example, that Hindu India might represent too powerful, deep, and ancient a tradition to appropriate with ease. The subcontinent offers the artist another beautiful mirror, another form of delectation. Clemente’s India is heated and overripe, dirty and perfumed, vulgar and metaphysical – just the way it has always appealed to the Western imagination. This is typical of the spiritual browsing of our era, when Westerners seeking inspiration embrace the religious traditions of the East. But it would be unfair to call Clemente’s art just a pastiche. After all, the best dandies are sophisticated children. Their guilty pleasures seem somehow innocent. They represent a charming kind of freedom. They say what they want, dress as they wish, go where they will.