One of things I have always loved about the Rubin Museum is their fearlessness when it comes to exhibition design and color. I’ve visited exhibitions there where the walls are deep vermillion, brilliant saffron, or luminous grey.
The newly opened exhibition of works by Francesco Clemente is perhaps the most stunning example. The walls of the exhibit, entitled Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India, are painted the deepest and most sensual purple imaginable. It’s a bold and spectacular design choice by a confident museum, presenting Clemente’s work in an experiential way. The exhibition is designed so that you can see each of the five massive and iconic Clemente drawings all at once. The spatial design is meant to imply the experience of a Hindu temple. There is the large public space — inhabited by the five huge drawings. There are four smaller meditative “niche” spaces — filled here by sculptures. And finally, the “inner sanctum,” which holds 16 exquisite watercolor pieces and a portfolio of profoundly erotic watercolors, based on the erotic sculptures in Orrisa, India.
If this all sounds a bit complicated, well, it is, but it’s a complicated body of work, much of which contains both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, references to the struggles of the Western painter and above all a visual diary of Clemente’s physical and spiritual journeys through a country and culture that resonate deeply within him.
All of the works on paper in this show are splendid, showing Clemente at the height of his skills. They are beautiful, mysterious, erotic, and spiritual. The large pieces haven’t been shown together as a group for almost 15 years, and the impact of these five pieces together is powerful. These works, made in collaboration with local artisans in Madras in the 1980s, are gouache on sheets of handmade paper, bound together by cotton strips to form billboard-sized drawings. The themes and titles — Sun, Moon, Hunger, Two Painters, and Four Corners — reflect Clemente’s identification with many aspects of traditional Indian painting combined with his own contemporary Western angst. The spatial relationships and perspective are uniformly flat, the color slightly lurid, like those in Indian film posters.
I find “Two Painters” to be the most interesting of the group and the most psychologically revealing. Two naked male figures, one obviously more Caucasian than the other (as evidenced by his pink skin tone) poke at each other’s eyes, mouth, and ass, all the while staring back at the viewer with an expression of deceptive calm. East meets West. The artist exists in two cultures, absorbing each through sight, touch, and taste. All of Clemente’s works made in India throughout the years are deeply (no pun intended) interested in orifices. This is a consistent theme. In this particular work I see it as Clemente’s view of how things enter the artists consciousness — color, image, taste go into the various orifices by way of experience. The punch line is that they inevitably exit the artist in a changed form.
The two landscapes in the piece reflect this duality — the dry and barren landscape of the West contrasts with what appears to be an idyllic and lush Eastern land. The East is full of renewal, moisture, and color. I am loath to over analyze these works. Part of the beauty and mystery disappears when the meanings are too tightly defined.
Next we move into the meditative spaces. The four sculptures, which were commissioned by the Rubin for this exhibition, are a bit more problematic. To my knowledge Clemente has not worked much as a sculptor and the work feels a little undernourished. Each is based on the structure of rickety wooden scaffolding that one sees all over India, although these pieces are fabricated out of aluminum. Each is then topped with a found Indian object. A British Colonial-era trunk, a flag embroidered with bit of Marxist text, a pot, and a mystery box. The pieces are fine, not bad, but not particularly moving. They pale in compassion to the richness of the works on paper.
The inner sanctum contains two sets of works that I had never seen before, one a most noteworthy group of 16 watercolors on paper entitled Sixteen Amulets For the Road. Clemente works again with local artisans. This time he is in Delhi and working with themes and imagery from the Mogul Empire. Four themes are painted four times, each with significant changes. The drawings are quite formal, a central image surrounded by various elaborate and intricate borders of repetitive design. At first glance much of this appears purely decorative, but look closely and you will see subtle variations in the patterning. A reminder that this is made by the hand of man, which is fallible and imperfect. All of these drawings are loaded with Buddhist and Hindu iconography, as filtered through a Western sensibility. The repeated image of fisherman’s nets filled with clocks refers to Buddhist teachings — we are captives of time and that is at the root of unhappiness. Ladders that twirl and twist towards the heavens represent the different paths that one can choose towards enlightenment; chains bind man to his earthly desires. The symbols can be seen as obvious, but in Clements’s hands they carry a richness that belies easy interpretation.
And finally The Black Book, 48 watercolors, based on erotic Hindu temple sculptures. These depict couplings and penetration in every and all-imaginable combinations … and then some. Using the fluid nature of watercolor Clemente has portrayed couplings that go beyond sex and transcend to another realm. The headless bodies are totally and completely joined in spiritual and carnal bliss. It’s impossible to tell where one ends and another begins. Thin veils of watercolor crossing over and under each other in shades of pulsing ochre, umber, and deep claret. They are shocking and arousingly beautiful. The sensual and the sexual beget transcendence.
The strength of this show is that the artistic journey is so precisely mimicked by the design and architecture of the exhibition. It’s a perfectly executed metaphor for Clemente’s own journey. We start with an artist in large format in the public space, self-conscious of his place in the world. We travel into increasingly smaller spaces that depict a journey inward, both spiritual and artistic. The drawings become ever smaller and more intricate. And in the end, the ultimate enlightenment and loss of self is through union with another.
Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India continues thorough February 2, 2015, at The Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan)