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Clemente in the Eighties: Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

When Francesco and Alba first came to New York in the early 1980s, they didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak any Italian. So in retrospect, it’s surprising that we became such close friends from our first few meetings. But they both learned English quickly, especially Francesco. I suspect he’d already studied it in school and probably relied on it all those early years in India (he visited pretty much every year from 1973 onward), because he wouldn’t have gotten by with just Italian. Most likely, he didn’t want to speak English until he could speak it well. Later he told me that most everyone of his generation in Naples and Rome learned English by listening to Bob Dylan records and puzzling out the lyrics. In New York, he gathered a considerable library of American poetry (primarily Ezra Pound and the Beats—purchased from the Phoenix Book Shop when it was going out of business), and it became the basis of his studies. I shared a passion for all of these writers, so we had that in common from the start.  

Allen Ginsberg and Francesco Clemente, Poetry Project Poster, 1989

            I met Alba before I met Francesco. The writer and curator Diego Cortez took me to the Clementes’ hotel room at the Stanhope on Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Francesco’s dealer Angela Westwater had arranged their stay through Peter Sharp and Mary Sharp Cronson, art collectors who owned the hotel—it was probably some kind of trade, because it certainly wasn’t the kind of place they would have chosen themselves. Alba cooked a remarkable pasta for Diego and me, all the more impressive because the room didn’t have a kitchen. She had rigged up a small hot plate, the kind poor people in New York City’s welfare hotels use. This was a pattern I often noticed with the Clementes, an odd combination of high and low: you are staying in the fanciest hotel in New York, but you are living like a pauper. In any event, it was Alba’s presence that I remember—elegant, joyful, relaxed.

A few weeks later, Francesco and Alba moved into a studio at 684 Broadway, a loft space on the second floor. I was living at Henry Geldzahler’s townhouse in Greenwich Village, and one day he came home after a three-hour studio visit with Francesco, visibly shaken. He said he hadn’t seen an artist of that stature in many years. Born in Antwerp and educated at the Sorbonne, Henry was as much European as American in his sensibility. Clemente, he said, was going to become the first European artist to vitally influence the New York art scene since the influx of the Surrealists in the ’40s.

Henry Geldzahler, Francesco + Alba CLemente, Southampton NY 1984 Photo by Raymond Foye

America (and New York in particular) was a very self-absorbed place in the postwar years. We were not paying attention to Europe whatsoever. For us, art was Abstract Expressionism, Johns and Rauschenberg, Pop art, Color Field, the abstractions of Frank Stella. Then came Minimalism, Conceptual art, Earth art, and body works, etc. Perhaps the one exception in New York was Joseph Beuys, who did get some attention thanks to Hans Haacke and the dealer Ronald Feldman. Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke spent time in New York in the early ’70s, but they were almost completely ignored—except by a young artist named Julian Schnabel, whose encounter with them would change his career. 

Clemente Ginsberg Maturity 1985 Watrercolor on paper (rectoo)

            Clemente (and a few other painters of his generation) seemed to come out of nowhere, and the work hit us all at once: here was a fully formed aesthetic that had nothing to do with the game we were playing. It’s hard to explain the impact of the work; it was entirely new and radical, and yet it carried with it the enormous weight of the European humanistic tradition (albeit through a shattered lens). This is what appealed to Henry, who pointed out that the artists of the Italian transavantgarde and the German neo-expressionists were skipping their father’s generation to form a bridge to their grandfather’s era. They sought inspiration in artists like Francis Picabia, Alberto Savinio, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Beckmann. In other words, these young painters were reestablishing a tradition that had been severed by the Second World War. 

Clemente Ginsberg Maturity 1985 Watrercolor on paper (verso)

While we weren’t looking, the most interesting developments in art were taking place in Europe, and they had been since at least the mid-’70s. Because of our arrogance and chauvinism, we’d missed it. Now here this new art was, on our shores, having arrived fully realized, virtually overnight. These paintings dismantled a vast hierarchy, bringing the death knell of formalism. The New York “art worker”—serious, bearded, and dressed in denim—was laid to rest. Glamour was back, for better or worse.

            What most appealed to me about Clemente’s art, when I first encountered it, was its combination of radical innovation and an antique sensibility; a mix of tradition and invention I still consider unbeatable in art. I placed Clemente with Ezra Pound and Cy Twombly, figures who had reached back to the past of Greece and Rome and brought the concerns of classicism into the present without a shred of sentimentality. It seemed Clemente shared with Pound and Twombly a similar sense of beauty; not the serene Hellenic ideal, but the agitated psychic state of the Medusa or the madness of Herakles. It is a disturbing beauty that reaches out and grabs you. Someone once asked Picasso if his sense of beauty had always been a classical one. “I suppose so,” he replied, “after all, they don’t invent a new kind of beauty every day.” Frankly, I was just happy that someone was making pastels again.

            Very quickly, battle lines were drawn in New York. The new painters were fiercely attacked, and in many cases the attacks were quite racist, often with fascist or Nazi overtones. (“If Robert Hughes refers to my paintings as Spaghetti Westerns one more time, I’m going to write Time magazine a letter of complaint,” Sandro Chia said to me.) I actually lost a good friend—the art critic Nicolas Calas—because I couldn’t endure his vehement bad-mouthing of these artists every time we hung out. It occurs to me now that this might have been the last moment in New York when people took aesthetic issues so seriously. 

I got ahold of Clemente’s phone number, called, and stopped by the studio at 684 Broadway, on the corner of Great Jones Street near Tower Records, a vast three-story space that was the mecca for popular culture in New York. I was working on the very same block, at Petersburg Press, an established fine art publisher of etchings and lithographs by artists such as Johns, David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, and Roy Lichtenstein. I had convinced the owner, Paul Cornwall-Jones, that something new was afoot in the art world, and we needed to keep up with it. Master printer John Hutcheson and I dragged a large lithographic stone on a dolly over to Clemente’s studio. Somehow, I thought the stone would excite Clemente, and it did. I invited him to make lithographs with us. Because of the proximity of the print shop, I suggested that he could work in his own studio and we would bring materials back and forth, but he said he actually liked the idea of getting out of his own place. He proposed illustrating Savinio’s 1918 proto-Surrealist travelogue The Departure of the Argonaut—which George Scrivani would translate into English for the first time for this project. Clemente explained the book and its author to me, and I quickly agreed. “When do we begin?” he asked. “Tomorrow,” I replied. Later he told me this directness was one of the things he liked most about America: “In Italy they would have said, ‘Next year.’” 

Francesco Clemente and John Wieners, 1985

It was during the making of The Departure of the Argonaut (1984–85) that we really got to know each other well, as he came into the print studios at 380 Lafayette Street almost daily. On most days, we had lunch together. Clemente had an impressive work ethic. He would arrive early, put his head down over the stone, and not look up for the next three hours. He brought his own music with him, and I think we probably listened to Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going Onabout five hundred times that year (which I had no problem with). Clemente quickly mastered the many complicated techniques of direct and offset lithography: he worked with limestone, aluminum plates, acetate overlays, grease crayon, brush and tusche, etc. He built the book one image at a time, each print covering a double page spread, always with an infallible sense of mise-en-page. During this period, he was reading The Cantos of Ezra Pound, as well as Pound’s translation of Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. He spoke about his desire to explore subject-rhymes throughout various cultural eras as well as Pound’s uncovering of the common root of word and image in early glyphic script. 

What was fascinating to me was how Clemente’s methodology was never the same from one day to the next. Each image emerged from an intuited and invented set of rules that he created, followed, and then discarded. It was a kind of game, a form of visual inquiry that I soon realized was intimately connected to the Conceptual and process art that he grew up with in the ’70s, especially the work of his mentor Alighiero Boetti. Painting after Conceptualism is a completely different animal than what came before, and art audiences did not yet get this fundamental shift when Clemente and his contemporaries emerged. Ultimately, from watching Clemente illustrate Savinio, I came to understand that art could be many things, but it was first and foremost a form of intelligence. 

Francesco Clemente and Raymond Foye, NYC 1983, Photo by Allen Ginsberg by permission of the Allen Ginsberg Literary Trust

I wouldn’t say the Italian part of Francesco’s character was especially predominant. To me, he was first of all a traveler, a nomad, an itinerant. He wasn’t really from anywhere; he was just this human being wandering around planet Earth, looking at things, responding, and being creative. It’s probably why he felt at home in New York, a crossroads of world cultures and religions, a cultural Panopolis. His studio was certainly a foreign place: dramatic, dark, and exotic. There were esoteric religious articles, homemade shrines, photographs of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi, and incense always burning. A strong sense of ritual pervaded: this was someone who lived by routine and ceremony. For Francesco, observation itself was holy; the studio was his image factory.

We both loved the hippie culture spawned by the Beat generation writers. Francesco once joked that art historians were always searching for obscure art historical references in his work, when so much of his inspiration came from sitting in his room as a teenager looking at Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young album covers. Certainly, our mutual infatuation with the music of Bob Dylan was another common bond, and I always made sure Francesco had a steady supply of bootleg tapes, which he listened to obsessively while painting. In the same way that Jack Kerouac channeled the music of Charlie Parker into his writing, I think Francesco allowed Dylan’s sensibility to permeate his own work. He once remarked to me that every Dylan song was a very specific emotional place, and that every album was a very different aesthetic experience. Francesco understood the practical implications of Dylan’s work: art’s great subject is mutability. There is no fixed identity, only a series of masks and personae the artist creates, explores, and then discards.

This was a brief and unique period in the art world, as I have experienced it. In this handful of years, artists spent time together because they actually enjoyed each other’s company. They didn’t merely attend each other’s openings and formal dinners but met up every evening for food and conversation—at the Odeon, Canal Bar, 136 Wooster, or Indochine. Only a few artists from the previous generation were part of the inner scene: Keith Sonnier, Brice Marden, and Andy Warhol. One of the defining aspects of this moment was the close connection between art and the street—the ideas, fashion, attitudes, and even materials. There was a roughness, almost an artlessness, that was refreshing after a decade or two of (mostly) pure aesthetic refinement. The poet Rene Ricard and the critic Edit deAk were Francesco’s guides to this nocturnal metropolis, and he explored it nightly, hanging out at pioneering hip-hop clubs, like Nightingale on Second Avenue, or black and Latino voguing clubs up in Harlem and, later, in the Meatpacking District. The energy of these scenes became an important part of his work, and he instinctively understood that the heart and soul of American culture is African-American culture.

Rene Ricard by Francesco Clemente, 1984 Conte crayon on paper

Francesco had a particularly close relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their work was very much on the same wavelength: one came from the streets of Rome and Naples and the other from the streets of Brooklyn. Like Francesco, Jean was a fairly cool and diffident person on the surface, ironic and fatalistic, but also fiercely intelligent and passionate. Jean visited Francesco’s studio often and would frequently pick up a brush or a marker and begin working, almost as if it were his own studio. (No surface was safe from him.) Once, when visiting the Clementes at home, he helped himself to Francesco’s art supplies and made an unusually elaborate drawing, crouching over the paper for a good half-hour—a very long time for a Basquiat drawing. When Alba complained that dinner was getting cold, he left the work unfinished. “A very expensive plate of pasta,” Francesco remarked to me when, years later, I reminded him of this moment. 

And there were sadder notes. I remember Jean coming by Francesco’s studio on the night in 1983 when we learned that the artist Michael Stewart had died from a choke hold during an arrest for writing graffiti on the subway. There was an informal meeting about how to respond: a protest, or a benefit art show for his family, etc. I saw the fear in Jean’s eyes—that this could easily have been him on hundreds of occasions. A few years later, I was with Francesco and Alba (and Paige Powell) at their rented house in Southampton when we heard Jean had died: August 12, 1988. We all took a long walk on the beach, and nobody said a word. Looking back, I feel this was the end of that decade, the 1980s.  

Francesco Clemente, She and She, 1982, pastel on paper

* * *

From the first day I met Francesco, I felt it was imperative that he meet Allen Ginsberg. (I myself had met Allen at a Kerouac Symposium in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1973, when I was a junior in high school, and we kept in touch). The two shared a mutual love of William Blake and India as well as a tremendous respect for each other’s calling. I think Allen would have liked to have been a painter, and Francesco a poet. One evening in 1983, Henry Geldzahler and I were having dinner with Allen at Cafe Un Deux Trois on West 44th Street, and I invited Francesco and Alba to join us. They arrived punctually, beautifully dressed and full of anticipation, almost like students on the first day of school. Years later, I realized what an important meeting it must have been for them, given that I never saw either one arrive remotely on time for any social event ever again.

Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso, Francesco Clemente, NYC, November 1986 Photo by Allen Ginsberg by permission of the Allen Ginsberg Literary Trust

The next day, Allen stopped by Francesco’s studio on Great Jones Street and copied out a long poem, “White Shroud,” which he’d recently written on a visit to China. What I was hoping would happen did happen: the illuminated manuscript was alive and well in the late twentieth century. A sequel followed in 1984, called “Black Shroud.” One day, Allen arrived with nothing prepared, no plan other than to be open and observe. The work they produced, Images from Mind and Space, is my favorite of all their collaborations. A decade later, I taped an interview between Allen and Francesco about their experiences in India. Ten minutes into our conversation, I realized I’d pressed the wrong button and the tape recorder had not been running. I apologized and asked them to start again, which they did. (One can listen to the tape on the internet, beginning with this embarrassing moment.) A week later, I interviewed Allen’s companion, the poet Peter Orlovsky, about his India memories and intercut the two texts. The result was published in the 1992 book Evening Raga & Paradiso.

By 1983, Allen had taken up photography again quite seriously after a hiatus of about thirty years. An appreciation of the sacredness of the moment and a sense of the mythic dimensions of daily life emerged in his photography, just as they did in Francesco’s portraiture. Soon, Allen became a regular member of the extended Clemente family. They shared meals and holidays and, later, even a summer vacation at the Clemente’s home in Amalfi—one of Allen’s happiest periods toward the end of his life, when he knew he was gravely ill. During these years, Francesco and Alba were some of the few people on the scene who actually maintained a household: there was furniture, there were children, meals were served. Consequently, those of us who didn’t have an immediate family felt comfortable and welcomed there. Basquiat relaxed and enjoyed rare moments of domesticity; Keith Haring attended holiday dinners, always sitting at the kid’s table on a small chair just like the children did. I always enjoyed the incongruity of Francesco’s life, the way he balanced family responsibilities with avant-garde painting. Far from seeing him as grand bourgeois, I saw a genuine radicality in it all. I felt the same way about Allen: he could have so easily been a raving lunatic on the street; and instead, he chose to be practical and responsible, which was actually a much more extreme position. I remember once Rene Ricard overstepped all bounds and drove Francesco into a state of utter fury with his outrageous behavior. “Crazy? He thinks he’s crazy?” Francesco fumed. “I’ll show him. I’m the one who’s really crazy!” 

Francesco Clemente, Raman Schlemmer, Raymond Foye, Unidentified. Tamil Nadu, 1996

Halfway through the Savinio book project, in the fall of 1985, Petersburg Press went bankrupt. It was a dreadful day when I had to tell Francesco that everything he had worked on for over a year was under lock and key from a court order. “That’s alright,” he said graciously, “I like interruptions.” He decided to return to India with Alba and the family and asked if I would travel with them and tutor his daughter Chiara, who was seven. I gladly agreed and put together a small suitcase of school materials and workbooks. I stayed with them in Madras for three months, and we had lots of wonderful adventures, traveling to many of the great temple cities of Tamil Nadu: Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram, Vellore, Madurai, Tanjore, Chidambaram, and so on. Francesco always wore a dhoti, and he looked so much like a Hindu that he was never prevented from entering the temples, even the inner sanctum sanctorum. 

The Clementes’ home in Madras (it had not yet been renamed Chennai) was on Chamiers Road in the Adyar neighborhood. It was a modest concrete villa, painted mint green and built in the style of Le Corbusier, who had a popular following among the elite in India. There was a gentle flow between the modern interior and the tropical outdoors. The Theosophical Society was close by; Krishnamurti was living and lecturing next door; and down the street, Krishnamacharya still ran his yoga school out of his home. It was a magical corner of the world. Francesco introduced me to his printer and close friend, C. T. Nachiappan. Nachi (as everyone called him) was Francesco’s guide and fixer for all things in India. During this visit, we put together the publishing project that became Hanuman Books (1986–96), a medium for us to promote the poets and writers we admired in the downtown New York scene: Cookie Mueller, Eileen Myles, Gary Indiana, Richard Hell, Elaine Equi, and many others. We both agreed that the first Hanuman Book had to be the poet John Wieners, since we both considered him to be the supreme “pure” poet. We published fifty titles over the next ten years, and I see the project as an important part of Francesco’s work from that time.

Francesco Clemente, The Four Corners, 1985

During these years, Francesco exhibited widely, and since almost every show had a catalogue, he turned to his poet friends to contribute texts. Their commentary was far more imaginative than what most critics might have offered. The poets were always opening new avenues of insight and interpretation, as opposed to the standard theoretical analysis, which often shut more doors than it opened. That these poets, whom he had so admired since his student years in Rome, were alive and working in his midst meant that a crucial historical moment created in his psyche thirty years earlier was beautifully realized in the present tense.

In many instances, the catalogue texts were written in Francesco’s studio: Robert Creeley wrote his contributions, pendant poems, directly in front of the paintings. Michael McClure wrote “Field Notes of the Imagination” during one afternoon in the studio, recording his responses to a group of paintings in a notebook the way an anthropologist might—a unique type of reportage. Gregory Corso used a series of gold-leaf and terra-cotta paintings as the jumping off point for a long meditation on Etruscan art. All of these publications celebrated what William Burroughs called the “third mind,” referring to his own collaborations with the painter Brion Gysin. (“When two minds meet, a third mind is present,” Burroughs replied when I asked him what the phrase meant.) 

Francesco Clemente with Raymond Foye and Robert Creeley, New York, 1988. Photo by Allen Ginsberg Used by permission

Interestingly, Francesco never felt especially close to the work of the New York School poets, despite his personal friendships with John Ashbery and David Shapiro. The aesthetic of New York School poetry was alien to him, exuding urbanity, sophistication, and irony; neither Francesco nor the Beats cared much for any of these things. And the spiritual dimension that so captivated Allen and Francesco simply did not interest the New York School poets (as I quickly learned when I used that word around Ashbery). The great gift of the Beat poets to literature was sentience: the power of immediate, spontaneous sense perception. This was poetry based on feeling, not thought, with a strong connection to eros. The Beats spoke Francesco’s language.     

In the ’50s, the poet Harold Norse invented the phrase “karma circuit” to describe a loose network of artists and seekers who wandered the globe, from San Francisco to Rome and Athens, to Tangiers and on to Nepal and India, then back to New York. It was a small circle of a few dozen dropouts who paid no attention to established convention. In out-of-the-way locations, they wrote and painted, ran bookstores and small presses, made films and mounted theater productions. Professional concerns were non-existent. Hashish, tarot, and yoga were their motivating forces. A City Lights broadside carried far more weight than a yearly subscription to Art International. It was a world before the internet or Lonely Planet travel guides, where information was passed by word of mouth. It was a world essentially contrived in the imagination and lived out in private places. It is important to see Francesco’s work from this angle. It doesn’t necessarily explain it, but it’s the burning ground from which the smoke still rises. Poet and Sanskrit scholar Louise Landes Levi once referred to Francesco as an “analogue” painter, meaning that he is of the last generation of artists whose aesthetic developed before the digital age—an artist for whom meaning resides in the physical terms of the work. 

“Painting is the last oral tradition,” Francesco once said, stressing the importance of this matter of lineage. In the case of the Beat Generation poets (a highly individual and varied group), that lineage included Ezra Pound, jazz, and Buddhism, among other things. Since the inspiration of poet and painter came from the same place, the commentary was not descriptive or didactic. In the ’80s, Francesco was exploring an intensely personal and “occult” relationship with the image, something that had been long disparaged in art, and the poets aided and encouraged him in this pursuit. It was a brief moment, wisely seized.


1 Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1988).

2 Recording of the author interviewing Allen Ginsberg and Francesco Clemente in 1992, accessible at

3 For a biographical essay on the life and work of Nachiappan, see Raymond Foye, Home Alone in the Gutenberg Galaxy: A Brief Account of the Life of C.T. Nachiappan (Madras: Kalakshetra Press), 58. 

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