Giving Offense

Clemente 1999-January 9, 2000.

an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 8,, Catalog of the exhibition by Lisa Dennison
Guggenheim/Abrams, 502 pp., $45.00 (paper)

Saul Steinberg: Drawing into Being 1-October 30, 1999.

an exhibition at the PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York, October, Catalog of the exhibition by Bernice Rose and Arne Glimcher
PaceWildenstein, 79 pp., $25.00 (paper)


Shown on the spiral ramp of the New York Guggenheim, the paintings of Francesco Clemente come across as the work of a prolific artist with a fruitfully unstable temperament. Surprisingly Austrian, for a Neapolitan, he seems to alternate between his Klimt days and his Schiele days. On his Klimt days, an erotic obsession is channeled into the production of gorgeous effects with attractive materials: a double panel executed in gold leaf and oil on linen and called in the catalog Usary [presumably Usury] of Love (cat. no. 43) has a shower of coins falling on the prostrate lovers, or falling past them perhaps, if the lovers are conceived as floating in space. This is pure Vienna Secession.

In a darkened room that forms the upper limit of the show, hangings made of Pondicherry paper joined by hand-woven cotton strips are stained with indigo. Along the top of the walls (though lit so as to be almost illegible) runs a frieze of animals and humans, suggestive of mythical copulations. The room provides a total ambiente, much like the white ambiente that has been re-created for the Lucio Fontana show currently at the Hayward Gallery in London, in which a white space within a white space shows off a black slash, like the slashed canvases for which the late Italian artist became famous. Clemente’s ambiente is a space within which to experience a supersaturation of indigo. Elsewhere, good, thick paper has been soaked to receive fine colored inks, watercolors, and gouaches. Linen has been primed to receive tempera and oil, and a technique has been devised to create portable frescoes. The work is on every scale from wall-size to miniature. On all of these scales, Klimt-Clemente is out to enchant and, if possible, to ravish.

Schiele-Clemente, on the days when it is he who gets out of bed, is the one who wishes to shock, disturb, provoke. He is the artist of the self-portraits, whose head (like John the Baptist’s) is served up on a plate, whose limbs are torn apart (like those of Orpheus) by baroque putti, who grows multiple breasts (like Diana of Ephesus), whose severed head is seen in an act of fellation, who has a hole in the head, who has birds converging on his shoulders, who weeps. A soul sometimes in torment, it would seem, but this “sometimes” distinguishes Schiele-Clemente from the original Egon Schiele. However great the torment, the self-love has survived the self-disgust.

The orifices of the body are an obsession here. If men are to fight, it will be by sticking fingers in each other’s nostrils, eye sockets, anuses. There are flying vaginas with butterfly wings. Orifices open up in unexpected places, such as the soles of the feet, and there are continual reminders of the interior of the body, of excretions, of bodily fluids. Among various mutilations, a painting called Signature (cat. no. 98) shows a man making a slit in his scrotal sack.

With some artists, courage comes from anger. With…

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