Beginning April 16, Vito Schnabel Gallery will present Francesco Clemente: Fragments of Now, introducing a new body of work by the renowned New York-based artist. The nine monumental canvases on view find Clemente drawing inspiration from Homer's Iliad, a cornerstone text of Western culture first transcribed in the 8th century B.C., describing the Trojan War as a sprawling conflict between and among both humans and gods. Each painting in Fragments of Now depicts an archetypal Corinthian helmet, a classic form from Ancient Greek culture, accompanied by a carefully selected fragment of Homer’s epic poem. Through their combination of bold repetition and subtle variation, these works together suggest that ancient Western preoccupations with fate, hubris, memory, and glory – and their cousins, power, violence, illusion, and virtue – are timeless, eternal forces shaping human culture and connecting its past to the present.
Fragments of Now will be on view at the gallery’s 455 West 19th Street location from April 16 through May 15, 2021. The exhibition is Clemente’s fourth with the gallery and his second presentation with Vito Schnabel in New York City.
About the Exhibition
Strongly influenced by history, mythology, philosophy and literature, Francesco Clemente’s distinctive figuration and distinctive lexicon of metaphorical imagery are vehicles for an ongoing exploration of spirituality, identity, mysticism, and the self. For the last five decades, Clemente has explored the world in a state of flux and shifting consciousness, inspired by his nomadic sojourns to places such as Afghanistan, Brazil, Jamaica, and, most significantly, India. Travel, whether through the imagination or physically, has always been central to the artist’s life and practice: through geography, he engages with different cultural practices, spiritual traditions, and intellectual thought. Clemente moves fluidly between Eastern and Western perspectives, observing and contemplating the world through a highly individual and dualistic aesthetic ideology that straddles contemporaneity and the antique. He has remarked, “I have great interest in the encounter of very ancient ways of imagining and storytelling with contemporary realities. In a way I am always looking for that distance, a way to see the present as remote.”
For the works in Fragments of Now, Clemente focuses upon the Iliad as arguably the single most influential literary narrative that has defined the virtues considered fundamental to Western culture. The text, which serves as the foundation upon which Ancient Greece developed as a culture and society, examines the parameters of humanity in a world where warfare, atrocity, and mortality exist. In titling his paintings like On a Sounding Beach Wave After Wave 12-20-2020 (2020) and Good Speakers Like Cicadas That in the Forest Sit 12-1-20 (2020), Clemente combines excerpts from the Iliad that are related to the cycles and rhythms of nature’s enduring permanence, a poignant contrast to the brutality and vagaries of battle and conflict.
The blackened, somber palette Clemente uses here marks a stark departure from the more familiar, richly colored imagery of his work. The new series on view is an exploration in the repetition of form. Each canvas depicts the profile of a single Corinthian helmet from about the 6th century B.C., the armor type popular in Ancient Greece, worn predominantly by the Greek foot soldier as part of his array of defensive equipment used in combat. Clemente articulates the bulbous shape of the helmet with a glowing orange line. He delineates the narrow nose guard, the distinctive elliptical holes for the eyes, the squared face shield that would allow a small opening for the lips and chin, and a flared lower edge at the base of the helmet to guard the neck. The scrolling ‘palmette’ or ornamentation above the brow and at the outer corner of the eyes distinguishes each helmet, each phantom soldier, each painting. Meanwhile, the expressiveness of the artist’s brush alludes to each object’s autobiography — scraped and scored, burnished, or evidencing bloodshed. Clemente describes the helmet as a meeting of “culture and nature.” It is “an organ of the body grown out of necessity. It is also a relic on a battlefield. It is an empty head, void of activity, a shell abandoned by its inhabitant.”
Last year in 2020, inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Clemente began to date each of his paintings with a bold, stamp-like rectangle, a new motif in his renowned oeuvre. In Fragments of Now, he assimilates this method of inscription, leaving an empty horizontal band across the bottom edge of each canvas. In this space, he registers the title and date of each work in a rusted amber paint. Becoming integral to the imagery of each painting, the title and date serve as a marker of history, fusing the contemporaneous and the antiquated. It is a record of our recent past and a return to our ancestral lineage, a confrontation with the words and fragments that we have used to communicate knowledge and human experience for centuries past. Invigorated by a reference from the secular mystic Henri Michaux, Clemente professes that these paintings are an exploration of his interests in “the very old” and “the very new.” Traversing both time and history, Clemente is looking back to a period of historical resonance as he meditates on the fragility of the human condition and reflects on its origin in Western culture.
About the Artist
Francesco Clemente was born in 1952 in Naples, Italy. He studied architecture at the Università degli Studi di Roma, La Sapienza in Rome in 1970, before turning his focus instead to art.
In 2002, Clemente was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Clemente’s work has been presented at numerous international institutions, including Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Royal Academy of Arts, London; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Bologna; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; Sezon Museum of Art, Tokyo; Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; and Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
His work is featured in many prominent museum collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Miami Art Museum; Kunstmuseum Basel; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Clemente lives and works in New York, Chennai (formerly Madras), and Varanasi, India.