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‘I Dream to Travel’: Artist Francesco Clemente Conjures the Sea From His New York City House

The New York-based painter on isolation, the "chaos of the self" and and his new online exhibition at Lévy Gorvy gallery.

Francesco Clemente’s Watercolor Courtesy of Francisco Clemente Studio
Francesco Clemente, 4-15-2020, watercolor on paper

While stay-at-home directives have plenty of people experiencing true solitude for possibly the first time in their lives—and going a bit mad as a result—being alone with one’s thoughts is the preferred state for many artists, who have found creative energy in their seclusion. Francesco Clemente, the Italian-born, longtime New Yorker famed for his sensual, evocatively colored paintings with a mystical vibe influenced by his travels through India, has made a series of watercolors of the seashore from the confines of his MacDougal Street house in Greenwich Village.

The works on paper, which find metaphor in the separation between sand and waves, are on view through May 29 in an online exhibition at Lévy Gorvy gallery. The watercolors’ joyful blues, greens, pinks, purples and golds stand in contrast to the solemnly prominent dates they were painted, which will serve as eternal reminders of this mournful season.

In a recent email exchange, Clemente shared his thoughts about working in isolation, the primal pull of the ocean, “chaos of the self” and his long marriage to costume designer Alba Clemente.

You’ve famously lived a nomadic life, traveling among disparate cultures. Did being cooped up in the city during a pandemic make you dream of the seashore?

I traveled to dream, now I dream to travel. But actually, most of my traveling happens when I am locked in an unattractive Holiday Inn-type of hotel room in a provincial, mid-size, rural town of India making paintings uninterrupted. The only break is a run to eat fried street food at the corner. It is important to know how to nest in an alien world. Now it can happen in our own homes.

Francesco Clemente’s Watercolor

Francesco Clemente, 4-12-2020, watercolor on paper  Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy Gallery

The exhibition’s title, Beauty Without Witness, is so melancholy. Are these images of loss and longing? Of hope for renewal? Tell me what you were thinking and feeling.

Carlos Basualdo [senior curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art] gave the melancholy title to the show. I was taught that when you look at the waves of the sea, the waves are looking back at you. Contemplation is not melancholy, but at this time to be forced to return to ourselves after a long absence can be risky.

The date that each was painted is prominently displayed on the paper in the manner of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, forever tying the works to this period in history. Did you intend the watercolors as a kind of diary?
Rather than entries in a personal diary, the dates relate to history entering and blemishing the placid integrity of personal life. Or maybe to name a day with a date makes that day more memorable, more unique.

Did you create a new set of rituals around working in the lockdown?

Rituals are efficient because they are sustained by their own symbolic reality, free from the conditions of practical life. I feel that it is almost a duty to acknowledge the continuity between pandemic and non-pandemic. I feel this with great force.

How did making this series help you?

In the same way painting has helped me in the past. Painting is a symptom of order emerging from the chaos of the self.

Francesco Clemente’s Watercolor

Francesco Clemente, 4-23-2020, watercolor on paper  Courtesy of Lévy Gorvy Gallery

The first paintings are exclusively of nature—the sea, sky, shells—and then you introduce a child’s toy horse and a teddy bear. Why did you decide to include these human objects?

To return to the sea is to return to the origin, the equalizer of nature and culture. The seashore is the fundamental shifting line—past, present, and future come to an end there, and are suspended.

What else have you been doing to stay sane during this period of confinement?

What do you miss most?

A self-inflicted solitude rather than one dictated by external circumstances.

Have you and Alba been cooking?

Alba has been on a cooking revenge mission, her way to re-affirm the small pleasures of living against the monumental sadness and suffering surrounding us. I have been getting terrible grades for my lack of domestic skills. After 40 years of marriage spent mostly at a safe distance from each other, the other day she said: “I always knew you were an impossible person, but I never fully realized how impossible you are.”

Francesco Clemente: Beauty Without Witness, April 2020″ will be viewable online May 15-29, 2020. 

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