Francesco Clemente’s Painted Stanzas

He was a friend of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and close to Andy Warhol too, painting alongside the Pop master in the 1980s with Jen-Michel Basquiat.

But 61-year-old Francesco Clemente is still with us – still painting, still aware of the constant flux of this world and still among the most poetic artists alive today.

“He gives us a subtle suggestion of things, rather than a dramatic demonstration,” says Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art.  “His paintings are on their way to being something – or in a state of dissolution in front of our eyes.”

An Italian acutely aware of the layers of imagery so prevalent in that country – of Greco/Roman, Christian and Etruscan art found everywhere – Clemente visually explores the iconography of India, Africa and Brazil.

“He finds the old knowledge of cultures – the old, old traditions that were not killed off by the modern world,” he says.

His work has been likened to an archeological descent into a church in Rome, where a vertical excavation reveals one culture layered atop another.  In Clemente’s case, the artist spreads his layers out over a series of paintings, visually describing a single situation or motif through a set of variables.

“He paints across a body of work to extract their essence,” he says.  “Each painting is a stanza, and the whole body is a poem.”

After a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the 1990s and another at the Guggenheim in 1999, the art world began to cool a bit toward his work.

But not Storr, who not long ago spent time with the artist.

“I saw these paintings in a corner,” he says.  “And I said: Let’s look at them – and let’s show the bunch of them at Yale.”

And so, at the Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Gallery, “Clemente > Brazil > Yale” is now on display.  Its oil paintings and large-format watercolors deal with the ideas and iconography indigenous to Brazil, inspired by a series of trips to that nation.

It’s a show stopper, too.

“He’s a really arresting artist,” Storr says.  “All you have to do is cross the threshold of the gallery, and he’ll have you.”

The show runs in New Haven through June 2.

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All photography by Beth Phillips.