Glass encounters Francesco Clemente: Pastels at Levy Gorvy, London

FRANCESCO Clemente: Pastels is a long-anticipated survey of the New York-based artist’s forty year oeuvre of pastel works on paper curated by Bill Katz. Entering the West Gallery of Levy Gorvy’s London space, visitors are greeted by Ex Libris Chenonceau Musica da Camera III (1994),  a neon green and blue work which depicts a naked woman crouched in a birthing position contained, embryo-like, within a leaf. This piece sets the tone for a repertoire of works that challenge the conventional notion of their medium through their immediacy, vigour and palette.


Ex Libris Chenonceau Musica da Camera III, 1994


An exponent of the Transavanguardia movement, Clemente’s works in the exhibition characteristically experiment with expressionism, symbolism and figuration, employing and extending the artist’s observations within and readings of mythology, religion, literature, nature and human experience. Abbraccio (1983) brims with flamboyance and pops with colour. Alongside Naso (1983), these are the earliest portraits in the exhibition and the two works share a quality of treading the line between the beautiful and the grotesque. The palette of both works utilise unexpected combinations of Indian yellow and celadon, the former perhaps being a nod to the artist’s time living in India during that decade.


Abbraccio, 1983


Naso, 1983


Clemente’s interest in capturing the essence of his subjects beyond pure formalism is further illustrated in New York Muses (1993-1995) and a series of portraits depicting poets Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Rene Ricard dated between 1993-1994. Cropping the female subjects of the New York Muses closely to isolate their faces and necks, the portraits of the muses with their faceted faces suggest a sphinx-like quality. Whilst the muses exist out of time and location, the poets depicted in Katz’s selection are captured in their daily attire, grounded temporally and spatially.


New York Muses XI, Akure, 1993

Paced between portraits in the exhibition are more unassuming works, such as Mughal Dream I (1997) which depicts an unspecific, abstracted flower or plant. Reduced in both subject matter and palette and comprising of subtly varying tones of crimson, black and white, the composition resembles an emblem or flag.


Mughal Dream I, 1997

Language is utilised by Francesco Clemente directly within works (such as in the Un Chant d’Amour series on display in the exhibition) and through the titling of his works. Symmetry (2003) is an example of Clemente’s often hermetic visual propositions. Depicting an animal and a human with their heads paired with the other’s body — one figure in prayer or supplication and the other seated — the work, like Ex Libris Chenonceau Musica da Camera III (1994) encourages its viewer to revisit established norms relating to nature and power structures.


Symmetry, 2003


The leit motif of transformation within Clemente’s oeuvre reappears in the artist’s most recent self-portrait in the exhibition, Self Portrait in White, Red and Black IX (2008). In the work, Clemente is depicted with horns flourishing from his forehead or third eye, suggestive of his fertility in thought, mind and consciousness. Parallel to the stillness of Clemente’s expression, an arrow flies through the air poised to strike him. Characteristically of Clemente, this work, with its symbolically-loaded palette of white, red and black, offers the artist as simultaneously subject and object; as predator and prey.


Self Portrait in White, Red, and Black IX, 2008


by Rowena Chiu

Francesco Clemente: Pastels is on display at Levy Gorvy London until 15 February 2020.

An exhibition of watercolours by Clemente will open at Levy Gorvy Zurich on 12 June 2020.

All images courtesy of the artist and Levy Gorvy. Photographs: Tom Powel Imaging