The painter Francesco Clemente has charted an unconventional course through the art world. Make that the world, period. Born in Naples in 1952, he abandoned architecture studies and was drawn to the Arte Povera movement, which held sway in Italy after World War II. Then he abruptly left for India, a country that continues to inspire his colorful, phantasmagorical work. He settled in New York at a time when painting was démodé but found favor among the so-called neo-Expressionists, including Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. On a recent afternoon, Clemente, 64, welcomed me to his studio in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, a yawning city-block-long space that—like Clemente himself—seems lost in time. Columns are marked with dabs of paint and scribbled poetry. At the far end are portraits of some of his famous friends, including Pedro Almodóvar and Scarlett Johansson. Just back from Beijing, Clemente offers me a cup of remarkably potent tea he bought there and sits down to discuss his peripatetic career and his current show at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, “Dormiveglia.” Through April 23, 2017; 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.; 954-525-5500; nsuartmuseum.org.
It looks like this place hasn’t changed in decades.
I know. I think that even the memory of this kind of New York is gone. My younger friends come here, and they are enchanted because they don’t think about it as the past. They think about an alternative present, which this is. Everything changes, right? It’s called impermanence. Tell me about your trip to China. What were you doing there? I spent the summer in Beijing, where I had an exhibition in a private gallery. I spent a month there after making some work in situ.
Inspired by the place?
My nomadic nature is not a fiction. I do take advantage of being in unfamiliar surroundings, and I like to work that way. My ideal theater for working is a hotel room.
Even with oil paints?
Well, that becomes problematic, and usually the hotel room is very small. The one in Beijing was tiny. I was living in an old part of town.
You’re never in one place too long. What’s at the origin of this wanderlust?
Yes, I’m running away. Don’t you think there are plenty of reasons that can be found to run away?
Weren’t you happy in Italy?
This question was asked of me 40 years ago. It was in the Himalayas, and a peasant woman stopped me and said, “Where are you coming from?” I said, “Italy,” and she said, “Is Italy a good place?” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “Then why did you come?” And I didn’t know what to answer. I still don’t!
It seems like you’ve also been running away from the forward march of art history, painting at a time when conceptual art reigned.
Well, I’m adding to [art history], but my [history] is not the last 15 years—it’s the last 5,000 years. Of course, I think about the past all the time, but we all choose the past we want to think of. I skip the 19th century. I avoid the 18th. And I’m happy in the 15th century. I’m happy in a cave with the prints of the cavemen. We all choose our pasts so we can imagine our future the way we like it.
Do you think you have progressed as an artist?
No, because even within my own work, I don’t think in a linear way. I think in more of a radial way, of taking different paths, and then these paths may intersect. In India I encountered the word Tantra, which I like very much. It covers a number of practices and traditions. Tantra means “weave,” so I think the shape of my work is like a weave. A line becomes visible, emerges, and then goes down again and we don’t see it, but it’s still there somehow.
What took you to India the first time?
I was very discontented with what I saw in Europe at that time. I thought everything was going toward a dead end. I bought a ticket to India. I had a friend who was a theosophist and had translated the conversations of a mystic from northern India. I took his translations to show them to this man, and one thing led to another.
What attracted you to the country?
I didn’t fall in love with the ethnic side of India; I fell in love with the guy at the post office. I kept thinking about that letter by Rilke to the young poet, where he says how fortunate [it is] not to have an artistic profession. To have a very grounded profession, and that then allows you the liberty of thinking and enjoying your poetry and songs. And India at that time was a socialist country; it was filled with people stranded in offices.
You pack a lot of ideas into your work. Why not express yourself more directly, through writing or poetry?
I spend a lot of time hiding the fact that I’m really a painter. You won’t catch me talking about painting, but at the end of the day I’m a painter.
When you paint, do you shut off the connection between your brain and your hand?
You have to be completely present, and at the same time you have to remove yourself from the activity. A few years ago I made my own tarot cards. To educate myself about tarot, I did readings of the cards, and I found a great similarity between the state of mind you have to be in to read the cards and the state of mind you are in when you paint. You have to be totally attentive but with the part of you that is not the mechanical one. [He pours me a second cup of tea.]
This tea is fantastic.
This is pu-erh tea. It’s fermented. Twelve years old, this particular one. From Yunnan, in the south of China.
Your new show is called “Dormiveglia.” What does that mean?
“Dormiveglia” is a group of works I made in 1998, and for once I was thinking of my origin, of Italy, and a certain sense of longing you get in the Mediterranean culture. On one end there is all this sensuality, but if you go past that, it’s just all this melancholy and longing and loss. I think this is where the title comes from. Dormiveglia in Italian means something like “twilight,” this area between being awake and being asleep. The paintings consist of nine female figures. Maybe the nine muses but not really. All the women have lost their heads; they all have something else replacing their heads. But they are also shamanic figures: One is missing a leg, and there’s a stick instead. That has to do with a lot of traditional images about having a foot in this world and a foot in the other world. You know art is born in the graves. And in some ancient graves they would break one leg of the dead.
To make sure they don’t come back?
To make sure that they could tell the difference between this world and the next.
Metaphorically, art might be said to be born in the grave too, in the sense that it’s inspired by our mortality.
Yes, yes. Absolutely correct.
Death has always been a preoccupation of yours. Has your relationship to death changed in the past 50 years?
Yes, I’m making friends!