For the longest time, I had been dying to get to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. I am not sure exactly what drew me besides the notion of an “industrial artistic city by the water,” but I knew I had to go. It took me five years to plan a trip and make it happen. At the museum’s entrance, I was greeted by Jeff Koon’s giant floral sculpture of a West Highland terrier, appropriately titled Puppy. The Frank Gehry-designed building glistened against the Nervión River as I approached, even in the rain.
I made my way through the museum’s 19 galleries from the top down. The first painting I was captivated by was Anselm Kiefer’s The Land of The Two Rivers and was basically brought to tears by the power of his work. Continuing on, I stumbled upon an Yves Klein piece. Seeing it up close I was finally able to understand, and appreciate, what the hype was behind “Yves Klein Blue.” Then, abruptly, I stumbled upon a gallery that left me completely breathless; I had just discovered Francesco Clemente.
Francesco Clemente was categorized by the museum as Transavantgarde, a niche of art I had never come across. As I walked into the gallery titled Mother’s Room (La stanza della madre), a group of 17 panels commissioned for the museum’s inauguration, I was struck by the large sale of the paintings and the sensuous colors they exuded. His work piqued my interest, then absorbed me. I tried to “decode” his pieces, which read to me as ancient frescos with a contemporary twist. His work draws both from history and touches upon the present, focusing on the delicate balance of humans and their world as a whole.
Most of the figures in this series have exaggerated features–the artist view is that the body is the “place between the inner world and the outer world.” Eyes and genitals, both often-exaggerated features of the figures in his work, are purposefully depicted to draw our attention to these parts. Clemente sees them as being “channels between the interior realm of the psyche and the exterior world of nature and culture.” In one of his rare interviews in 1987, a few years before he created this series for the Guggenheim Bilbao, he described the human body as “a comma in the text of the infinite.” Perhaps this notion has led him to the portrait series which is his main focus today.
After leaving Spain and arriving home in New York, I engaged in my weekly ritual of Sunday reading in my local coffee shop. As I flipped through the latest Harper’s Baazar, I quickly observed that one of the feature articles was about Francesco Clemente’s series of portraits featuring contemporary models. The first model, only 23 years old, was interviewed and painted by Clemente in nearby Williamsburg. Now that I’ve seen his work, I am mesmerized by him and can’t wait to see more. Often, a lot of things don’t live up to the hype but with Francesco Clemente, there hasn’t been much hype–his works speak for themselves. Unlike someone like Jeff Koons, who has drawn such commercial notoriety, Clemente remains quiet, avoiding press and remaining a bit under the radar. But with a quick Google search, I realized that if I need my fix, I could just pop by the Hudson Bar at the Hudson Hotel and peep his ceiling mural.