In 1973, Italian artist Francesco Clemente went off to India, inspired by a high-school classmate who had traveled there and returned with tales of renunciants and gurus. Since then, Clemente has repeatedly immersed himself in Indian culture, collaborating with local artisans and honing a spiritual practice. The impact of the country can be found in much of his vibrant and haunting work, and it’s the focus of the new show “Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India,” opening at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York on September 5.
Exhibition curator Beth Citron witnessed how intimately Clemente had adopted an Indian lifestyle on her visit to Jodhpur this past spring. “When he entered the lobby of my ordinary business hotel, he announced, ‘I hate hotels like this—they wouldn’t let me bring in my rickshaw,’” she recalls. Outside, she met “the surliest and sweetest rickshaw driver in Jodhpur” waiting to whisk them off to the metal workshop where Clemente was fabricating three sculptures for the show.
Laid out like a Hindu temple, “Inspired by India” moves from Clemente’s Tamil-signboard-influenced paintings from the 1980s to watercolors from the past year—and ends in an inner sanctum devoted to The Black Book (1989), darkly erotic illustrations he created after a trip to the Konark Sun Temple in Odisha. The late, great Indian-art scholar Stella Kramrisch said to Clemente upon seeing The Black Book, “If there is any spirit left in Konark, you’ve got it.”
“Clemente has been a touchstone for contemporary Indian artists,” says Citron. She adds that while many South Asian artists struggle to find ways to incorporate their own culture into more contemporary strategies, Clemente has been doing just that for over three decades.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 30 under the title “Clemente Channels India.”