Francesco Clemente, Sixteen Amulets for the Road (IX), 2012-2013, watercolor on paper, 19 3/5 x 22 2/5".


Francesco Clemente’s longstanding love of India is at the core of “Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India,” an exhibition that opens at the Rubin Museum in New York on September 5, 2014. The show melds past and present, encompassing a range of styles and media. Throughout the works—which engage traditional Indian techniques and frequently investigate spirituality—Clemente’s respect for Indian culture is palpable. The show is on view until February 2, 2015.

THIS EXHIBITION presents a panorama of work I’ve made in India. The layout of the show is designed like a temple, and both physically and metaphorically it will feel like the viewer is exploring a sanctuary from outside to inside, progressing past its niches to the inner sanctum. There is a frontal area where five large paintings from 1980 are displayed, and around the central staircase there will be four cells with four cenotaphs—sculptures I am showing for the first time, which I made this year in Rajasthan—commemorative monuments of my nostalgia for India. A side room will contain the The Black Book, erotic watercolors I painted in Orissa in 1989, and watercolors from 2012 and 2013, which incorporate miniature techniques.

In recent years I have been obsessed with discontinuous surfaces, and this is something that comes to light in the new watercolors. Years ago I saw a fashion show by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—she combined jersey with felt, so a nonabsorbent fabric sewn next to the most absorbent fabric that exists. These textures stayed with me for years, and I developed a desire to achieve the same types of contrasts in painting. I believe there are two ways of getting dressed: consonance or contrast—matching everything or mismatching everything. There are painters like this: those who aspire to or are slaves to have everything harmonize, and others who play with contrast. I always have seen myself as someone who tends to harmonize, and so I wanted to challenge this, and try to do the opposite.

The four sculptures exhibited in four niches echo the five paintings from 1980, which hang nearby and were conceived in relation to the five senses. Always returning to the ancient esoteric precept, “As it is above, so it is below,” the vase is the body, the body is the vase, the wind is the flag, the flag is the wind. At the beginning of the exhibition there is a resonance between these bodies of work. There is a moon, a vase, and a lock. The box is a box that cannot be opened but it has a lock. For the fourth sculpture, I made a cast of a cassette player, which to me evokes the Hindu concept of akasha, sound space.

Everything I do is handmade, and for me even sculpture cannot be delegated to others. I need to be absolutely certain, so every stain, every burn is my own. I worked in Jodhpur to create both the sculptures and textile works with stitching and embroidering. For instance, in the show there is a flag with an Ouroburos and a phrase from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, his prophetic book from 1967: “The spectator feels at home nowhere because the spectacle is everywhere.” I like thinking about his neo-Marxist reflection from the viewpoint of Indian culture, which is supremely visual. In India, the image is pervasive, from the most ancient culture to the most modern. Human need, not the logic of domination, imposes the image. Without the image, there is no life. And so the question is not to liberate humanity from the image, but to direct humanity toward an image that heals, instead of an image that weakens.

I never went to India thinking I would dive into the past; for me India was an alternative contemporaneity. In Hindi, the word kal refers to both yesterday and tomorrow—they are just brackets that surround the present moment. So much intellectual effort there is directed toward connecting to the now, as exemplified by all the great Indian thinkers, up to our own time. This focus also helps to rescue an experience vaster than oneself from religious narrow-mindedness and bring it back to the religious experience, not to religious fundamentals. I find this kind of thought very generative for what I do, and it is often the reason for what I do—to indicate a possibility for entering the present, a present without attributes.

For me, it is also important to relativize the value of the image. I have no interest in dogmatic icons; I have no pretense of imposing yet another dogma on the world. I simply would like to offer this observation: What we are taught to regard as experience is incomplete, and it is normal to have a vaster and more direct, more unmediated experience of ourselves and of the world. Almost everything presented to us is a convention, and I would like to produce images that avoid this. The fundamental convention is that everything modern is new, and everything traditional is static. In contemporary traditional contexts, politeness requires saying, “I have not invented anything, what I do is not new, everything comes from my masters.” But it is a convention, for as soon as one becomes familiar, close up, with even the rural tradition of painting in India, one realizes that every artist there has invented something absolutely new. In the Western art world, every artist, following accepted etiquette, says “It is all new, I invented everything.” But if one lives for more than a generation, one realizes this is not true.

A friend of mine who was working with a textile worker in Kutch, Gujarat, asked him how much red he was putting in the mix, and the worker replied, “I have no idea, I taste the color.” That’s it. My ambition is to be able to do something where all my senses are involved and have the same cognitive dignity, passing through scent, sound, touch.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

— As told to Ida Panicelli