Expressionism Italian Style

How can an artist appear both offhandedly hip and achingly sincere at the same time? If you're Francesco Clemente and famous for being a neoexpressionist painter, it's a matter of balancing "neo" stuff with the "expressionist" part. The fact that his just-opened retrospective is entitled simply "Clemente"--like a runway show might simply be called "Versace" --could give you the idea that Clemente comes down too far on the side of cleverness and fashion. True, he's not nearly as direct-from-the-gut as an original German expressionist from the 1910s like, say, the broodingly primitive Emil Nolde. But he's no totally coy Andy Warhol, either.

Clemente was born in Naples in 1952. In 1970 he moved to Rome to study architecture but switched to art within a year. His early paintings returned bold, fleshy human figures to a modern art grown dry and theoretical under the rule of minimalism. Flushed with success at the Venice Biennale, he relocated to New York just in time for the go-go 1980s. Clemente's magnetically intense, dark-eyed and photogenically stubbled face became a staple of the society page. His garishly dreamlike paintings were as constant a presence on SoHo gallery walls as those of his pals Julian Schnabel and David Salle.

Clemente's good fortune wasn't wholly undeserved. His floating forms and combinations of very big and very little ones are often as breathtaking as Miro's. Clemente is a master of two very difficult media--watercolor and pastels; with them, he's capable of being sexually explicit and delicately tasteful at the same time. And, in "The Four Corners" (1985), he can even match wits with Saul Steinberg.

Some of Clemente's bigger, later paintings, however, get bombastic and empty. A lot of nervous brushwork and laborious texture add up to little more than filler. It's hard to say whether he's gotten somewhat self-satisfied, or is just having a hard time keeping up with the demand for his art. This 200-work show could have easily been tightened to include half that number. Still, you come away from the exhibition feeling surprisingly buoyed for having seen so many truly weird images. Clemente once called America "a huge space, soulful and full of hope." Hugeness and hope were already here; Clemente brought "soulful" with him. In the end, the elegant awkwardness of his work convinces you that he just might be more genuinely expressionist than calculatingly neo.