A conversation with Francesco Clemente and Raymond Foye
An interview by Luca Lo Pinto
An extract from Luca Lo Pinto’s interview with Francesco Clemente and Raymond Foye, the artist and editor founders of Hanuman Books publishing house.The full interview is presented on the lateral walls of Hanuman Books 1986 – 1993, the exhibition, running until 12 March 2023, which describes the publishing and artistic experience that began in 1986 in India.
LLP: Raymond mentioned that at a certain point, when the experience with Petersburg Press was finishing, he joined you and your family to go to India. Did you come up with the idea of creating Hanuman Books in that moment, or was it something that you had discussed beforehand? I guess it was something very spontaneous, a result of an ongoing conversation and shared interests.
FC: Well, as always, one thing leads to another, and several triggers lead into one place. The Hanuman Books did not happen because a mechanical decision was taken. I was very keen to share with Raymond my friends and my sensibility and invited him to come to India where I was living with my wife Alba and my first child Chiara. When Raymond landed in Madras, the first reaction was to see if he could board on a plane out of Madras immediately, except in the full Madras style of those old socialist India days the only flight out had been cancelled. So he was stuck with us in Madras which was a very special corner of the world in those days.
RF: Right away, Francesco took me down to Krishnamacharya’s Yoga school. He was still alive, one of the great yogis of the 20th century. Next was Kalakshetra colony of music and dance, where the press was. And it was a small town. It wasn’t built up yet.
FC: Not to mention the Theosophical society. They were an organization parallel to what was happening at the turn of the century with Rudolf Steiner, with anthroposophy, with Gurdjieff in Paris and with countless other movements. There was a whole generation of people who were aiming to find an alternative to the catastrophic development of capitalism and to the false alternative offered by communist authoritarian societies. Specifically, the theosophists were looking for, and found, in J.Krishnamurti, the prophet of our time. The theosophists believed there could be a religious experience in our time which was specific of our age, inclusive but not derivative of the religions of the past. J.Krishnamurti fulfilled and at the same time negated the theosophical quest by declaring that he was not a prophet and that “truth is a pathless land”.
RF: I mistakenly joined the United Lodge of Theosophy instead of the Theosophical Society Adyar, and consequently I was not welcomed to stay there as I had planned, there was so much factionalism. But the place was very important, and I spent a lot of time on the grounds and in the library. I think Francesco had the sense that geography and location have an intelligence and a spirit to them that emerges from the earth. Gregory Corso used to use the term autochthonic: born of the earth. And Madras was certainly one of those places back then.
LLP: In terms of distribution, what was the circulation of these books? I guess it was a kind of statement of having something not too expensive…Perhaps you felt an urgency to share things and authors you were obsessed with and share them with other people, instead of going for a kind of niche-oriented type of press.
FC: There is nothing designed about the Hanuman Books. They’re very real and very matter-of-fact to me. They were religious books because to read Allan Ginsberg talking about the strategies of William Blake is reading about religion. Religion is a way to embrace a view of reality where you are in harmony with yourself, at peace with others and you’re not conditioned by the nihilist propaganda of our age.
RF: To answer your question about the cost, they were $4.95. That was the price of the Hanuman Books when they came out, five dollars. After a few years, we raised the price to $5.95 and everybody complained. We had several book distributors, and three of them went bankrupt owing us five, six and seven thousand dollars. Nobody paid. No bookstores paid. It was a really difficult situation. The books were financed by Francesco making print editions. There were two print editions. One had five soft ground etchings of hands, and the other was four etchings of north, south, east, and west. I wasn’t taking a salary. I was making my living in the art world.
FC: It was really something we did for passion. We never really looked at the budget.
LLP: The Hanuman Books seem to be both a personal and expanded portrait of you and of a community, which was for the most part New York-based. A sort of portrait developed in a polyphonic way…
RF: Another group I wanted to mention as part of this community in New York was Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives and Millennium Film Archives. The world of underground filmmakers was crucial to the aesthetic of the time: Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith, Jack Smith, Taylor Mead… that was a very important cultural undercurrent for me and for Francesco. Some of these were crazy, dangerous people and many of them were not politically correct. Today they would put them in jail and throw away the key. We live in very conservative times in relation to back then. It was a very special time that no longer exists.
LLP: It seems that for a long-time poetry was read very little, especially in the art world, like by critics, curators, museum directors and so on, except by some specific artists with their personal interests. It seems as though the past few years have seen a new interest in poetry. And I don’t know if you have the same feeling, or how you feel about that…
FC: Well, poetry will not die, that’s for sure. And I guess the Hanuman Books are in a state of suspended animation. The conditions of the making of the Hanuman Books were so specific that they can never be recreated. At times there were moments of great entertainment like when for example we discovered that the type setters did not speak English so every time we would correct the proof, the typesetter would make new mistakes.
RF: The “objecthood” of the book was absolutely crucial for us. The press only came together when that form was discovered because Francesco and I were talking about doing a magazine of art, poetry and literature for a while back then, but neither of us could muster the enthusiasm or figure out what it should be. Then when I was in India I put together a collection of all these miniature books and there was a flood and they all got wet. When we got back home, I spread them all out on the bed to dry out. Francesco came into my room and saw all of them spread out on the bed and said, this is what we should do. So it was that recognition of the form that led to the press. The form preceded and to a large extent determined the content.
FC: Hanuman Books, as much as they are prayer’s books, are also lovers’ books. They are books you can easily carry with you and slip in your lover’s pocket.
RF: And they’re meant to inspire people to do their own thing. That’s what you want to do in art, you want to inspire other people to be creative. So hopefully they inspire other people to do their own things.