“We’ve got this one life, supposedly, right?” he says, leaning in with emphasis. “I was pretty conscious that I didn’t want to spend it all in cities or even in these nice green spaces. I wanted to be in a place that smelled of actual nature.”
Caio Fonseca is dressed in dark khaki shorts, a blue cotton long-sleeve shirt rolled up to the elbow, and paint-spattered Crocs. He steps away from the piano and walks outside. There is a small path to the river. Nearby, on a platform, is a makeshift “bedroom.” The four-posted bed, Oriental rug and side table with lantern look as if they have been lifted out of a house — except this room has no walls. The bedroom tent glows as the sun begins to dip behind the ridgeline.
“It’s exactly what I envisioned,” he says. “A place beside the river that is utterly quiet with light bubbles at night.”
The Aspen retreat is far away enough from town for Fonseca to experience the solitude he needs to work (“when people ask me what my inspiration is I often say, only half-kidding, not being interrupted”) yet close enough for him to imbibe in the cultural outlets of Aspen — in his case, the Aspen Music Festival.
Fonseca’s low-key attitude belies his artistic accomplishments. Just barely in the mid-prime of his life, he already has major retrospectives under his belt — the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM), Smithsonian, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan. When he first came to Aspen nearly 20 years ago, it was to exhibit at David Floria, then 212Gallery.
Fonseca is the consummate cosmopolite. The world is his inspiration. The stars are his cathedrals; the colors and tones of nature are at once muted and exultant notes on a page or painting.
New York-born and bred, Fonseca was raised by and alongside a cast of talented and “original” family members — his father was the famous Uruguayan sculptor Gonzales Fonseca, who represented Uruguay at the 1990 Venice Biennale; his mother still paints in her late husband’s New York studio. He also has two sisters, one a costume designer, the other a well-known novelist married to another — British novelist Martin Amis.
But it was his older brother Bruno who initially led Fonseca to his destiny. It was the late ’70s, Bruno was studying in Barcelona with Augusto Torres, the son of his father’s mentor who was influenced by Constructivism.
After his first year at Brown University, Fonseca decided to forgo traditional school — for good. He spent the summer with his father in the mountains of Italy, sketching.
“I brought my still life’s and self-portraits on the train to Barcelona and showed them to Augusto. I showed him 75 works, holding this roll open. He kept saying, “Un otro, another.” He wrote a list of colors. I didn’t understand Spanish at that time and I thought, does he want me to buy these colors for him and come back? But what he was saying was call me when you have found a studio.
“That day my life began.”
That was more than 35 years ago.
Fonseca’s paintings have been likened to a modern-day Joan Miró. While he embraces the traditional principles of abstraction, he has created his own vocabulary, partly inspired by his training as a pianist. The piano lessons that began at the age of 9 have since evolved into a serious amateur pianist.
His love and interest in music, musical intervals and how they resolve, rhythm and tone, is visible in his paintings.
While not deliberately painted as such, the lyrical, floating, geometric shapes suggest musical notes.
Spatially adrift, the shapes seem destined to meet again, rejoining across the expanse of color and silence.
“I like the activities of figuring out a composition,” he says.
These past four years, Fonseca has spent part of every summer in Aspen — usually after his annual self-exile to his studio in Pietrasante, Italy, where he splits his time between his studio in Manhattan. He started going to Pietrasante in 1985. There, the clock stops. Days slip by. Complete immersion.
“When the phone rings, it’s an event,” he says.
After such solitude, “real world” re-entry is lessened by Aspen’s splendors, both natural and man-made.
His red and white abstract work was chosen for the cover for the Aspen Music Festival program (the original hangs downstairs at Harris Hall; see page 34). Deceptively “simple” to the ingénue, the red gestural paint stroke against the white background is sumptuous. Your eye caresses it.
But this summer he’s not here to paint. He’s here to study classical music composition and write pieces for piano and violin, with the Aspen Music Festival serving as backdrop, inspiration and muse.
“I have become very absorbed in the act of composing,” he says. “Hiking is the perfect counterbalance. It’s intensive and exciting but still, with pencil erasing the most strenuous… I love getting out and hiking new trails. Besides, I enjoy sleeping outside under these stars.
“To do a painting there are so many aspects going on at once,” he continues. “You have to keep them all in play. You have to be in charge of color, composition, not to mention the execution. Every square inch has to be alive. Still you cannot have a pre-arranged idea. You have to be open to changing everything. You start from nothing and build it up. Then your eye can travel through it. But with music it evolves over time. Say there’s a piece of music written by Bach. You need to deconstruct it then put it back together to learn it.”
It’s a process he relishes.
“I’ve played piano my whole life. But for 10 years I carried around composition textbooks wanting, but not knowing quite how, to begin,” he says. “Then I met a teacher, a composer in New York City that has helped me finally see the musical terrain.”
A self-proclaimed “Baroque and Bach fanatic” most of his life, Fonseca is deliberately moving through the decades of musical history; though the evolution of sounds. He is discovering that his voice in composition will be as modern and abstract as his paintings.
“Hearing different musical voices of composers allows you to identify with some more than others, and then they all mix inside your ear. Out can come sounds that seem to tie together the music that I have loved and yet be new to me.
“That’s what a Festival does. It opens you,” he continues. “It’s like trying a new restaurant. When you’re hungry do you really want to try out a new restaurant across town? You want to go back to what you know. So, you’re not going to put on music that you think you don’t like. You get exposed to it. The Music Festival often pushed me to stumble upon composers I didn’t appreciate yet.”
Last summer, the Aspen Music Festival focused on the composer Britten. Fonseca was determined to try to understand him.
“I never liked Britten,” he says. “But I went to see David Finckel play the cello concerto, Wu Han play the piano concerto… they’re all friends of mine… and Daniel Ho play the violin concerto. I really disliked it. I thought, maybe Britten is not for me? Then I heard Alissa Wasserstein play the last piece Britten wrote, the five-minute piece Tema ‘Sacher.’ It blew me away.”
There were other defining moments as well. When Conrad Tao played American composer David Lang pieces; listening to the range of what a cello can do with the Kodály that Wasserstein played.
“The influence in composition is how the sounds of all the music you know interacts with the musical voice within,” he says.
When Fonseca was writing his small violin studies, there were times when he wanted to hear his composition played.
On bike, Fonseca went out in search of a violinist.
Any violinist would do.
“I found this young violinist and said, ‘Excuse me, can you play this one page?’”
The student played it there on the spot.
“What other town in the world can you do that?” he says with a laugh.
Every step of writing composition — from the seeds of inspiration to the finished page — is painstaking, and at times, still unchartered territory.
“I took a piece of music to a violinist composer. He looked at it and said, ‘there’s a lot of good stuff here but why did you put that C there? You’re giving it away. That’s your high point.’
“That never happens in painting, the why did you put that [brush stroke] there? It’s such an idiomatic way of talking. I was a little prepared for composition because of the way I used to paint a few years ago — that reading of left to right; two voices. It’s kind of contrapuntal. To some degree it’s a graphic musicality. But it’s like a child who writes something nice but some of the As and Bs are backward. I’m still learning. You learn by doing…a lot.”
While Fonseca might not be painting this summer, he’s busy filling up notebooks with sketches and ideas for the paintings he will begin in the fall at his studio on the Lower East Side.
The incremental changes will, over time, ultimately reveal themselves on canvas as what he learned alone, at the piano, over the summer.
The sun dips from sight, leaving a singular black outline of the mountain as if painted with the fine flourish of a calligrapher’s pen. The river is slate gray; the muted cadence of its flow a nice companion to the evening’s silence.
“I finally heard a real pianist play my piece,” he said. “To hear it as it is, straight through with its flow, or lack of flow, is so exciting.”
“You know, mistakes aren’t really mistakes. They’re just lack of clarity. Being an artist is not about letting go. It’s this strange combination of discipline and hyper-awareness.”
He turns on the small light above the piano and gently sets his staved composition papers to prepare for the night.
“My friend, the violinist Daniel Hope, gave me one of the
most inspiring experiences of my life when, after a
concert at Harris Hall, he invited this amateur to bring
my violin piece to him and there, backstage, played it
for me. Nothing could have propelled my desire to
continue composition more than to hear him play
— Caio Fonseca