A maestro of painting
March 5, 2003
There was a point in Caio Fonseca’s life, when he was 19 years old, when he was torn between whether to pursue playing the piano or painting. The New York City native left Brown University to travel to Barcelona, where his brother Bruno was studying the visual arts with Augusto Torres. Caio (rhymes with “Ohio”) decided to become a painter and served an Old World-style apprenticeship to his brother’s teacher.
“I was so impressed with the work my brother was doing,” said the 42-year-old Fonseca by phone from his apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. “I wanted to do it, too. That clinched it.”
Painting it was. But instead of going to art school or heading back to New York to immerse himself in the center of the art world, Fonseca went off to make his own exploration of art. He “spent [his] entire 20s in small rooms around the world” working out painting problems and developing a style, technique and language of imagery.
But in deciding to be a painter, Fonseca didn’t make a complete break from music. A student of piano since the age of 9, Fonseca still plays every day on the piano he keeps in his studio. A few years ago, he took courses in counterpoint and harmony at New York’s Mannes School of Music. He doesn’t have professional aspirations, however, calling himself a “dedicated amateur” who performs “only in the most humble circumstances.”
The musical tendencies go deeper than his own playing. For two summers, Fonseca was a painter-in-residence at the La Jolla Summerfest, a music festival that was directed by Aspen Music Festival mainstays David Finckel and Wu Han, good friends of Fonseca’s. (Jimmy Lin, the current director of Summerfest and another Aspen Music Festival regular, is another of Fonseca’s good friends.)
“I find a lot to talk about with musicians,” said Fonseca. “All musicians, great or mediocre, have something in common to talk about. Not all painters seem to have something in common.”
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Fonseca often sings notes as he paints; the pitches, he explains, help him work out formal painting solutions.
For all that, Fonseca finds a need to put distance between his paintings and music. Those shapes in his work, he says, are abstract figures and not, as many perceive, figurative representations of pianos, guitar strings or musical notation. What some see as musical staves are, according to Fonseca, an effort to give a raised, physical quality to the work. Where some see as guitar strings, Fonseca sees as a set of parallel lines intended to draw the eye to a certain part of the canvas.
“When I’m painting, I’m not thinking about other narratives,” said Fonseca, whose exhibition of mixed-media paintings on canvas, gouache-on-paper paintings and limited-edition etchings is at the David Floria Gallery through March 19. “They’re not speaking in the language of words; they’re speaking in the language of painting. It’s not a translation of music. They’re not pianos.”
While Fonseca takes pains to describe what he is and is not doing in his paintings, he finds it encouraging that viewers find such strong associations in the work. “Hopefully, that’s a sign of life in the paintings,” he said. “I’m trying to give them so much life that they speak for themselves. If they don’t attain that, it’s just a cerebral exercise I’m engaging in. My forms may be so elemental that they suggest many things. But I’m thinking about art in a functional, abstract world.”
Fonseca does allow that his work shares certain elements with music, just nothing too concrete. “There’s a contrapuntal sense of linear motion,” he said. “And something about the inner workings of music, the secret workings of music, in how it relates to how you build a painting. There’s the influence of music theory and composition. There’s an internal logic of music, not a literal one.”
Family of influence
Just as his work involves a complex dance between the visual and the musical, Fonseca has had a complex relationship with painting itself.
His late father was Gonzalo Fonseca, a Uruguayan-born artist highly regarded for his modernist sculpture. Caio and his siblings – Bruno, who became an accomplished painter before his death in 1994; his younger sister, Quina, a costume designer; and his older sister, Isabel, a noted novelist – all saw their father as a monumental figure. The older Fonseca never served as art instructor to his children – “We never had the father-son, master-pupil roles confused,” said Fonseca – but he was an influence, nonetheless.
“My father was a tremendous influence in the kind of artist he was – colossal, individual, with a vast amount of integrity,” said Fonseca. “He was such a towering figure to us, that’s why my brother and I disappeared for 14 years.”
Fonseca added that his father’s presence gave him “an understanding of what an artist’s life is.” But he also understood that life in a very particular way. Through the 1980s, while the visual arts were having a heyday in New York, Fonseca moved around Europe, from Barcelona to Paris to Tuscany, closeting himself in those small rooms, working on his painting.
“I felt very unburdened by the need to be original and could just study painting,” he said. “I separated myself from my entire country, my language, my friends, for all my formative years. By the time I had my first show, I had spent many years developing my work.”
It turned out to be the ideal approach. After more than a decade outside of New York and the commercial art world, Fonseca hit the ground running when he returned to New York in 1990. In 1993 he had his first one-person show in the States and sold a painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As he put it, “My bags were packed and with me when I got to New York. New York is not the best place to start finding yourself.”
Fonseca hasn’t finished his ambulatory ways. He spends nearly half of each year in the Tuscan village of Pietrasanta, where he lived in the late ’80s. In Pietrasanta, the quiet, solitude and time for serious artistic reflection are highly valued.
“The greatest thing it affords me is the reality of four or five completely uninterrupted months,” he said. “I can risk doing bad paintings. I get a complete momentum from the unfettered time. I get my ideas in Italy and work them out in New York.”
Among the things Fonseca has worked out over the years is a technique that he describes as “painting backwards.” Typically, he paints an entire canvas with his multicolored, abstract shapes and lines. He then paints over much of the surface with a neutral color, leaving windows of figures below, their connectedness hinted at but not entirely revealed.
“It’s a process that came so incrementally that it’s hard to even say it’s a technique I came up with. It’s so gradual, it’s hard to be aware of when I came up with it,” said Fonseca. “It’s a process of elimination, of uncovering the painting. It requires a certain aspect of envisioning the complete painting before it’s done. But I have to have enough information to know what I’m working on. There’s a certain phase that is unplanned and a certain part that is planned.”
Which sounds an awful lot like the painting equivalent of musical improvisation. But either Fonseca doesn’t see the connection or doesn’t want to bring it up.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org