by Adrian Dannatt
If all art aspires to the condition of music then all catalogue texts
conspire to the condition of biographic anecdotage. Thus it is hard to write
about Caio Fonseca and not be tempted by a wide-shot, high angle vista of
his charmed life; his beautiful loft in New York, his studio in Pietrasanta,
the Tuscan-Manhattan commute, his fluency in a handful of languages, and if
we have already plunged into such shaming nonsense why not go all the way,
mention his looks, his expert cooking, his perfect sense of personal style.
No, no, no. Should say: that is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at
all. For the fact that Fonseca leads this ideal, representative life, like a
Prince (as Thomas Mann described his own desired tenor of existence) has no
relation or relevance to his work. Unless of course we sense that his own
happiness, presumèd, his own harmony, is overtly present in his paintings.
The pleasure generated by Fonseca's work is that of pleasure, and results
from an exceptional sense of equilibrium, literal and actual within each
painting's composition and at large in their creator's life. What we can
envy in Fonseca's existence is that lack of separation between creative work
and everyday life, we envy his paintings when we envy his world, the two are
inseparable. And of course we SHOULD envy the artist, any serious artist
should inspire envy, not just in basest, snobbish terms, though those as
well, but also in the more painful, metaphysical sense of our relative
emptiness before such ample plentitude.
Particularly desirable is Fonseca's open, radical sense of time. Unlike most
of us who are harried into an endless stream of small obligations, chased
from one absurd duty to the next, Fonseca allows himself, gives himself
time. This luxurious time, hard to distinguish from the luxurious wide open
space of his studio, is spent drawing and painting.
It is also spent playing the piano. For Fonseca is, on top of everything
else, a devoted and talented pianist, whose rumored near-professionalism
usually tops the long list of evidence of his Renaissance status. This
frequent reference made to Fonseca's love of music and pianistic ability
indicates a particular problem in the actual analysis of his pictures.
For with what easy relief, if not lazy myopia, would we like to propose
music, piano music, sheet music, all music, a single key to Fonseca's
Look there it is! The distinct shape of grand pianos, scored marks that
track through the paint, often five parallel lines exactly like staves, the
spot notes, the black and white pattern which might as well be a keyboard. Each painting
is a score, a visual version of music, music made solid, frozen, blah.
The flaw in all this is not merely that it depends upon knowing Fonseca's
passion for music. It is also fundamentally meaningless, attempting to
interpret one form of abstract art, painting, by transposing it into another
even more abstract art, music, finally adds nothing.
Because Fonseca knows and loves music, plays the piano every day, does not
mean his paintings somehow embody music, quite the opposite. When Fonseca
wants to make music he does so, when he wants to make a painting he does so,
being skilled in both forms makes their confluence and confusion LESS likely
rather than more. In fact there is a sort of kitsch inherent to any attempt
to tenuously link these two talents.
Yet naturally there is also a strong temptation to place Fonseca amongst
those few artists who were also pianists and vice versa, whether Satie and
John Cage or jazz-age legends such as the Irish-American prodigy Eugene
MacCowan and Gerald Murphy. Curiously, a taint of dilettantism if not
dandyism led all of these figures to be under-estimated, and mis-read,
branded "eccentric" before an eventual appreciation of their significance.
Murphy for example was simply too wealthy and well-connected, led too
pleasant a life, for his talent as a painter to be properly acknowledged in
his time. There is a not unattractive aspect to such supposedly marginal
figures who with time blossom into central cultural forces the more
appreciated for their modesty and wit, sly opposition to the bombast of any
heroic pioneers. The maximum amount of seriousness allows for maximum
unintentional comedy, and by contrast none of these aforementioned claimed
genius, remaining content within the pleasure and satisfaction of their
everyday routine regardless of import. This "minor" mode of daily piano
practice, daily painting, defies all romanticism.
Instead it is part of the natural order of any civilized bourgeois education
which up until perhaps, say, 1939, assumed one would know how to speak
several languages, play an instrument, know how to draw, to dance, to dress.
This tradition of intra-familial education as if by osmosis, was
encapsulated as a model by the Beaux Arts schooling that existed until World
War II. A visual education based on the vital trinity, "Couleur,
Composition, Dessin." For the only truly important biographical element that relates directly and deeply to Fonseca's work is that his formal education as a painter did not
take place at any art school. But rather in a dynastic lineage from
father-to-son, part of a 19th century master-pupil, craftsman-apprentice
relationship vastly distant to the fashion-peer-pressure of most current art
His father the sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca was taught by Torres-García and then
both he and his brother were taught by the son of Torres-García, a pleasing
symmetry within two large families of artists succeeding artists.
But this is more than merely tasty human-interest, it is crucial because it
means that Fonseca knows precisely where he stands and where his work comes
from, within a closed family tradition linked to a certain type of art,
namely the forms of Torres-García and his school. The graduate of a typical
art school judges himself by the standards of notably diverse teachers, by
numerous colleagues, each of whom produces very different, highly individual
work, and by the art market as a vast whole. By contrast Fonseca is only
paced and placed against his father, his mother, his brother, his teacher
and his teacher's father, Torres-García himself.
This is already more than enough, turning that "anxiety of influence" which
tortures young, emergent artists into the far richer assurance of
inheritance. Thus Fonseca's work only asks to be analysed in the context of this lineage,
and abstract art's history, rather then against a latest trend,
micro-movement. As with Torres-García, Fonseca's art is one occupied between the
three-dimensional, the sculptural and also the graphic, the mark-making
Those terms so often applied to Torres-García such as hieroglyphs,
calligraphy, symbolic form, pictographic image-making, sign language, are
all equally applicable to Fonseca, so long as they are left at that,
undefined. Though Fonseca is a "painter' the secret elegance of his work comes out of
drawing and sculpture rather then any potentially pompous fetishisation of
oil pigment and its effect. Fonseca's dexterous delicacy resists the
obsessive brushstroke and "weight" of the stolid painter.
Even the largest canvas by Fonseca seems a clandestine "work-on-paper."
Likewise it is hardly surprising that the differentiation between his
canvases and his paper-based works is relatively negligible, hard to tell
apart, because his talent is essentially for the intimate not the
Even the largest oil on canvas by Torres-García has a flatness and thinness,
in technical not pejorative terms, which makes clear the graphic,
draftsman's eye behind it, the charcoal-ease of the habitual sketcher. Likewise a
preference for humble materials, cardboard, paper, wood scraps, board. All
this conjures a specific atmosphere, closer to Joseph Cornell and collage,
assemblage, than the habitual bombast of the oily abstractionist. Following
the lead of the Venice Biennale jury Fonseca's work could as well be awarded
a prize for "Sculpture" as for painting. Fonseca reconciles the sculptural
and the graphic through the actual process of painting, which is why his
work is immediately attractive and yet somehow ambiguous, unplaceable in
time or genre. Fonseca fuses the physical, the manual, the three-dimensional
with the decorative, the illustrative, the sketched, through the enemy of
both of them, paint itself.
This (literally) underlying graphic imperative, burnt twig strokes below the
sensual surface, reveals a fundamental inseparability of drawing and colour.
Fonseca's surfaces are pitted with rich textures and revisions, the scraped
stave lines created with a kitchen tool, the surfaces scumbled down with a
regular supply of thick towels, the layers worked and re-worked with any
suitable implement to hand, yes, the quarry at Pietrasanta here on 5th
Fonseca works at his paintings in stages, skins, strata, the classic
palimpsest with its hidden codes and connections, vertical through the layers as well
as horizontal across the line, none of which require explanation or
Finally, the potency of these paintings lies precisely in the wealth of
their accumulated, clotted, signs and breaks, dashes, parentheses, their
steady accumulation of buried rhymes and referents, the clogged semantics,
their dazzling non-translation, the finesse of their final, tiny, flecked
dots of stop.
Paul Kasmin is particularly proud to exhibit some recent work by Caio
Fonseca. If obviously related to Fonseca's previous widely acclaimed and
exhibited oeuvre, these new pictures do contain certain subtle differences.
Rather than being merely of academic interest to the artist himself, such
discrete shifts should intrigue anyone who has already been awakened by
Fonseca's skills to the active physical art of looking.
One series of Fonseca's new work plays with the positive/negative of the
plane, refusing perspective, depth, distance. Instead Fonseca grants equal
status to both forms of bop, letting them duke it out together in a contest
whose only winner is the spectator. Despite all painterly flourish Fonseca
still deeply ploys the graphic, the drawn and sketched, a pencil line as
easily tempted by the figurative as abstract. These paintings are controlled
by underlying drawings which map their contours and composition ensuring
neither side is spoilt nor prodigal.
By contrast the very latest work is all about experimentation, freedom,
spontaneous risk, rather than strict charcoal scaffold. Here the other coy
aspect of Fonseca's aesthetic is revealed, the cut-and-paste of collage and
rich tactile layers of the sculptural, those dandified 3D tastes of
bricoleur & assembleur disguised by his brushstroke bravura.
The relative roughness and crude assertion of these paintings can barely
conceal the fluid sophistication and determined elegance of their actual
technique, perhaps the way Thelonious Monk hid his Schönberg.
All these recent paintings repay scrutiny, analysis and close-reading if
only to fathom how Fonseca builds his pictures upon layers of formal design
and improvised exuberance, a warp and weft of tonal and textural stitching.
The fact that these objects can also "merely" be enjoyed as a purely sensual
treat, a feast of visual gourmandise akin to sorbet's dazzle will be
overwhelmingly obvious to any casual visitor.
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by Adran Dannatt