Note: Some links go to my Glossary of Art Terms for specific definitions
Painter and printmaker Caio Fonseca was born in 1959 in New York City into a family of artists. His American-born mother Elizabeth is a painter; his father was Gonzalo Fonseca, renowned Uruguayan sculptor. Caio's older brother Bruno was also a painter and sculptor. Their sister Isabel is a published author. I was unable to find examples of Elizabeth's paintings on the Net, but she and Guido Castillo wrote a book about Uruguayan painter Augusto Torres, who taught Caio and Bruno in Barcelona, Spain. Caio studied with Torres for 5 years. In turn, Caio's father Gonzalo studied with Augusto Torres' father, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, the influential Latin American modernist. Caio's father Gonzalo (1922-1997), who was influenced by archeological researches and pre-Columbian art, as well as modern art, was known mainly for his architectural stone sculptures. He represented Uruguay in the 1990 Venice Biennale, and divided his time between New York and his house in Italy. Gonzalo studied with Joaquin Torres-Garcia of Uruguay, who studied and worked in Europe, and who in the early 1900's met Picasso, Miro, Siqueiros and others. In 1920 Torres-Garcia moved to New York, then returned to Europe in 1924. In 1934 he returned to Uruguay, where he founded the Taller Torres-Garcia (School of the South), and he arrived at the concept of universal constructivism, based on 20th century modernism and his call for South America to recall its own art tradition (pre-Columbian), and develop an aesthetic identity that was distinctly its own.
Caio's brother Bruno, a painter and sculptor, worked in both abstract and figurative styles, living in Barcelona, Spain until shortly before his death in 1994 from an AIDS-related illness. He is known for his War Murals, a series of anti-war paintings. A book, Bruno Fonseca: The Secret Life of Painting, was written by his sister Isabel, Alan Jenkins and Karen Wilkin about his life and work.
Caio and Bruno, raised in New York City, watched their parents paint and sculpt on a regular basis, so that art-making seemed natural, and was partly acquired through osmosis. In this kind of environment, art was accepted as an important and noble activity. They were born into a privileged family, who inherited the Welch's grape juice fortune. However, according to my Internet research, Caio and his siblings did not receive financial benefit from this. The family appears to reflect a sort-of artistic aristocracy, not in terms of worldly success necessarily, but in terms of sophistication and elegance. Their strong international connections may be the reason for this Old World sensibility. The South American artistic tradition, though not as well known in the U.S., has also produced many distinguished artists and writers.
I couldn't find in my research Fonseca's references to his influences; perhaps all the above-mentioned experiences combined to form his art. Caio and Bruno were exposed to their father's artistic integrity, and he set a very high standard for them to live up to. Gonzalo's integrity, which caused him to follow his work more than fame or fortune, was particularly inspiring for Caio, who wanted to paint from an early age. Caio's teacher, Augusto Torres, had known Picasso and Piet Mondrian. As a young student, Caio painted still lifes, self-portraits and models in an intense fashion. He became fluent in Spanish to communicate with his teacher. After this study in Barcelona, he continued to study in Europe for another 9 years before returning to the U.S., where he began to exhibit his work. Since 1990 he has attained acclaim in the international art world and his work, which ranges from small studies to up to 11 feet wide, has hung in some of the finest museums in America and elsewhere, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2004 he had his first American museum exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. In an interview, he has said that he was unused to his fame and to talking about his work. He currently spends part of the year painting in New York City, and part in his studio in Pietrasanta, Tuscany, Italy. The frenetic New York art environment provides stimulus to his career, and the quiet Italian environment allows him to paint without disturbance. As far as differences between work done in New York and Italy, there is much work that is similar. However in the online images I saw, the Italian images tended more toward earth color, limited palette, and smaller, less intrusive forms. The New York images tended to be less organic, with bolder color, and seemed more dynamic. Caio speaks Spanish, Italian and French, as well as English. As a boy he studied the piano, and continues to study and play classical music. Many of his paintings appear to reveal his affinity for music, in the shapes that resemble musical notes and scores, for example, although Fonseca says resemblances to actual objects are unintentional. There is, however, the relationship of the musical and visual arts, where they each have their own language, separate from verbal communication. This notion is central to Fonseca's work - the idea that we accept Bach's music without asking, "What does it mean?" In visual art, we are always asking about the meaning. His work concerns the language and forms of painting itself - its visual ideas such as positive and negative space, visual movement as a compositional device, etc. Also, his painting process, which is critical to his work, involves multiple paint layers which function as visual counterpoint and together create pictorial unity. In fact, Fonseca is a painter's painter. The first time I saw his work (in an Art News magazine review), I fell in love with it. It is immediately familiar to those versed in art history, and it is also a new combination of modernist and contemporary visual ideas. The work is reminiscent of art that came before: geometric abstraction; color-field painting (slide show); biomorphism; abstract expressionism (all of these are modernist art movements). Also, a similar curving geometry, the elusiveness of Cy Twombly, and a similar sensibility to painter Brice Marden apply to contemporary art. Other painters reminiscent include Joan Miro, Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta, Henri Matisse, and Mark Rothko. Fonseca's work might be described as painterly geometric/biomorphic abstraction. The Italian village of Pietrasanta, where Fonseca maintains a studio, is where Michelangelo obtained marble for his statues. In doing the research for this profile, many Italian words describing Old Master art practices kept popping up, such as sgraffito, scratching lines into a top layer of wet paint to reveal the layer(s) underneath (Fonseca uses this technique); pentimenti (Fonseca paints in layers, leaving some areas uncovered, that reveal paint marks made in previous layers). He does smaller studies in gouache which are looser and more spontaneous, which he then uses to create his larger works, in the classical fashion. Also, Fonseca's process involves starting with charcoal to demarcate the two-dimensional space of the image, and this is done according to the golden section (a mathematical way of dividing up pictorial space used by the ancient Greeks and others, that purports to produce harmonious spatial relationships within the image). Fonseca then paints a layer of colors and shapes, often horizontal or vertical bands of color. This first layer is sometimes bold or dark colors. This chosen ground will determine the later choices of shape, tone and color in the second layer of paint. The second layer, often of a light color (white, yellow, etc.) covers only certain areas of the painting. The first layer is more spontaneous, and the last covering actually subtracts from the image by covering only certain areas. (This is reminiscent of Michelangelo's stated process of subtracting from the block of marble to find the figure within.) Deciding which parts to cover defines the final image. This is a process similar to that used in printmaking, where you need to make some decisions about how each layer of color will affect future layers. This is a deliberate process that reflects various visual principles, such as color interaction (both in the Josef Albers sense and in the mechanical sense of how one color will affect the layer underneath). Decisions are made from the very beginning, such as size and shape of the work, and color of the underlayer, and continue with decisions about shapes, tonal values, proportions of forms used, spatial relationships, arrangement of forms on the surface, etc. This process is fairly rigorous, almost intellectual, and depends on a continuing knowledge of color, as well as compositional considerations. At the same time, there is in his process that which can't be planned, for each step in the painting changes it, and a new set of relationships presents itself.
For some painters, awareness of Fonseca's painting process is part of the pleasure his work gives them. In his process is much chance-taking, because when working by subtraction rather than addition, it is possible to lose valuable parts of the image; sustained concentration is necessary. Painting is finding the delicate balance of all the parts, losing it, and finding it again. To a trained eye, any element that doesn't belong can cause the painting to not 'work' as a whole, and the artist is constantly thinking about the image as a whole. In an article by Karen Wright in Autumn, Modern Painters, she quotes Fonseca as saying that while painting he begins to see things happening in the image, when he sits back and looks, that he hadn't planned on. He (and all painters) need to be alert to everything that is happening in the image, to know what to keep and what to change. Fonseca's goal is to eliminate all but what is necessary. Generally, with serious artists, there is the "whatever means necessary" policy in regard to creating the work, in terms of materials used and the way they're used. This is done instinctively, sometimes without realizing the unorthodoxy of using untraditional tools and for example, attaching strings to the canvas to form a linear movement, as Fonseca has done. (See below for other tools he uses in his paintings.) And a blank canvas can be intimidating, but to a real artist it is also an opportunity for limitless possibilities. One painting leads to another - a continuation of an idea, or another attempt to resolve a formal issue or ongoing pictorial concern.
When the top color layer is applied over the first layer in deliberate shapes that resemble musical notes, punctuation marks, boomerangs, and other unintended references, the top layer has to "work" visually when combined with the lower. This is at the heart of painting: the process of creating and seeing relationships - of color, composition, shape, visual movement, and space, and this is what Fonseca's paintings are about. This process is historically intrinsic and integral to good painting; any painter who ignores this process, in the attempt to illustrate a narrative, or other intention such as political statement, wouldn't be considered a good artist in the classical or modernist tradition. (Of course, in much contemporary art, this traditional approach has been set aside deliberately, by artists who feel that the expression or meaning is more important than purely visual considerations. These artists explore and expand aspects of art such as the very meaning of art, intellectual approaches, social approaches, etc. Currently in many art schools students/artists are expanding the definition of visual art to include using sound, light, text, etc.) Fonseca's work seems to reflect classical and modernist ways of approaching these visual elements and principles, but there is also a contemporary sense in his work.
One very important visual principle Fonseca uses in his work is movement, using forms and lines to create visual movement throughout the painting; to control viewers' eye movements through (and usually not permanently out of) the image. Fonseca uses the principle of movement and stasis (movement and a stopping of movement). To explain this, vertical or horizontal bands in the first layer of paint will create a strong vertical, horizontal or diagonal movement, respectively up and down or across the image. To counterpoint this movement, an opposing or oblique stasis is created - this would be the work of the second layer of paint. The shapes created combine with the first layer to form a stop-and-go visual movement in the image. (See below for more description of this in Fonseca's work, as well as links to specific examples.) This visual idea, among many used by artists, is something that a trained artist's eye will detect. I think that to perceive these visual ideas, it helps to have painted or drawn quite a bit. Unfortunately, art is not as ubiquitous as music in our culture, so that artists are often the only ones who see these visual ideas in images, and can more accurately point out which painting is "good," and why another image consists of a lesser degree of difficulty.
Another formal (visual) idea in Fonseca's work is the variability of figure/ground. Basically, figure means the actual form in a painting, e.g., a person, building, etc., and the ground means the "background." Because modern and contemporary paintings employ a less illusionistic space and are more flat, figure and ground are considered more on the same spatial level, only using spatial depth in push and pull fashion, like vertical panes of glass. Often in Fonseca's paintings, the forms can be perceived as figure or ground - what is the form and what is the ground is at times ambiguous. He also uses colors that are not that prevalent in serious painting, as in Helen Frankenthaler's work, such as bold, deep yellow and orange expanses of color, making them startling to see. As his training was classical (studying mainly with one master), perhaps he doesn't derive his colors from the training that many contemporary artists receive, that is, formal education in an American art school or university, and is able to choose unexpected colors more freely. In the ink and gouache painting, Pietrasanta painting 96.10, this expansive yellow field (over red), covering most of the image, is indescribably bold and surprising - and very expressive. Of what? Freedom, abandon, sensuality, romanticism, joy, hope, courage - and when combined with the ultramarine blue which is close to the complementary color of yellow on the color wheel, it creates an eye-popping contrast. The lines incised into the yellow paint reveal the red underneath, which creates the combustible combination of the three primaries - red, yellow and blue. The spare geometric composition combined with this bold color intellectualizes the image, and the small number of forms in the image makes their placement very important. Spending more time looking at the canvas than painting it is a policy common to all good painters. Art students are traditionally taught to see - and an important first step is seeing forms as separate from their identities (to see them abstractly as shapes and colors). This means that a chair is not just a chair when it is in an image - it is a three-dimensional form that is expressed in two dimensions in the painting. Only when artists can see objects as forms first will their work go beyond the amateur. Paradoxically, when we see things abstractly, we can portray them more realistically. It is all about seeing - first seeing the form to be painted, and after experience, seeing formal relationships in the image. And, painting by intuition works a lot better when the painter has a lot of painting experience. The early modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote about the 'inner necessity' of the artist - when they are working from their inner vision of how the painting should be - and Fonseca seems to adhere to this process. Fonseca's work is beautiful - the earth colors he used in his early work and much of the work he has done in Italy, and the rich primary colors in more recent work. There is also a beauty of geometry and structure forming his compositions. The forms and colors used are often sensual, as well as the paint application. Mediums he uses are acrylic, mixed media, gouache and color etching. He uses sponges and the tools of dentists, cooks and piano tuners to create his paintings, such as when scratching into a rich, wet layer of yellow to reveal lines of the deep red underneath. The red affects the yellow over it, both in the incised lines and by slightly mixing together in the application of the paint. Incised lines can be straight or arced, but they serve as visible connectors between the forms in the image. Devices such as this create a modern sense of depth in the work - it is not the illusionistic (realistic) space of the Renaissance - it is the modern idea of the painting as a flat surface rather than a window into deep space. On this flat surface, however, forms can come forward or recede like the series of vertical glass panes mentioned previously. It isn't possible to definitively describe a progression of Fonseca's work from its beginnings to his current work without seeing every work, especially since he seems to revisit earlier motifs regularly. The same can be said for differences between his work done in Tuscany and his work done in New York City. Also, I viewed most of his work online, and some of this work was not labeled as to date or place of execution. It seems, however, that his early work was done more tentatively and deliberately, like he only painted what he was sure of, not getting ahead of himself. Work done in the 1990's, however, tended to be more flat and to have more space than forms, similar to Joan Miro in space with somewhat biomorphic forms. This work done in 1995 in Italy shows white over gold and black. This mid-1990's work shows bright primary color (yellow, red and blue), when Fonseca's work had become more geometric and elegant. By 2002 there is shown a more dynamic underlayer that is in opposing direction to the top paint layer, bringing a great dynamism to the work, and the figure/ground relationship is more ambiguous. By 2004 the forms in the image take up more of the space, and have brighter earth colors. In this 2006 etching, small forms appear that seem like put-upon Giacometti sculptures. Another 2006 etching reminds me of Cy Twombly or late Mondrian (Broadway Boogie-Woogie) - playful, wistful, rhythmic and tentative. In this 2008 New York image there is a new boldness of composition and contrast of color for positive and negative shapes, with an inner dynamic movement. The forms are very large in the image, taking up most of the picture plane, and crowd the edges like they don't have enough elbow room. The color here is also bolder and more emphatic, with a cosmic sense and the relationship of the forms to the edges of the canvas, reminiscent of Pollock's images, which seemed to extend beyond the canvas edges. Fonseca's forms are held more in check by the frame's edges, which the forms don't always touch.) Another interesting image from 2004, Quintena, reminds me of the contemporary painter Brice Marden. Here, the first layer is made up of curved, protractor-like forms (reminiscent of Frank Stella) in bold colors, whose active circular movements are slowed down by the less bold second layer. There is forcefulness of opposition between the two layers, but in a variation of the stop-and-go movement mentioned above. Here the circular forms stay more within the picture frame, as though crowded and confined, yet seem free and happy. The top layer captures them in the image, but in a more subtle and benevolent grip.
These works are an ongoing dialogue between the bottom and top paint layers, in an infinite experimentation of form, space and color. Fonseca varies the shapes and color used, and the spatial nature of the bottom layer with the arresting nature of the top layer, with each image more or less successfully exploring these relationships, in a perpetual pictorial study. By creating unity from two separate layers rather than the traditional single picture plane, Fonseca has doubled the formal relationships in each image, and has taken painting to a new level. At times the horizontal bands and vertical biomorphic forms in his images remind me of the warp and weft used to create weavings on a loom.
Although the artist says that his work is not intended to 'express' anything outside of itself, there is expression in his work, which is not translated easily into words. For me, there is immediate appeal and sensuality in the color and compositions, which are consummated elegantly and intelligently. And beyond the surface, there is a mastery of pictorial space, an equilibrium between visual elements, thoughtfulness, iconic presence with a human author, a depth of reverie, an incontestable truth in the best images - the truth of a lifetime spent in study of visual possibilities. There is boldness with sensitivity and subtlety, male with female, geometric with organic, cosmic and atomic, emotion and intellect. Fonseca's discipline over many years of reconciling the first and second layers in his images has forged a strong visual force, which has reflected his inner life and unique truth, like Cezanne's images reflect his lifelong search for pictorial certainty.
There is one intriguing image from 2004 I found on the Internet, that is unlike the others, with the lower and upper paint layers very similar, so that the image is more Minimal in nature. But the striking part of the painting is the few curved, brightly-colored loops that skip across part of the image in a stop-and-go soaring movement, like dance, twirling, waltzing, graffiti, or a child's doodle. They ascend diagonally to the top right and appear as ephemeral traces of spiritual archaeology. This image also contains the stop-and-go movement described above, with the punctuated handwritten loops. Here the effect is less forceful and more poetic, because of the closeness of value and color of the two painted layers, the candy coloring, and the gentle looping.
Fonseca has said that the work of painting is to ultimately understand ourselves - not just our surface personalities, but as complex human beings - to pare away what isn't essential, over time. It isn't just about producing good work - it is about understanding forms, of which humans are one; painting is a path toward awareness of self and of life. He also doesn't see success in worldly terms, but in the aesthetic success of his work. He measures this success in how well his art will speak for itself - to stand alone, like a Bach concerto.
Visit Caio Fonseca's website, www.caiofonseca.com for more information and images. A list of Fonseca's exhibitions can be found here, and books and films on his art are listed here. Though hard to describe in words, this visual device of creating movement within forms that is blocked at the forms' edges is used widely today both in commercial and fine art. The impression created is of a window, where we see activity that appears to continue beyond the window's edges. If you have used the type mask (down the page) technique in Photoshop, which can create forms (including text) that have a different image inside than their surrounding space, you will be familiar with this contemporary design device.