Visual Arts: Good old-fashioned Modernism

Caio Fonseca's paintings hark back to a tradition of order and rigour. What's more, writes Jay McInerney, they're beautiful
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The Independent Culture
I have a friend who owns hotels. He also owns paintings, which I like to visit. A few years ago I spotted a new one hanging next to the Francis Bacon. It was a lyrical abstraction, too lushly painterly to be contemporary - and too cerebral, I thought, to be New York School. The surface was both flat and luminously translucent, sparsely populated with weird glyphs. "Is that a Klee?" I asked. If the canvas had sported a shred of newsprint or a glued on Gauloise pack - any irony - I might have guessed early Motherwell. More figurative and I might have said Matisse. My host was pleased to set me straight. "Caio Fonseca," he said.

"Dead?" I asked.

"Had dinner with him last night. He's younger than we are."

I knew a very nice girl named Fonseca who was living in London; and I like the port; the painter, I discovered when I met him a year later, is not related to the port house, although the girl, Isabel, author of Bury me Standing and paramour of Martin Amis, is his sister. This conversation took place in 1994, not long after the Whitney Biennial had once again declared painting dead, except in so far as it illustrated anti-patriarchal political principals. Matthew Barney's videos and Janine Antoni's conceptual pieces were setting the tone for the downtown galleries. Wandering into Fonseca's one-man show at the Knoedler Gallery in 1996, I wondered if I should feel guilty for liking these self-contained and extraordinarily - how to say it in late 20th-century English? - uh... beautiful canvases. Self-defensively, I wondered if he was kidding. It was possible to imagine this enterprise as an exercise in appropriation. Several critics have done so. Hey kids, here's a pastiche of high Modernism. It could be commentary, as opposed to painting. I mean, I didn't want to be fooled, fear of missing the joke being possibly the most powerful art-related emotion of the 20th century.

Subsequently I met Fonseca at a dinner party, and I would bump into him here and there around town, as one does. He looks a bit like a well-fed Antonio Banderas. And while he often had his tongue in cheek and cut an entertaining figure at the dinner table, he also had something of the quality of an innocent abroad in the wilds of downtown Manhattan. In fact, when I first met him he had recently returned from Pietrasanta in Tuscany, where he spends five months of the year in ascetic exile in a former sculptor's studio he's owned for 10 years. Like his canvases, he seems both worldly and a little bit naive; fleshy and ethereal at the same time. His sensibility was decidedly more classical than post-Modern. A big, bearish figure with an unfashionably sunny mien, he was remarkably ignorant of the mores of the downtown art world, to the point that when I said, one night, as we do, that I'd love to visit his studio, he answered: "Yes, you keep saying that every time I see you." Brutal. Apparently they take you at your word in Pietrasanta or whatever planet he came from. At least he was smiling.

When I first arrived in New York in 1979, painting had recently come out of the closet again. After the radical puritanism of Conceptual art and Minimalism lost its novelty, a new generation was reviving the ancient craft of applying paint to canvas, just in time for a booming economy which would create a market for negotiable canvases as well as for the faces that painted them. The most prominent painters of this period seemed to be career-savvy and media-savvy, Andy Warhol being a kind of mentor figure to the scene. I retain these strobing, flashbulb images of the New York art world of that period. Frantic movie premiere-like openings at Mary Boone's gallery. Did I really see Julian Schnabel thumping his barrel chest like Tarzan at a David Salle show? I know I saw Keith Haring spray-painting his body in Annie Liebowitz's loft, and Jean-Michel Basquiat snorting cocaine in the Michael Todd Room of the Palladium, which he helped to decorate. And I definitely saw Keith Haring and Andy Warhol being chased down the street one night by a pack of photographers. For all the differences among the figures of the period, the painting tended to be representational, the expressionism figurative rather than abstract. Later in the decade came the Neo-Geo guys - Jeff Koons and Peter Halley and company, with their inflatable toys and their perfect surfaces, dressed in business suits like characters out of a Robert Llongo painting. These guys were kidding, which was the whole point.

Caio Fonseca missed all of these developments in New York; in fact, he says, not unhappily: "I missed the Eighties entirely." A native son, he grew up in Greenwich Village, the capital of bohemian America; his father, Uruguayan born Gonzalo Fonseca, was a highly regarded painter and sculptor. Caio and his three siblings were raised in a household of art and artists and multilingual dinner parties. "I always asked whether it was a one- kiss, a two-kiss or a three-kiss night - depending on where the guests hailed from."

Just before graffiti moved from the street to the galleries, and painters started appearing on the pages of general interest magazines, Caio left New York for a long Wanderjahre in Europe. After a year at Brown University, he went to Barcelona to study with the painter Augusto Torres, a friend of his father's, serving an old-world-style apprenticeship. For the next 14 years, Fonseca spent most of his time in Europe, painting and visiting museums - moving to Paris and Tuscany after Barcelona, all that time "working through some problems in painting". He moved from life studies, landscape and still life to a style that had become almost purely formal by the time he returned to Manhattan in May of 1992. He bought a loft on Tenth Street, amidst the noisy tenements of the barrio far to the east of the East Village; within a year he had his first show at the Charles Cowles Gallery in SoHo. The show was a quiet hit; the Metropolitan Museum bought one of the canvases. And the reviews were glowing, conveying a general sense of: "Where the hell did this guy come from?"

Without having planned to arrive in New York with a marketable style, he had developed the manner and the matter which continue to occupy him to this day. These paintings of the early Nineties seem to retain traces of representational imagery and of the vocabulary of Synthetic Cubism - a pair of eyes here, a keyboard there. Since 1992, the work has become ever more assured. His latest show at the uptown Knoedler gallery in the spring of 1998 was sold out before a painting was hung; the new work seems at the same time historically charged and sui generis. Not the least of the pleasures of Fonseca's work is that it revels in the joys of painting without seeming to be nostalgic. It's as if he devoted himself to the study of Modernism and continued the enterprise from the point where others had declared it dead, skipping the last 40 years or so of art history and the post part entirely, carrying the vocabulary of Picasso and Gris and Klee down to the end of the century as if it were a continuous tradition.

As a novelist, I find myself jealous of the way in which, for all of its suggestiveness, Fonseca's work is about nothing but itself. I'm reminded of Pater's statement that poetry aspires to the condition of music, which I take to mean that wordsmiths can't help yearning for the realm of pure form. As if to guard against associative or representational content, he titles his paintings with a number and their place of origin - either Pietrasanta or Tenth Street. The subject of Fonseca's painting is painting itself, although he's much more comfortable speaking about his work in terms of music. His East Tenth Street studio, which I did finally visit, is a former carpenter's shop dominated by a grand piano. Canvases in various stages of completion hang on the walls; the first stage is a black and white grid which structures the later painting.

"After I lay out the proportions, which are based on the golden section..." He hesitates, dropping the large wooden compass he's been brandishing, then rushes over to the piano and starts playing what he explains is Bach's Suite No 3 in B minor: "The first three notes contain the entire genetic code of what the piece is going to be," he tells me, as he plays. "Bach is the total exploitation of the initial material. And I think I paint like that. After I lay out the proportions, those proportions begin to suggest the form of the piece." He plays a little Mozart to propose a contrast. (And I'm thinking: shit, if this guy writes novels too I'm going to have to kill him.) "In Mozart", he says, "you have melody and accompaniment; in Bach you don't have that. You have the braiding of melodies." He may be talking Bach but he looks pure Beethoven, tossing his dark mane and throwing his body into the music. I can imagine many visitors reaching for their cheque books at this point. The fact that I feel I am witnessing a not entirely spontaneous performance does not detract from my sense of the validity of the analogy. Fonseca apologises for the recital; he's aware that it might seem like a bit of schtick; but he's also genuinely excited. "In music," he says, pausing at the keyboard, "you have a rhythm, an underlying order beneath the interplay of spontaneous forms."

Now he's up again, running around the studio, showing me the later stages of composition. Once he's laid down the grid, Fonseca applies a densely layered field of paint. The shapes which seem to float above the surface of the finished painting are actually carved out of this background as another field of colour is applied. "They're not symbols, and they're not representational," he says, "but the shapes have to have a physical vitality." Indeed, some of them seem to move if you watch long enough. The interplay of these shapes is complicated by a series of linkages - usually lines inscribed with tools ranging from a pencil to a pasta cutter. "No one form is interesting to me", he says. "It's the interplay." Play being a useful concept, since for all their formal beauty and balance, the paintings can seem both whimsical and lyrical. One thing he insists that they are not is pictorial. On the other hand, my wife, who recently ruined our finances buying me one of his paintings, claims that Fonseca told her the painting was inspired by the night sky of Pietrasanta and half a bottle of Chianti. I've had the painting six months and still keep stopping to look at it.

What draws me to Fonseca's painting is the sheer sensual gratification of the work, the almost romantic surfaces; what keeps me coming back, what keeps the work from being merely decorative, is the sense of classical balance and formal rigour. The latter reminds me of Robert Frost's remark that writing poetry without metre and rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Fonseca has an old-fashioned sense of innovation being possible only in relation to a clearly defined tradition. Like Frost and the baroque musicians he so admires, he believes in an underlying order. He's unapologetic about having the old-time religion; the high Modern belief. "When you talk to a believer, you can't convince him God doesn't exist. He knows God exists." In the millennial Manhattan art world, it seems that many people want to believe again. Those who aren't ready to convert needn't take the artist at his word. It's quite possible to view the paintings as subtle acts of appropriation, as a clever and ironic commentary on the history of Modernism even as you revel guiltily in the sensual, formal pleasures of the surface.

Caio Fonseca is represented by Knoedler & Co, New York. This article first appeared in the autumn issue of `Modern Painters' magazine. To order a copy direct, for pounds 5 (p&p free), call 0181-986 4854 with Visa/Access card