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“Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca”

Ask Caio Fonseca about the way life experience has informed his current show of abstract paintings, and you’ll be left wondering if he’s pulling your leg. He’ll invariably ask in return, “What’s the nature of content in a sonata by Bach?” Or, “Why can’t painting be like that, only concerned with itself, with its own pictorial means?” Surely artists aren’t allowed to say things like this anymore—unless they’re being ironic or coy.

For the most part, serious artists last said things like that in about 1920. Fonseca is echoing early European modernists, specifically Kandinsky, who famously yearned for a pure painting that mimicked music. The 45-year-old part-time Manhattanite is certainly aware of this, yet he speaks as if no one had ever addressed the problems of abstract art before—as if he got out of the shower this morning turning them over in his mind without prompting or precedent. Not surprisingly, the paintings on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art seem as displaced as the man himself. The 41-piece retrospective spans the past nine years, but the work appears much older, as if it had been moldering in a basement somewhere since the First World War.

The twin pieces near the gallery’s entrance, Pietrasanta Painting C03.18 and Pietrasanta Painting C03.19, are representative of this condition. Both were made in the same unrelentingly serial method of construction as every other work in the show: First, Fonseca drew a grid on both canvases. Then he emphasized a number of horizontal lines with impastoed ridges running across the picture plane. These sculptural marks, which remain visible even after having been painted over, relate to the golden section, the ancient ratio that has been a staple of academic composition since the Renaissance.

Fonseca next executed a number of painterly arcs—uniform curves and odd loop-the-loops of saturated color that recall the calligraphy of late de Kooning pieces. These marks form a composition that, because Fonseca painted over much of it with a flat, opaque white, is visible only at odd intervals. The areas that haven’t been covered give the appearance of biomorphic windows onto mysterious space. The larger of these windows look a bit like crudely drawn musical notes, or perhaps the elongated silhouettes of upended cartoon pianos, executed with a faux-naiveté that recalls Klee’s scratchy pictographs. Again, every painting in the exhibition follows this recipe: two conspicuous layers of paint, one acting as a flat foreground screen, the other as a partly hidden, apparently distant pictorial world.

These two works were painted a year ago; their palettes seem to consist of pure saturated colors and white. Yet each has a lightly weather-beaten look. Here’s why: Closer examination reveals that an extremely diluted wash of some warm, earthy ocher was scumbled onto their surfaces. This technique not only heightens every ridge and dimple, it also creates the impression of age, giving the paintings their strong whiff of nostalgia.

The artist readily admits his ignorance of many or most of the developments in abstract painting during the past two decades: “You’ll find me terribly uninformed. It just so happened I missed the ’80s,” he remarked to one interviewer. Of course, Fonseca at an early age was steeped in a specific early-modern pictorial language: that of his father, Uruguayan-born Gonzalo Fonseca, a highly regarded sculptor and painter. Gonzalo’s early paintings and drawings display the same totemic shapes as Caio’s, and his sculptures often feature recessions and windows cut into flat surfaces, offering views of strange creatures and abstract signifiers. Caio began to study in earnest at age 19 with Augusto Torres, a member of the same family of artists to which his father was apprenticed. Caio’s studies took him from Barcelona to Paris and finally to Pietrasanta, Italy, where, in 1985, he bought an old marble workshop and transformed it into a studio.

To a great extent, all artists choose their circle of ancestors, and Fonseca’s development has emphasized a very particular idea of artistic tradition: something from a European past to be accessed and continued, not as something that can be changed—or, for that matter, informed—by the present. This idea accounts for much on display here. Unlike, say, the Sally Manns the Corcoran also exhibited this year, Fonseca’s works don’t just look old—they strive to be old.

Fonseca’s windows, for example, are typically arrayed in an ordered, rhythmic horizontal procession, rising and falling not unlike notes in a musical score. In Pietrasanta Painting C03.39 (2003), small half-hearts or moons rise to the top of the composition to just kiss the edge of the picture plane. Tiny shapes are allowed to peek out from the edges, but the larger ones remain steadily and reliably vertical and entirely visible. There is no truncating or cropping here, nothing that would betray the destabilizing influence photography, cinema, and video have had on visual organization. There’s nothing, even, that seems derived from the postpainterly abstraction of four decades ago, which refused to treat the picture plane as any sort of window onto illusory space.

In places, Fonseca does tentatively begin to push his idiom. Pietrasanta Painting C01.20 (2001) started as an uneasy masonry pattern, painted in a dripping, transparent wash of pale blue. Atop it are slathered broad arcs of acidic orange, again creating a monochrome foreground through which we see a world of distant forms. But the picture is complicated by a number of small splattered dots of pure green sitting on the surface of both layers, as well as by tiny red swirls that occur randomly at the border between orange and blue. Similar marks appear in the roughly 7-by-5-foot Fifth Street Painting C04.16 (2004)—tiny, recessed red rings protrude from the surface, looking something like abused drywall anchors set into the work. These ever-so-subtle features escape notice at first, and the shift in scale and the spatial discontinuity brought by their apprehension disrupt Fonseca’s trademark serenity—but only ever so slightly.

The artist further emphasizes the surface of Pietrasanta Painting C01.20 (2001), with long incised lines made with a variety of nonart implements—cooking utensils, tools for tuning pianos, and so forth. A thin, wavy line moves diagonally through the lower left-hand corner of the canvas, lifting whatever orange paint was in its path. Five parallel incisions run across the upper third of the canvas; where these lines run off the orange field in the upper right-hand corner, they drag a wake of excess orange behind them. The negative mark becomes a positive, emphasizing the literalness of the artist’s touch as much as the impossibility of truly flat pictorial space. With these acts, Fonseca finally introduced some doubt into his otherwise assured works—doubt concerning the imperturbability of his beloved tradition.

For someone who has said, “Something can only be revolutionary if it has some relation to tradition,” that might be considered a call to arms. Yet Fonseca seems unlikely to heed it. And with every refusal that he makes, the artist slouches toward cautiousness, toward academicism, toward never really embracing the small successes in his stately, otherwise uniform confections. T.S. Eliot—a semiconservative modern voice with whom you would think Fonseca would be in sympathy—said that tradition both transforms and is transformed by the ever-unfolding present; it’s not just a one-way exchange. It would be nice to be able to say the same about Fonseca’s painting.CP