Friday, October 22, 2004

Caio Fonseca , the current toast of the international art world, shows paintings and gouaches at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. For a young artist who only began exhibiting seriously in 1991, he’s achieved remarkable success.

Although the Corcoran exhibition is his first one-person show in an American museum, several pre-eminent institutions — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, among others — collect his work.

Mr. Fonseca’s works also are shown at several of New York’s top commercial galleries; among them the Charles Cowles, Robert Miller and Paul Kasmin.

Additionally, the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern in Valencia, Spain, published “Caio Fonseca: Paintings 1983-2003” during the artist’s 2003 exhibit there. A catalog for its show was issued by the Corcoran.

Publications have taken notice, as well. Vanity Fair and Departures magazines featured Mr. Fonseca in their October and September issues, as did Modern Paintings in its autumn publication.

The media spotlight, coupled with museum acquisitions and sales of his work, appear to signal that the artist, 45, is definitely in vogue.

Still, visitors to the Corcoran’s “Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca” may question the adulation.

Although the exhibition opens with Mr. Fonseca’s best painting in this show, the 20-foot-long “Fifth Street Painting CO4.19” in the large, entry cafe space, his works in the next two exhibit galleries do not meet that standard.

Canvases covered with plays of curvilinear, flat shapes, connected by emphatically brushed horizontals set in swaths of colors, fill the rooms too densely. The exhibit space, unfortunately, is much too small.

An initial look at the show demonstrates that Mr. Fonseca needs large spaces for his paintings. The works — both large and small — require that they be hung singly, away from others. Moreover, the exhibit’s somewhat garish lighting and the Corcoran’s high ceilings do not create a hospitable ambience.

Jacquelyn Serwer, the Corcoran’s chief curator, chose 41 Fonseca paintings — most were produced for this show — with 30 mixed media acrylics on canvas and 11 gouaches on paper.

One, “Fifth Street Painting C00.1,” measures more than 20 feet across. It shows the artist’s signature method of dragging thickened paint horizontally from left to right across the canvas, cutting through horizontals with delicately scratched diagonals, and swinging shapes. The technique produced images that look like musical notations, half jugs, halved female figures, and punctuation marks.

Other works — such as the group of preparatory acrylics on another wall and the gouache-on-paper studies at the back — are smaller and showcase some of the exhibit’s better efforts.

The artist says he gets most of his inspiration from these studies; it’s regrettable he does not retain their whimsy and lightness in what he calls his “finished work.”

Raised in New York City, Mr. Fonseca works half the year in a spacious loft in SoHo and the other half in the Tuscan village of Pietrasanta, where he spent summers as a child.

His late father, Gonzalo, a sculptor from Uruguay, inspired his son and the rest of the family. Caio’s late older brother Bruno was a painter; his older sister, Quina, is a hat designer; and his younger sister Isabel is a writer. His mother, Elizabeth Fonseca, daughter of Welch’s Grape Juice founder Jacob Kaplan, also paints.

Caio Fonseca followed his father’s early apprenticeship in Barcelona. Gonzalo Fonseca had studied with the prominent Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia, and Caio apprenticed with Torres-Garcia’s son Augusto Torres for six years.

On a tour of the exhibit, curator Mrs. Serwer summed up the artist’s working process thus: “He begins works such as the dramatic, black-swathed ‘Pietrasanto Painting C03.33’ and the red-and-blue ‘Pietrasanto Painting C01.20’ with a charcoal drawings, adds horizontal lines from the ‘Golden Section’ — proportional relationships that organize the painting’s structure — then covers the whole painting with gesso and, finally, adds color.” While this is all interesting, his process is described in too much detail in countless publications and interviews that don’t provide a clue as to what he wants to express.

Mr. Fonseca is also an amateur pianist, with extensive training in classical music.

Mrs. Serwer says “there’s an interchange between his painting and music,” and many critics use musical analogies in describing his work — again, almost ad nauseam.

Mr. Fonseca’s current work presents difficulties for long-range assessment, largely because it has shown little variation in his quarter century as an artist.

Does the hype surrounding him block the qualities of his painting? Or, instead of merit, was interest in Mr. Fonseca’s work spurred solely by the art boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s?

For now, the artist appears more obsessed with technique rather than obtaining a unique expression. His use of whitened gesso, for instance — even with underpaintings of reds and greens — can be a deadening tool. Artists of the Italian High Renaissance used it only for background.

However, he’s still a young painter, and Mr. Fonseca’s work may change in the future.

WHAT: “Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Tuesdays. Continues through Feb. 14

TICKETS: $6.75 adults, $4.75 seniors, $3 students with current ID, $12 families

PHONE: 202/639-1700 or

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