This is Caio Fonseca's moment.
His decorous and pedigreed abstract paintings are at the crest of New York fashion. He's becoming a celebrity. People in the art world who used to call him "Chow" now pronounce his name correctly ("KYE-oh"). Fifteen color photographs accompany the puff piece on his good life in the current Vanity Fair. "Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca," his first one-man exhibition in an American museum, opened Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His paintings sell and sell.
They are well bred, as is he. His father was the sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca, his mother a painter. Fonseca spent his New York childhood among artists of repute in a Greenwich Village townhouse that had once belonged to the Lincoln Memorial's sculptor, Daniel Chester French. Fonseca's pictures also carry a tone of distinct lineage. Call them punctured-field paintings. That's because you peer into their worlds as you might through tailored holes cut into the fabric of a stretched, embroidered sheet. These are classical abstractions, pictures with a heritage. Their paint-swoops and their drips, being like Willem de Kooning's, return you to the glory days of New York in the '50s. Their sliced and broken spaces go back, reassuringly, another half a century to Paris and Picasso and early cubist fracturings -- and then, all of a sudden, an unexpected image popped into my head:
A fine salon. Tall mirrors and tall windows, ormolu and gilt. A string quartet is playing interweaving melodies heard many times before -- there's the swooping of the cello, there the pizzicato of the second violin. Once modernism shocked. Here nothing growls or threatens or lifts one from one's seat. Rock-and-roll this ain't.
Forget de Kooning and Picasso. They lived in smelly poverty. Caio Fonseca doesn't. De Kooning in New York called himself a "loft rat" and wouldn't answer when you knocked in case you were a bill collector. Cat pee, sweat and mildew were the stinks prevailing at Picasso's Paris studio, one of 30 in the Bateau Lavoir, that now legendary stack of shacks on a hillside in Montmartre. Max Jacob called it "the Acropolis of cubism." We'd call it a slum. The Bateau had one toilet, a dark and filthy hole, and one cold-water tap. Nothing of that recklessness, that bohemian deprivation, mars the scented polish of Caio Fonseca's pictures.
I like them. What's not to like? Their colors are well tuned. There is something of the rococo in their graceful rhythms. Their elegance is obvious, their etiquette meticulous, their craftsmanship assured.
The first one that you see upon entering the Corcoran is "Fifth Street Painting C04.19," It's 20 feet wide. You'd need at least $100,000 just to buy the canvas, and even more than that to hang it, for field paintings of such size must have air in which to breathe, and this one needs a wall 24 feet long. The picture is so proportioned that it could hang over a couch. A heck of a big couch.
The man himself turns out to be -- in the art world this will never hurt -- an ad for what he paints. He's suave. He's widely traveled. He plays the piano beautifully. Vanity Fair describes him thus: "At 45, Caio is notably youthful -- handsome, tall, and bulkily muscular, with thick, dark hair dropping in waves down to a strong jawline. He speaks fluent Italian, Spanish, and French. . . . He reads abstruse music theory. . . . Single, he has dated a stream of beautiful women. 'His whole lifestyle is so seductive,' says the Designer Andy Spade."
Fonseca has three studios, the first a vast loft in Manhattan. The second is in Italy, in the hills near Pietrasanta; he's there five months a year. There is another in East Hampton. "Three addresses always inspire confidence, even in tradesmen," Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell knowingly observed.
Fashionable paintings, if you hope to sell a lot of them, had better have a way of announcing who produced them. Fonseca's do this well. His style is his signature. You know his works are his the moment that you see them, for though he likes to improvise, he always does so subtly. Caio Fonseca's pictures are emblems of good taste. He never goes too far, never makes a mess, never busts the brand.
His paintings -- there are more than 40 at the Corcoran -- all look much alike, at least in their conventions. This is what they share:
One: The punctured foreground field: That sheet with tailored holes in it may be white or off-white, yellow, gray, or blue, but it's always there.
Two: The openings you peer through take the shapes of boomerangs, or bars, or cut-out clothing patterns, or gently bulging columns, whose bulgings also hint, though only very distantly, at bellies, breasts or hips.
Three: The world the painter places beyond the punctured field is always full of action, of drips and grids and swoops, and always interrupted. Piecing it together, imagining it whole, is one of the pleasures provided by this art.
Four: The embroidery. Fonseca, leaning close, likes to decorate his fields with delicately drawn linear devices, with arcs, small circles, zigzags, and sets of sweeping parallels of the sort you might produce by pulling a sharp-toothed comb across the surface of snow.
Six: The splatters. This seems to be a rule: Advanced New York painting requires drips and splatters. Much like a silk scarf tossed over the shoulder, these hint at spontaneity (though, in Fonseca's case, never very much of it), and at daring and speed.
This artist sometimes seems to be as much of a conductor as he is a painter, for his pictures, more than most, unfold in time as music does. He's fully in control. Obedient to his wishes, his oft-repeated elements follow his baton and do just as they're told.
Corcoran chief curator Jacquelyn Serwer arranged this exhibition. It isn't a fast art show. The pictures she has gathered, being rich in rhyme and incident, take a pleasing while to see.
And then they're gone. Caio Fonseca's paintings aren't easily remembered. What lingers after seeing them is visual perfume. Many prosperous and cautious and respectable collectors, once upon a time, found abstract art disturbing and probably subversive. Not anymore. It's been drained of its old dangers. The beauty that belongs to Caio Fonseca's pictures -- that lyrical, reiterative, slightly frou-frou beauty -- doesn't menace one at all.
This is high-tone abstract painting becoming yet another of the decorative arts.
Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca will remain on exhibition through Feb. 14 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. The museum is closed on Tuesdays. On other days it's open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays). The paying of admission -- $6.75 for adults -- is voluntary on Mondays. For information call 202-639-1700.