Caio Fonseca – American Abstract Artist

I saw Caio Fonseca’s work in Boston and was intrigued by his layering, leaving intentional shapes of the first layer exposed. Fonseca is an American painter best known for his use of tonal harmonies and balanced compositions. Since I paint by building up layers with some areas leaving the first layer exposed, but not in defined shapes, I decided to paint the birds on branches in two paintings of a series as a departure from my usual layering process. Looking into his background after seeing Caio Fonseca’s work, I was drawn to the development of his painting style. 

Caio Fonseca photo
Caio Fonseca

Caio Fonseca was born in 1959 in New York City, the son of two artists, Gonzalo Fonseca one of Latin America’s leading modernist sculptors and Elizabeth Fonseca, also an accomplished artist. Growing up in the West Village of Manhattan where father Gonzalo created his sculptures created a rich and vibrant childhood for them and Caio and his family would spend long summers in Italy. 

As a young man, he attended Brown University and then joined his older brother in Barcelona where he lived for five years, studying under the artist Augusto Torres, whose father had taught Gonzalo Fonseca in Uruguay in the 1940s. When Caio turned 26, he bought an old marble workshop in northwestern Italy to convert to a studio and divided his time between New York and the marble quarries. It was in this studio, he painted and sketched hundreds of still life, figures and landscapes, learning from reality and classic education and grasping the concept of abstract forms.

For the next six years (1985 – 1991) Caio spent in Europe developing a style far from those of mainstream America in the 1980s (Neo Expressionism – a style of late modernist or early-postmodern painting and “Identity Art”) whereas at this point American art was transitioning from minimalism, language-based conceptual art to a broader field, including women, minorities and overall more diversity.

In 1983, Frank Stella, an American painter, sculptor and printmaker, well known for his work in the areas of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction said “the demise of abstract art was a result of the bankruptcy of pictorial space”. He began to turn his work into Baroque-inspired reliefs and others began to make their own spatial adjustments and by the early 1990’s abstraction was enjoying a resurgence in America. In the 1990’s Caio Fonseca returned to New York City, turning to abstraction as well. He had his first solo show at the Charles Cowles Gallery in Manhattan in 1993. Soon after the Metropolitan Museum bought two of his paintings. He was quoted as saying “The essence of painting for me is the secret nature of forms.”

The musicality of Fonseca’s work stems from the fact he is a musician and pianist. In composition, he is aware of the similarities between the two, saying tonality is essential to painting and “The most mysterious thing in painting is that mysterious order that exists in the values of the painting – that all the pieces respect the harmony of the surface, just like different notes in music”.

A fascinating aspect of his work is that it is both planned AND improvised. He begins by covering the gessoed surface with water-based pigments and the quick drying polymer paint allows him to accumulate multiple layers without bleeding. He does charcoal markings in these layers and when he starts to make charcoal marks, indicators, divisions of space, he gets a chair and sits 10 feet away, looking at the space suggested by the proportions marked in charcoal. A form suggests itself and he begins. The colors underneath minimized by the over painting, adding lines and marks using such diverse implements as tools or kitchen gadgets. These marks reinforce the relationships of forms and colors. “At some point, says Fonseca, I realize I can neither add or subtract a single form without disrupting the rhythmic balance – that’s when I’ve learned to stop.”

Frank Stella’s said of Caio’s work “there has to be a convincing exchange of vitality between the viewer and the painting if both are to live” and I think Caio Fonseca’s work IS indeed convincing. His work is new yet feels familiar, reductive but rich, spiritual and irresistible. He says his greatest teachers are his other paintings and visual phenomena around him; the sense of scale, values, rhythms. “I am responsible for every inch. I have to keep a double mentality – big picture, small picture. I have to react to the unplanned relationships. I eliminate as much as possible, then I turn to the wet surface by incising it there is a fuller unity.”

Margaret Lockwood Bird PaintingFor those of you who’ve been to my gallery, you may have seen some of the “Birds on Branches” that became a series for me. I was in a stuck place after knee surgery and recovering by watching too many hallmark Christmas movies, needing rules. 

Turning to my Caio Fonseca book once again, I found these two: (1) Not to allow myself to turn the new paintings into skies, water or trees and (2) Not to fix the quickly drawn birds even if they came out somewhat misshapen. My technique was to first paint an allover background, then quickly draw birds on branches, then paint all around them, leaving the birds the first layer of paint. Working within this framework gave me a much needed structure and ultimately aided me in recovering from my knee-induced delirium.

Visit Caio Fonseca’s website at