Life & Culture

Interview: Caio Fonseca

Martin Amis’s artist of choice


The Fonsecas are just one of those families. Four siblings born in five years; two daughters and two sons, all creative and fiercely bright.

Best known on our side of the Atlantic is the youngest, writer Isabel Fonseca, wife of the British novelist Martin Amis, but the others, still in America, are equally accomplished. Quina is a designer who lives between Manhattan and their father’s native Uruguay; Bruno, who died in 1994, was an artist whose large, figurative paintings, The War Murals have been compared, in their power, to Picasso’s Guernica.

And now meet younger brother Caio; also a gifted painter, whose abstract works are already celebrated in the US and on the continent, and who is currently in London for his second, much-anticipated solo show.

“My mother said: ‘How nice it would have been to have one dentist,’” he laughs. “But it didn’t happen. We all became artists — painters, writers, costume designers.”

But then they have it in their blood. Their father was the great sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca who represented Uruguay at the 1990 Venice Biennale, and their mother, Elizabeth Kaplan, still paints in her late husband’s New York studio.

“They met in Rome when she was studying painting there,” says Fonseca. Gonzalo invited her for coffee but Elizabeth refused, “but then they ran into each other later the same day, and decided to have four children.”

Fonseca himself looks far younger than his 49 years. He has a sharp ear for language and is an uncanny mimic, slipping between impersonations like a smoother, calmer Robin Williams. About his talented brother-in-law, Martin Amis says: “Caio is a painter, but he could’ve been a novelist. The way he reads people, and his mimicry of them, has all the expressiveness of, say, Evelyn Waugh.”

But if Fonseca has another string to his bow, it is music, rather than literature. He almost became a pianist and still plays and studies for hours a day, wherever he is. Since 1985 he has migrated from a studio loft in New York’s East Village to spend half of every year in the quiet town of Pietrasanta in Italy.

“In Italy, when the phone rings it’s an event,” he says. “I just go into a monk-like immersion. It’s that potential to be uninterrupted that gives you the momentum, and that’s when I do my best work.”

And his best work, according to the critics, is pretty impressive. Together with his brother Bruno, Caio studied in Barcelona under Augusto Torres, the son of their father’s own teacher, and when he returned to New York at the age of 32, the Metropolitan Museum immediately bought two paintings from his first show. His career has been a steady climb since then. “It’s been solid. I haven’t had the skyrocketing and falling that others have had. It’s been an upward trend,” he says.

Sister Isabel is certainly a fan. “His paintings are beautiful,” she says, “an old-fashioned concept, perhaps.”

Praise comes not just from family members. Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, has described his work as “rich, beautiful, and profound”. “He paints in the tradition of artists like Miró, Klee, and Rothko,” she says.

The first time Fonseca sold a painting he was only 23. “This French collector showed up in my studio and totally shocked me. He asked how much they were and I had no idea, so I just asked what he wanted to pay for them.”

As well as getting a bargain, that collector had tremendous foresight — very few of Fonseca’s works have ever come up for auction, and when they do they sell for up to £125,000.

Fonseca mother’s family were Russian-Jewish immigrants to New York but, he says: “I didn’t really grow up with any of it. I didn’t have a barmitzvah. A little bit of the cultural side, I suppose. When I went to Europe I realised people I really like were Jewish so I thought well, maybe I do have a cultural connection. It happens in America — cultural Jewishness but without much training. But my great-grandfather was a rabbi.”

Ben Brown Fine Arts

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