Like Dior, fondu, and the permanent wave, painting is back, they say. Get your paintings out of the closets, ladies, and hang them with pride. But is painting merely a fashion statement? Several new shows raise the question.

One artist who has made a go at painting, abstract painting even, is Caio Fonseca. He is now enjoying a show at Paul Kasmin and a large exhibition of recent work at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.[1] And let’s not forget the spread in Vanity Fair, the stunning loft on Fifth Street, the piano, the glowing reviews (many of them from New Criterion writers), and the relatives (father, famous sculptor; brother, famous painter; brother-in-law, Martin Amis). Then there is Fonseca’s general hunkiness. In jeans and paint-splattered boots, he is a muscular throwback to those AbEx artists Tom Wolfe described in The Painted Word: “hot off the Carey airport bus, lined up in front of the real-estate office on Broome Street in their identical blue jeans, gum boots, and quilted Long March jackets … looking, of course, for the inevitable Loft.”

I became directly familiar with Fonseca a year ago. My fellow critic Daniel Kunitz, who wrote the essay for Fonseca’s 2003 monograph, invited me to the book party at Fonseca’s loft. It seemed too good to be true: a party for a clearly successful painter who bypassed the last fifty years of art to work in an abstract mode. An able classical pianist, with a studio wired for music, Fonseca even exhibited an interest in the interplay of music and modernist form. The large shapes in his paintings, often outlined by a screen of white paint over a colorful underlayer, resemble the curves of a grand piano or notes on a staff. One of the tools he uses to mottle his canvas surfaces is piano wire. The structure of the canvas, Fonseca claims, is built up systematically from Golden Sections and the interconnection of painted forms. With their recurring shapes, the paintings have a serial appearance—and are labeled in series—but no two paintings are alike. At first glance, the paintings seem to spring forth from the handbooks of Vitruvius.

I can understand the excitement around Fonsesca’s work. The Corcoran’s energetic chief curator, Jacquelyn Serwer, rightly sympathizes with the plight of the contemporary painter. In her catalogue essay, she writes, “the clamor created by new-media art works, which tend to dominate current survey shows of contemporary art, often overwhelms quieter forms of expression.”

I arrived in Washington with high expectations. Maybe too high. In the middle of the Corcoran show, surrounded by a riot of squiggles, lines, and pinholes, something terrible happened. Call it a Dorian Gray moment.

Built up on words and feelings, Fonseca’s paintings collapsed without them. The Palladian shapes, the so-called Apollonian construction of these paintings, the Dionysian colors that fall flat, the do-nothing pinholes posing as essential elements began to reveal a systematic fraudulence. These paintings are not architectural in their construction or musical in their tone but merely derivative. The formal elements elucidate no genuine structural qualities but only give the impression that they should.

The breaking point for me was not the large piano curves but the smaller gewgaws: chevrons and Pac-Mans recurring again and again at the edges of each painting. I came to despise them. Look how poorly these shapes are created and you realize that Caio Fonseca is a painter who either cannot paint or cannot take the time to paint well. (New Yorkers should note that the Kasmin show is more of the same, only newer—Fonseca is that static). Regardless of intentions, his work is a type of sham perpetuated by a preppy artist on an eager public. His paintings are a fashion masquerading as serious art. One doesn’t emulate the painting of the 1950s by following the example of painters in the 1980s.

Speaking of fashion, Richmond Burton, another abstract painter, was on view at Cheim & Read in October.[2] His abstract paisleys are straight off the Carnaby rack via Casino Royale. When I saw the reproduction of one of Burton’s paintings in the show’s mailer (Untitled, 2004), I said, here is visually interesting abstraction (and more fun than Fonseca’s dour gameboards). Generous swirls of white, yellow, green, blue, orange, gold, and black resemble the eyes of a peacock fan mixed with screensaver art and the morning’s eggs. Like Fonseca, Burton too has an interest in classical music (“Wagner, Strauss, and Mozart” and others). Unfortunately, if you are going to take up painting, you need to learn to paint—and not from the school of Bob Ross. Runny oils, paint splatters, and cruddy lines? And this from a former architect who drafted in the offices of I. M. Pei? There are happy accidents and then there are mistakes. One reason Burton’s images look better in reproduction than in real life is his avoidance, as far as I could see, of mixing paints. The results may look fine reprinted on Mama Cass’s muumuu, but oil on canvas deserves more. Burton is clearly having fun, but he needs to bring us along to the party now and again.

Forget Fonseca and Burton. Want two must-see shows this fall of great painters? How about Louisa Matthíasdóttir at Scandinavia House and Giorgio Morandi at Lucas Schoormans?[3] Matthíasdóttir, who moved to New York from Iceland in 1942, studied with Hans Hofmann and spent her life refashioning her native topography (towns, hills, and family faces—her husband, the painter Leland Bell, is here) into fields of color. One day, the achievements of this other New York School—color-based, representational, and influenced most by Matisse—will be better recognized. A volume will also be devoted to its many female painters. Self Portrait in Landscape (1991) and Two Riders (ca. 1990–1994), both late works, are examples of Matthíasdóttir’s refined geometry and sense of graduated hue. An earlier work, the sprawling Temma on Couch, Campus View (1966), shows her more angular and line-conscious. The austerity of Matthíasdóttir is not for everyone. Some of her portraits can be wooden, and her rooftop images of Reykjavik, frozen.

The narrow range of subject matter both can reveal an interest in known things and a resistance to move beyond them. Like the rigidness of her self-portraits, Matthíasdóttir worked to fix her world in paint, and that was her point.

On the other side of the thermostat, but equally local in subject matter, was Giorgio Morandi, the native Bolognian and mid-century painter of bottles and tins. As Karen Wilkin wrote in these pages in January 1994, “The paintings of Giorgio Morandi, highly distilled visions of a private world, elicit only two responses: extreme enthusiasm or indifference.” A show of his late work at Lucas Schoormans, all titled Natura Morta, gives New Yorkers a taste of Morandi in the first substantial way since the ill-suited 1981 show at the Guggenheim Museum. Taste Morandi one does, because never has paint appeared more buttery and substantive than in his strange little oeuvre. Voids become colors. Reflections become tangibles. Painter, paint, and subject matter merge in eight spectral works that look like nothing at first. A feeling informs you otherwise. Here there are no “happy accidents.” There are, simply, no accidents.

Rackstraw Downes, an occasional contributor to this magazine, and one-time abstract painter, now works in a photorealistic style. Another photorealistic painter, you say? But Downes, on view at Betty Cuningham, is one photorealist who defies expectations; he has more in common with the realist landscapes of Dutch masters than with Eastman Kodak.[4] (Downes once used a camera in preparing his work. Unsuccessfully, he reports). The sophistication of Downes’s technique is remarkable. But it is the selection of subject matter and the framing of multiple images that locate his work within the art of the past thirty years. Downes’s take on the “situational” right-back-at-you mandate of viewership—brought to a head by minimalism’s anti-objects—turns the object-viewer relationship back around through paintings of daring talent. The effects are so tangible and enjoyable that it is easy to overlook what Downes may be up to. Let it be said that he is as engaged with the minimalist Donald Judd as with the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painter Pieter Saenredam. How’s that for bedfellows?

Positioned on their own, his paintings operate as peepholes into the contemporary landscape of the local and the mundane: rows of withered plantings and looping cement pathways from Liberty State Park, New Jersey; aluminum air-conditioning ductwork tucked in the ceilings and sub-basements of the Snug Harbor Music Hall; the undersides of the Riverside Drive viaduct near 125 Street in New York; powerlines and water-flow stations near Juddland in Marfa, Texas. He captures single moments: of shadows, tire tracks, the contrails of a jet, bikers pedaling through Harlem. Like those painters from the original Haarlem, Downes negotiates an additional subject out of frame: The location of the viewer is key to both realist styles. But rather than merely eliciting the sensation of falling out of a Dutch rowboat, Downes further complicates matters by painting his scenes in series, with a slight movement of perspective in each, a turned head, a step to the side, and links his images in the most ingenious of visual ways. A cable above the water-flow monitoring installation, for example, unites an entire series. The Cuningham gallery has wisely installed these works to replicate the multiple perspectives, and, just to pique your interest, Downes has supplied his own written description of the water-flow station’s activities.

Taken together, the pictures can create a storyboard for a narrative happening on our side of the canvas. But unlike minimalist art, where there is little to ponder beyond ourselves, Downes’s work draws us into his intricate, interesting scenes as much as he bring us out of them. This is the first show for Betty Cuningham Gallery and it is an auspicious one—full of possibilities, fashionable always.

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  1. “Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca” opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. on October 9 and remains on view through Feburary 14, 2005. “Caio Fonseca, New Paintings” opened at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, on October 14 and remains on view through November 13, 2004. Go back to the text.
  2. “Richmond Burton” was on view at Cheim & Read, New York, from September 8 through October 16, 2004. Go back to the text.
  3. “Louisa Matthíasdóttir: A Retrospective” opened at Scandinavia House, New York, on September 21 and remains on view through November 13, 2004. “Giorgio Morandi, Paintings 1950–1964” opened at Lucas Schoormans, New York, on September 24 and remains on view through December 4, 2004. Go back to the text.
  4. “Rackstraw Downes, New Paintings” was on view at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York from September 23 through October 30, 2004. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 41
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