Painterly Painters Painting


Following on the heels of the recently released documentary Gerhard Richter Painting, another cinematic study of a painter in action (though not exactly an action painter), Painter: Caio Fonseca directed by Michael Gregory, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art on April 18. Both films take a remarkably similar approach to exploring the working methods of their artist subjects. The films shows how, with considerable aplomb, Fonseca—using sponges and pizza cutters—and Richter—with knives and squeegees—paint colorful abstractions made of copious amounts of pigment. But when it comes to offering some insight into the artists’ works, each film is stingy in different but similarly frustrating ways.


The purportedly camera-shy but merely grumpy Richter is reticent to say anything about his art in his film. Fonseca is far more relaxed and eloquent on camera as he discusses the joys of painting, and the traffic, vegetables and marble quarries of Italy, in the vicinity of Pietrasanta where he spends part of the year, and where this approximately one-hour documentary was shot. Unfortunately, he is as oblique as Richter in matters having anything to do with what makes his own work click. 

Though his reputation doesn’t match that of the German art-market darling, the American-born Fonseca, whose recent works are currently on view in New York at Kasmin [through Apr. 28], is a well-respected painter and accomplished musician with considerable charm on- and off-screen. The last surviving member of an artistic family trio, he has an extraordinary background. His Uruguayan father Gonzalo Fonseca achieved renown as a stone sculptor in Europe in the 1960s and ’70s; his older brother Bruno Fonseca, a painter, was a rising art star before his career was cut short by AIDS in 1994. His father died a few years later. Caio briefly surveys their careers in a touching scene that reveals the closeness of his relationship with Bruno and his deep admiration for his father’s work. The tribute, however, is realized by means of Caio flipping through catalogue illustrations of their works. He remains strangely detached, not allowing his emotions to show through or even permitting any unguarded analysis of his relationships to penetrate the film’s rather staid narrative.

As in the Richter film, there is hardly any social interaction visible on screen. Except for breaking the studio monotony with art openings and an occasional chat with a studio assistant, these artists seem to lead lonely lives, indeed. In the Fonseca documentary, the only sustained human interaction the artist has is with his Italian housekeeper, when he asks her to name her favorite painting of his hanging in the kitchen.

The filmmakers in both instances were content to shoot countless sequences of the artists scuffing around their studios, tools in hand, making marks here and there on their prepared canvases or sheets of paper. Viewers are forced to accept as drama the suspense of a painter adding one more stroke to an already overwrought composition. “Ooops, he’s ruined it now,” is what viewers might say to themselves, but you hear barely a peep from either artist about what’s actually going through his mind. The architectonic forms that seem to preoccupy Fonseca or the dynamics of puncturing the paper with styluses, which he often does, are never addressed. And there are no experts on hand to help explicate his endeavor. Nor is there any mention of the important role music has in his art and life, although there are a few shots of the artist’s paint-besmirched hands playing piano. There’s no sense of any tension in the studio, which might have been engaging. Instead, the filmmakers of this documentary, and of the Richter, seem to have anticipated that audiences would get most excited by watching paint dry.