Fonseca was one of the original members of the Taller Torres-García, a workshop established in 1944 by the Uruguayan master Joaquín Torres-García as part of a broad program of modern arts education in Montevideo. A student of Torres-García from 1942 to 1949, Fonseca shared his teacher's conception of an abstract art based on universal symbols. During this formative period, Fonseca assimilated the Constructivist tradition of abstraction with his study of pre-Columbian ruins in Bolivia and Peru, later supplemented by travel to archaeological sites in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. "The principle of universality of abstract form that tied the artistic contribution of the Inca to that of the Egyptians or archaic Greeks implied the right of Latin Americans not only to participate in the legacy of universal civilizations," curator Mari Carmen Ramírez has suggested, "but also to make use of the conventions of these cultures in their art." The privileged identification of an abstract vocabulary based on pre-Columbian referents in the work of Fonseca and other El Taller alumni, including Francisco Matto, Julio Alpuy, and José Gurvich, would come to signify their connection to a shared, organic past that "touched upon the universal human essence and at the same time restored to art its symbolic function."(1)
Fonseca's interest in what Ramírez has called a "myth of origins" intensified upon his arrival in New York in 1957. An outsider to mainstream American culture, he was increasingly drawn to what Valerie Fletcher has described as "a neo-Platonic vision of art as expressing a higher ideal than mundane reality." Like Torres-García, Fonseca "wanted art to proclaim a spiritual humanism expressed in universal images rather than realistic description."(2) The recovery of pre-Columbian sources in sculpture, to which Fonseca devoted himself exclusively after 1964, developed through his exploration of architectonic space in the cavities of found pieces of stone, whose built surfaces recall the hybrid escultoarquitecturas of ancient civilizations. The self-contained universe of his small-scale stone sculptures, as in Haut lieu 1, evokes the ruins of a remote, prehistoric past through suggestively labyrinthine form, in which doors and windows contain strange, abstract shapes and stepped terraces seem to lead nowhere. "Their structure represents a hybrid fusion of forms and elements from the monumental art of ancient civilizations," Ramírez has observed, but their classicizing aesthetic also points to a secondary source in the classical and Renaissance traditions of carved sculpture.(3) During his New York years, Fonseca split his time between Manhattan and his studio near the town of Carrara in Italy, where he worked on pieces of stone found in an abandoned marble quarry. "In describing the creative process involved in the production of his sculptures, Fonseca speaks of how the stone itself suggests the theme and the artist only uncovers what is already there," Ramírez notes. "His procedure demands long periods of studying the inherent qualities of the material, 'living within the stone' in order to determine what he may alter or what he may add. In spite of the fact that he carves directly into the stone block, he ends by consciously removing the evidence of his hand from the creative process and thus achieving for the work the overall effect of a self-contained unit or microcosm that has survived from a remote past."(4)
This dialogue between the prehistoric origins of civilization and the classical language of sculpture is sustained in the modulated surface of Haut lieu 1, in which geometric apertures emerge from the depths of the stone. Fonseca respects the integrity of the marble, left largely in its natural state and only partially worked, integrating what are perhaps votive offerings, tucked into niches, within the architectural whole. His commitment to the art of the past--to a timeless and mythical art--is here transformed into a modern form: drawing on the spiritual and intuitive power of his pre-Columbian legacy, Fonseca has crafted a powerful hybrid sculpture that both affirms his cultural past and lays claim to a universal history.
1) M. C. Ramírez, "Re-positioning the South: The Legacy of El Taller Torres-García in Contemporary Latin American Art," in El Taller Torres-García: The School of the South and its Legacy, Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1992, 257, 261.
2) V. Fletcher, Crosscurrents of Modernism: Four Latin American Pioneers: Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam, Matta, Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum, 1992, 103.
3) Ramírez, 264.
4) Ibid., 264-65.