Peter Cain working on a painting from the 500 SL series, 270 Bowery, 1992
Photograph by Frank Camarda

Peter Cain (September 26, 1959 – January 5, 1997) was born in Orange, New Jersey. He moved to New York to attend art school in 1977 and lived there until his death, of a cerebral hemorrhage, twenty years later. He was only thirty-seven at the time, but the artistic legacy he left behind is all the more powerful for its brevity.


In the late 1980s Cain started the paintings for which he first became known: automobiles, ranging from classic muscle cars to late-model sedans, distorted into hallucinatory new forms. Painted with care and precision, their gleaming surfaces intensify the seductiveness of the advertising images on which they were based. Klaus Kertess has called them “literal and figurative icons of autoeroticism.”


In 1995 Cain made a group of drawings and paintings based on three photographs of his boyfriend Sean. Part figure studies, part landscapes, they depict the subject’s reclining head, neck, and shoulders on a sandy beach. They were a departure from the car paintings, a development Peter Schjeldahl hailed as “the creation of a new high style able intelligently to capture intimate nuances of contemporary Eros on a public scale.”


The following year Cain began another body of work: paintings and drawings of Los Angeles gas stations and chain stores. Rendered with the same attention to detail as his other works, they omit all typography from the commercial landscape, a method of abstraction similar to the distortions of the car paintings. As Jerry Saltz pointed out, “Cain's great accomplishment is that, although all of his paintings derive from photographs, none of them picture the world as if seen through a lens.”


Peter Cain had his first one-person exhibition in 1989. His work was included in the 1993 and 1995 Whitney Biennials and has been exhibited at museums in Europe, Asia, and the United States. He has been represented by Matthew Marks Gallery since 1992.