A Saturday Disaster: The Life and Art of Peter Cain

Puchase Catalogue


“It’s hard to describe a painting. You can describe to a certain extent, but it’s always more than that. Always. The more is the part that matters.”

—Robert Ryman1


“I didn’t ask to be a legend.”

—Judy Garland


Peter Cain didn’t ask to be a legend. Like countless other talents before him, he died younger than we would have liked. But a tragic death does not a legend make. Cain has remained of interest to enterprising young art historians and artists for his expertly executed, inscrutable paintings. Yet part of his work’s appeal since his death in 1997 has been the requisite act of discovery: the unearthing of a history that, oddly, has yet to be fully written, and the tracking down of artworks that belong to curiously few institutional collections.


After all, staying remembered takes a lot of energy and effort, and not just on the part of the artist. Within contemporary art, as with any field that focuses on the next rather than the now, being forgotten in favor of what’s currently fashionable is almost a given. Even if an artist achieves something great — say, a rave review in The New York Times — he or she still has to show up to galleries and lectures and dinners in order to remain part of the conversation; an artist must first establish a legacy before it can become someone else’s job to maintain.


Peter Cain was part of the conversation from the late 1980s through the 1990s. He received rave reviews, was included in landmark exhibitions, and had a horde of artist friends. Less than a decade into his career as an artist, he died suddenly at age thirty-seven. For the generation of artists who were around New York during his lifetime (and a younger generation of art enthusiasts who have discovered his work through exhibition catalogues from the 1990s), he is seen as a “cultish” figure, an appellation given to him by The New York Times in 1995.2


Along the lines of Robert Ryman’s quote above, you only need to spend a few minutes in front of a car painting by Cain to see that there is more to it than its source material and everyday subject matter. He would rework, edit, and distort various makes and models through an analog process of cutting and pasting, then render the new construction with oil paint in a manner that verged on realism. Between 1987 and 1995 his paintings evolved, subtly and sweetly, requiring one to look rather than just see. Then, in 1995 and 1996, he began two new bodies of work, both radically different from and perfectly harmonious with his previous output.


In an essay published shortly after Cain’s unexpected death, Carroll Dunham, a friend and fellow painter, wrote, “With Peter’s death, I’ve never felt so aware of art history’s contingency on the actual.”3 What Dunham says is true and unsettling. If you were to die today, would your life’s work stand the test of time? Which ideas of yours would go unrealized? Dunham continues, “We don’t count what people think about or what they might have done, only what they do.” As Cain was a slow and fastidious painter, this automatically leaves his work and his legacy in a precarious situation.


Considering that he never fully made the transition from emerging artist to firmly established one, the literature on Cain is surprisingly abundant. Most articles, written around four moments in his life and afterlife — clustered around specific solo exhibitions in 1991, 1993, 1997, and 2005 — echo the same sentiments and ideas. This speaks more to the circumstances of the writings than to the authors themselves. Most of these reviews and essays were written as either a spotlight of a young artist on the rise or a touching tribute to an artist taken too soon.


Over the twenty years since his death, information about Cain and his work has become cloaked by time; some of his relatives and closest friends have died, a handful of paintings are in unknown locations, and the memories of those who survive him are tenuously tied to old feelings. Details have been lost, but his work remains. Given the scant material on his personal life, a certain human texture and sense of motivation — necessary aspects of any critical biography — are difficult to summon. For this essay, when possible, firsthand accounts were gathered via interviews conducted with members of the artist’s circle. The following pages are an attempt to retrieve the underappreciated history of Peter Cain, to look at it anew, and to provide a comprehensive overview of his innovations, challenges, and legacy.

*  *  *


Peter Cain was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1959. Part of a conservative family with traditional values, he grew up, alongside two sisters and a brother, in Livingston and then Morristown, both upper-middle-class towns a short train ride from Manhattan. In 1978 he graduated from Madison High School, where he was a close friend of Joan Wallace, who soon after became a 1980s art-world fixture as one half of the duo Wallace and Donohue. Cain experimented with art throughout his youth; according to his sister Margaret, he “always loved to paint and draw and had a special penchant for cars.”4 He spent his adolescence roaming around New York City, exploring what the downtown scene had to offer, whether going to shows at CBGB, befriending the art critic Edit DeAk, or allegedly dating Mudd Club co-owner Diego Cortez.


Cain eventually left New Jersey for New York in the late 1970s. He attended Parsons at the New School, later transferring to the School of Visual Arts, where he studied painting until he graduated in 1982. In 1984, despite his parents’ protestations, he decamped to Brazil with a boyfriend. Returning the next year, Cain, like many young artists just starting out in the city to this day, began a string of studio-assistant jobs for high-profile 1980s figures including Donald Baechler, McDermott & McGough, and Ray Smith. Following a disagreement with Smith, Cain quit on the spot; it was the last time he worked for another artist. Not one to compromise his ideals, his independent streak and sense of pride would greatly factor into his career in the following years.


Cain was very dear to many people, whether as a friend, a fellow artist, a lover, or even just an acquaintance. He clearly was the type of person you would want to be around. He was also painfully shy, which seems surprising, considering the self-confidence so many of his friends have mentioned. But this self-confidence mainly revolved around his artwork — his paintings are imbued with it. According to Cain’s longtime friend and fellow artist Frank Camarda, “Peter took his work very seriously,” an observation shared by many others.5 Incredibly smart but also stubborn, he could not be pushed into doing something if he wasn’t interested. A certain artist archetype comes to mind here, as embodied by Paul Thek: good looks accompanying social graces in the face of social anxiety, the “odd man in.”6 During interviews, those who knew Cain were always eager to attempt to describe his unique mélange of qualities.


As an artist, Cain seemed to have an aura about him. A recollection by one of his art dealers, Simon Watson, helps give context to Cain’s approach to artmaking. Watson was a key figure in downtown New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he ran a traditional gallery before opening a project space on Lafayette Street.7 He met Cain in 1988 through Camarda, who was working at that time as a freelance art handler, and he recalls selling just three or four paintings, directly out of the studio, where Cain was often surrounded by car magazines and paper clippings. According to Watson, Cain’s studio apartment (which doubled as his art studio) had the air of a “high school rec room/gym: not slovenly, but… running shoes all over and ‘Sorry for the bed.’” Still, in the midst of all this personal jumble, Cain’s work stood out as a quiet meditation. As Watson notes, “The drafting table was the one pristine space.” During studio visits, sometimes by inquisitive collectors, Cain provided mostly monosyllabic responses.


In the words of Nan Goldin, “Peter was very special. He was our all-American boy, a dreamboat.”8 Cain’s dating life appeared to have been rather lively, if not prolific; his good looks and boyish charm became a thing of legend. In conducting interviews for this essay, it was not unusual to ask how someone first met Peter Cain and then hear the reply, “Oh yeah, Peter and I dated.” Ricky Clifton, interior designer and bon vivant, claims to have been the first in the art world to “discover” Peter, while cruising on the Chelsea Piers. Curator Bill Arning remembers sitting behind Cain on a bus to a gay rights rally in Washington, DC. And let us not forget the period when Cain dated Misty, of Goldin’s indelible 1991 photograph Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC. All of which illustrates how incredibly full of life Cain was — a fact that remains difficult to imagine with so few traces of his personal life preserved in the public realm. 


* * *


Cain’s oeuvre more or less begins in 1987, when he was twenty-eight years old. In a fit of frustration, he destroyed nearly all of his early work on a trip home to New Jersey. The earliest surviving work, fittingly, contains a car. You can’t exactly call it a car painting, however. Untitled depicts a convertible cruising along a winding coastal road, its driver wearing sunglasses as he turns the wheel hard to the right. Across all of Cain’s paintings, this is the only motorist to be shown. An array of dry brushstrokes constituting pavement and roadside brush give the sensation of speed without much fuss. Based upon a full-page magazine advertisement, it is the closest the artist ever came to appropriating a commercial image wholesale, without alteration. Effectively a duplication of an ad, it fits within Cain’s work as an exercise in reproduction. As a test run of sorts, it serves an important role in revealing the paths he chose not to take, leaving behind narrative, the human form, and outright appropriation.


Throughout the next two years Cain focused intensely on his automotive subject matter, exploring various possibilities for representing the car through a wide range of formal solutions. One early series of grisaille paintings depicts mammoth 1950s sedans and station wagons (already vintage in 1988) parked in situ against various landscapes. The source images were originally published in the pages of Collectible Automobile, specifically a spread focused on Ford sedans from 1956 and 1957, including the Fairlane, Country Sedan, and Ranchero. Other works were based on sales notices that could be found in the back of trade magazines, many of which read like personal ads. Untitled (1988) is the largest painting of the group, perhaps sized so that Cain could fit the entirety of the chic-though-hearse-like 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood Series limousine onto the canvas without sparing any detail. Per the ad it was taken from, “All the luxuries including front & rear stereo, heat & air, divider glass, jump seats, $3500. Fly in and drive home. 919-537-4843.” Curiously, one of the cars he sourced appears to be split in half, a hybrid of the changes between one year’s design and the next, a combination of the outmoded and newly engineered.


Such early works reveal an interest not just in manipulating images, but in the ways that an image is capable of manipulating or influencing how one perceives its subject matter. One painting, Untitled (1989), shows Cain evoking high noon on the highway, when the asphalt, under a blistering sun, appears wet and reflective, mirage-like. And yet the painting is based on a photo of the back end of a white Oldsmobile at dusk, the fading sunlight reflecting off its body in puddles of light; the taillights are lit and glow ominously.


As many writers have opined, automobiles easily conjure the entire spectrum of modern life: money, sex, power, freedom, death, destruction, and salvation. Cain experimented with the car as a symbol, a ready-made image, by only slightly altering his source material of choice (primarily print ads from auto-industry trade magazines): removing a door’s lip here, elongating a chassis there, and repositioning the car within the composition of a canvas. Surely he was aware of his imagery’s possible connotations, but — and this seems particularly important to note — his friends are quick to point out that he didn’t know much about cars or what made them run, and he didn’t much care to know. Oddly, his early critics assumed that he lived for cars, as if he harbored a teenager’s after-school passion. For instance, Grace Glueck wrote that “some artists are fascinated by pulchritudinous women; Mr. Cain has his cars.”9


Gueck isn’t alone in linking the car paintings with carnal desires. Several rather dated-feeling (and, well, very 1990s) entries in the Cain literature go straight for the phallus, positing his rearrangement of car parts as a dismantling of societal constructs of masculinity.10 In this light, one might think of Mel Ramos’s crass pictorial commercialism. Ramos’s buxom beauties have an irritating quality, shared by waxworks, that makes you long for a hint of reality, some slight blemish to create a sense of humanity. In comparison to Cain’s incongruously stirring paintings of vehicles, these idealized nudes posing atop consumer products seem rather defanged.


* * *


And then came the single-wheel painting. Beginning in 1989, Cain started to render cars that appeared to be radically transformed from the quotidian vehicles seen on city streets and suburban highways. During this time, his subjects went from discreetly finessed (a chassis slightly extended) to radically altered. Looked at chronologically, this is the moment when all of his interests, and the ways in which he applied them to canvas, clicked. The images that followed became icons of his oeuvre. What seems to separate them from those that came before is a burst in confidence and ambition. Within that one year his paintings nearly doubled in scale, and the precision of his brushwork drastically increased, as seen in Untitled (1989), one of his first single-wheel paintings.


Each of the canvases features a car of some kind — a Mazda Miata, a Honda Prelude, a Porsche Carrera — shown in profile, balancing atop one wheel, with its passenger cabin completely removed so that the fender flows seamlessly into the bumper. The background of Untitled is composed of a series of stripes, the side of the road caught at high speed. Throughout the single-wheel works, Cain made good use of the cars’ reflective surfaces — hoods, rims, fenders, windows, taillights — as moments that would allow for greater painterly liberation, opportunities to introduce new colors and more expressive brushwork. Before starting each painting, he would concentrate on the form by making several finished sketches and one meticulous “slow” drawing per painting.


In keeping with the logic of his earlier paintings, each of Cain’s newly reconstructed cars began as a print ad. Selecting only cars featured in strict profile, he would cut the magazine ad in two and then overlay the halves, sliding each part toward the other until the front wheel and back wheel merged into one. Taping these two halves into a collage, he would have color copies made that he would trace and retrace, removing distracting details like the rising slope of a windshield. He would then redraw this simple reduction, producing the form that would appear in the final work. There’s an intuitive, homespun approach to how he made these car-structures, though many reviews told a different story, of these “mutants” being the product of some complicated process of rearrangement or transmogrification.  


By removing the passenger cab as well as the driver’s seat, Cain has negated not only the purpose of the car’s existence but also its place in society and popular culture, the widespread growth of which the automobile had helped enable following World War II.11 Removing the human aspect of the car, the fact that it exists to serve us, is inherently unsettling — what would cars transport if not people, and why? In this way, Cain created a fleet of self-sufficient automatons not unlike the replicants made famous in the 1982 film Blade Runner. Cain’s machines give new meaning to the term “auto body.” His early sketches of fused cars bear a notable likeness to Robert Gober’s drawings of enmeshed body parts, underscoring the importance of the human rather than the mechanical in Cain’s work.


As he examined hundreds of car ads from the 1950s to the 1990s, a new facet of Cain’s work started to emerge. By selecting only cars shown passively in profile, rather than examples seen actively twisting and turning through some bucolic or urban landscape, he limited the humanity of his subject along with the viewer’s potential empathy toward it. These images adhere to the strict frontality of mug shots, allowing Cain to focus our attention on the shape and iconography of the car so that in his work it becomes a sign without a signifier.


Critics have contended that Cain rotated some of his canvases — à la Georg Baselitz — after the fact, as a way to further abstract what had already been taken apart and reconfigured, to provide additional pictorial interest. Yet this gesture seems too arbitrary within such a focused body of work. A photograph taken inside Cain’s Bridgehampton studio (where he retreated when he became sober after years of substance abuse) reveals a work in progress already facing the wrong side up.


This early period, from 1989 to 1993, is Cain’s most prolific; he had a solo exhibition each year, and his work was included in many group shows. His exhibition history had an auspicious start in 1989 with an unofficial solo show at the Pat Hearn Gallery. The legendary Hearn, alongside her partner, Colin de Land, was one of the most respected and influential art dealers of the 1980s and 1990s. Hearn exhibited many seminal artists early in their careers, including Mary Heilmann, Rosemarie Trockel, Susan Hiller, Mark Morrisroe, Jimmy DeSana, Phillip Taaffe, Jutta Koether, Sophie Calle, Renée Green, Joan Jonas, Lutz Bacher, Laura Owens, and Steven Parrino. Cain received his turn when artist Jack Pierson, who worked at Hearn’s gallery at the time, recommended she visit Cain’s studio. Cain’s subsequent exhibition, however, was located in her upstairs space, apart from the main gallery, and he was understandably frustrated by his situation — a limbo of sorts in which Hearn supported him to a degree but couldn’t manage to sell his work.12


Although no eager buyers were lured upstairs, Cain’s paintings began to generate a lot of glowingly positive press. He received his first magazine mention in 1990, from Jerry Saltz, one of his most vocal supporters to this day, who gleefully described him as “tantalizingly difficult to classify, […] a strange, unorthodox, and odd young artist.”13 And yet many other critics had no difficulty in quickly classifying Cain as either a Photorealist or a Pop painter in the vein of James Rosenquist. Adding ammunition to this claim, his Pat Hearn show was accompanied by a pointedly unfashionable (yet unexpectedly interesting, as was Hearn’s way) group show in the main gallery that included Photorealists Robert Bechtle, Chuck Close, Robert Cottingham, Malcolm Morley, and, curiously, Sigmar Polke.


Rosenquist makes for a sensible if obvious comparison: both artists took on commercial objects as subjects and depicted them from unlikely viewpoints, uncomfortably zoomed in. A work like Broome Street Trucks After Herman Melville (1963) is Photorealism avant la lettre, yet something is quite off. The lower half of the painting utilizes only shades of yellow — like a tricolor print missing the cyan and magenta — while the upper portion contains an additional canvas layered on top, breaking up any remaining illusionism by emphasizing the painting’s objecthood. Rosenquist’s methodology and subject matter, even within a concentrated grouping of years, is fitful to say the least. If there is a connection between the two artists, it relies upon their interest in commercial imagery (billboards for Rosenquist and, for Cain, their equivalent in modern printing) and the methods through which it lures the consumer.


Regarded as a banal category for several decades now, Photorealism seems to diminish the intrigue of any artwork stuck under its auspices, implying a one-note attempt to achieve the look of mechanical reproduction with the human hand. A more generative formal comparison might be found in the work of Konrad Klapheck, yet Klapheck’s idealization of mechanized objects speaks more to the rise of automation throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Cain’s work also calls to mind artists who use the human body and its accessories as a means of abstraction, such as the Italian artist Domenico Gnoli and the unfortunately overlooked 1980s painter Alan Turner.


Two notebooks found in Cain’s studio after his death are particularly enlightening, in terms of not only his intentions but also just how committed he was to pushing his work forward. One, a pink notebook, reveals nuanced shifts in scale and composition from painting to painting; without the use of digital technology, working through such formal manipulations in one of his large-scale works must have required months of patience and perseverance. The notebook contains diagrams of every painting, drawing, and photograph Cain created since 1992, illustrating the composition and scale as well as the measurements and color of each portion of the image. When possible, Cain noted the date each work was made.


The smaller, spiral-bound Clairefontaine notebook, the more humanizing of the two, is dedicated to potential titles for future works, and it is brimming with ideas — some used, others dismissed as “corny” or with a simple “no.” This titles notebook is one of the most intimate artifacts to be found in Cain’s archive. While many of his paintings are simply titled with a car’s model name and number, later in his career he employed seemingly opaque titles tied to personal meanings. Some of the delightfully campy ideas show a softer or even giddy side of Cain, either playing with alliteration (LOS ANGELES LOVES LOVE) or indulging in the gay lore of classic Hollywood films and their stars: RAVEN (FOR ALLEN LADD), named for the male lead of the 1943 film noir This Gun for Hire, who played opposite Veronica Lake; FRANCES GUMM, the birth name of Judy Garland; and MILDRED PIERCE. GALAXIE 5000 is dedicated to beloved band Galaxie 500 (or perhaps the 1960s Ford sedan of the same name), while Cain’s amusement with contemporary culture can be seen in the unused title TEENAGERS FOR CHASTITY.


* * *


Cain was quoted in print only once during his lifetime. His words appeared in a Klaus Kertess essay that was included in the press release for his 1991 exhibition at Simon Watson. Aside from this one instance, there are very few primary sources for his thoughts and feelings, his voice, most of which reside in the Cain archive as short notes, memorandums, or guest lists with certain names crossed out. In a discussion with Kertess, cofounder of Bykert gallery and one of the most influential curators from the 1960s through the 1980s, Cain referred to Robert Ryman as the artist he was most influenced by:


In an effort to bring some verbal order to the mesmerized discomfort I felt in front of Peter Cain’s work, I asked him what he thought his paintings were related to. “They could be like Robert Ryman,” he offered; and then, after a consequent pause, he added, “but they’re obviously of something.”14


Cain’s response stopped Kertess in his tracks. Though he did confirm that Ryman and Cain are both traditional easel painters who share an obsession with “the means and medium of the acts of painting,” Kertess had already formulated an idea that Cain’s paintings were more related to the work of Duchamp, Kafka, Richter, and de Sade. In looking back at the cultural terrain of the time, it makes sense that Cain would have Ryman on the brain: in 1988 the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea mounted a large-scale exhibition of Ryman’s paintings that would remain on view for nine months.15


Cain’s fascination with the process of painting, and his sensitivity to the form, was lost on several critics who fixated on the work’s surface and facture. (Despite the praise many writers bestowed upon his convincing application of the airbrush, he never actually used one.16) Other writers were willing to dig deeper. On the occasion of his 1991 Simon Watson show, New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote that Cain’s paintings “elicit a visceral response, seeming creepily deformed or hybridized, shockingly sightless and limbless, like the automotive equivalent of blind mole rats.”17 Another reviewer rather smartly mentioned J. G. Ballard, specifically his novel Crash.18


Cain’s 1991 exhibition received wide coverage and secured a place for the young artist within the New York art scene. He was increasingly featured in prominent exhibitions and mainstream media, including a spread in Elle Decor and even an item in a New York Post gossip column.19 Achieving another hallmark of artistic success in 1990s New York, his work became a go-to selection for the curator of the moment, Christian Leigh, “the most flamboyant of the independent curators who had risen to prominence with the bull market of the 1980s.”20 Cain was included in “Slittamenti,” the big-budget mishmash of a group exhibition in Venice that — though no one realized it at the time — would be the swan song of the larger-than-life Leigh. While his name may not ring a bell to young art followers today, for a certain generation any mention of Leigh is an invitation to spin a good old-fashioned yarn. Cain, in fact, was included in several of Leigh’s exhibitions (most named after Hitchcock films, for no apparent reason aside from the theater of it all).


Within two years Cain had moved beyond depicting cars in the profile format for which his paintings had become known. The change irked some of the writers who reviewed his first exhibition at Matthew Marks, in 1993. The new paintings were based upon the 1992 Mercedes-Benz SL, a car that had quickly become a favorite for image-conscious professionals. Cain’s notebook of finished works shows that each of the paintings varied by incredibly precise increments. Such subtle shifts reveal two important things: first, his analog-age resolve to make a work by hand in order to see how it would read in person and, second, his interest, since the beginning of his practice, in abstraction over representation. These works, when viewed together as a suite of five paintings, illustrate his ability to tweak a recognizable image just to the edge of disintegration.


In 1993, a seemingly difficult year in the studio, Cain made very few paintings. Those he did make, a series of six small-scale grisaille paintings of vintage cars, appear to be relatively straightforward portraits. They were finished in 1994. At least two are based on black and white photocopies of classified ads blown up to the point of losing their detail, the halftone printing and visible Benday dots rendering the car soft and hazy. The euphemism “transitional work” could be applied here, yet this 1994 series, created for an exhibition at Daniel Weinberg Gallery in San Francisco, seems to be more of a placeholder, based upon older images Cain had pulled from his files to keep himself occupied.


* * *


New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a battleground. The AIDS epidemic decimated countless communities and families. It was clearly a time for action: by 1990, deaths caused by AIDS-related illness had surpassed thirty thousand; Jesse Helms and his Republican brethren had become real threats to artistic freedom and the National Endowment for the Arts; women’s reproductive rights were also at stake. In a particularly electric 1990 episode of the Phil Donahue show, an incredulous audience listened as AIDS activist Ann Northrop sternly tried to get them to realize that at the heart of the AIDS epidemic was a “virus that is spreading out of control because George Bush and the American people are afraid of talking about sex.”


Watson, Cain’s former gallerist, was an active member of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP); his goal for his Lafayette Street enterprise was to devote the space to multidisciplinary social practices that would be funded through sales of works by artists who were responding to the political climate. He had previously run Baskerville+Watson, which fit the classic gallery model and mounted exhibitions with artists such as Sherrie Levine and Carroll Dunham. Some of the artists he showed at his new space made work that responded to the era directly, while others, like Cain, used more conceptual means.


Detractors and lazy interpreters alike were quick to pigeonhole Cain’s work as a comment on (and product of) commodity culture — a rather facile argument dependent on the work’s medium and source material (painting, cars). Yet when one imagines seeing this work for the first time in lower Manhattan in 1989, knowing that Cain was the all-American (gay) boy that everyone wanted to be with, his paintings quickly start to sear. Like much of the art being made within the LGBTQ community at that time, his work spoke from a place of profound sexuality, sensuality, and fear, yet through his automotive stand-ins he held all of that at a remove. These perfect, erotically charged machines are closed off to the world outside. Weirdly sterile and completely impenetrable, they are, as Watson succinctly put it, “eroticism caught in amber.”


Young artists emerging at this time were part of a generation of individuals who were deeply wounded, bereft at the staggering presence of death and loss in their daily lives; society was largely against them, especially government officials, who stigmatized vast swaths of young Americans for loving who they wanted to love. Artworks that reached the heart of this moment lay bare an overwhelming feeling of displacement. Cain, at the peak of his youth and vitality, did everything he could to navigate that world. We can see him accessing what it felt like to be alive and scared during that catastrophic moment in time. 


If there is a landmark art event of that era, it is the 1993 Whitney Biennial. In a sense, the Biennial — a show that elicited countless reviews (both emotive and dismissive) and hundreds of college papers for decades to come — picked up where the culture wars surrounding the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art had left off. Now synonymous with identity politics, the exhibition included polarizing political work as well as cultural fragments many considered not to be art at all, most notably a videotape shot by a bystander, George Holliday, of four LAPD officers beating an unarmed black man, Rodney King, nearly to death. To put it plainly, many critics reviled the exhibition. As Michael Kimmelman famously wrote in The New York Times, “I hate the show.”


Of the two Cain paintings curator Elisabeth Sussman selected for the Biennial, EB 110 (1993) is arguably Cain’s masterwork. It was based upon a print ad for the Bugatti EB110, a model named after the luxury car company’s founder, Ettore Bugatti, who was born exactly 110 years before its debut in 1991.21 Cain’s auto, with its sharp, vivid-blue angles, recalls the race cars of F-Zero, the groundbreaking early-1990s video game. Set in the year 2560, the game’s premise is that intergalactic trade billionaires, desperate for entertainment, have fused Formula One cars with hovercrafts. Suspended upside down, presumably defying gravity with its sheer velocity, Cain’s car inspires a sense of dystopian futurism.


One of the most memorable views of the exhibition depicts the painting looming behind Charles Ray’s indelible work Family Romance (1993). Paired together were two mutants, a castrated sports car and an atomic family, the latter rendered nude in fiberglass and paint, with each standing figure scaled to the same stature, such that the patriarch’s height is the same as his toddler daughter’s. The brilliance of the juxtaposition was lost on many Biennial attendees. One critic stupidly joked that Ray’s family probably drove to the Whitney in Cain’s car.


A photograph taken from the opposite angle shows a Cain painting of a different persuasion, the pristine Untitled (1992) looming directly in the line of sight of Ray’s nuclear family, their pale, gleaming asses blocking the view. The pairing became a conflation of flesh and metal, man-made mutations and innate human desires. Both works illustrate the very current idea of queering heterosexual norms. Moreover, both artworks negate the very things that make their subjects identifiable: What is a Mercedes without its logo? If each family member is the same size, who holds the power?


Since the 1993 Whitney exhibition, Cain’s work has largely been left out of even the most revisionist histories of the 1990s. As highly polished, skillfully executed representational paintings, his work did not fit the mold of the time, with its Photoconceptualism, text-based work, and abject sculpture. Likewise, his paintings did not wear any of their theoretical underpinnings on their sleeve. Several artists and curators interviewed for this essay brought up — unprompted — the negative feelings Cain’s peers had toward his work in the 1990s, most likely inspired by his daunting skill and the allure of his paintings, qualities that were then out of fashion. In a way, Cain’s works were just slightly too early for their time, preceding by just a few years the embrace of figurative painting that valued subjective vision over representation, as brought to the fore by artists such as Elizabeth Peyton, Karen Kilimnik, and John Currin.


Recently the tide has started to turn for Cain. Both popular culture and the art world have come to fixate on the 1990s for two obvious reasons: one, the landscape of the 1980s has already been excavated, leaving curators to look elsewhere for potential rediscoveries; and, two, millennials are quick to revisit the culture they were slightly too young to experience. One could argue that this reconsideration was partly kindled by the 2013 exhibition “1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” at the New Museum in New York. There, Cain’s Pathfinder (1993) was paired with works by Nayland Blake and Sarah Lucas. One year later the painting was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago. Regarding the acquisition, the museum’s director, James Rondeau, emphasized the “absolute necessity of getting behind the inclusion of Peter Cain” in art-historical narratives of the 1990s.22


* * *


In 1995 a man began to appear in Cain’s work. He was Sean LeClair, Cain’s boyfriend, who he had recently met on a trip to Florida. Various drawings of LeClair appeared in exhibitions and catalogues, though there was no clear indication what these works had to do with Cain’s cars, nor what had caused the shift in subject matter.


Cain’s 1995 exhibition at Matthew Marks, his last in his lifetime, was a surprisingly revelatory and even intimate affair. No, the paintings didn’t divulge details about Cain’s personal life, and the press release was nothing out of the ordinary. In his New York Times review, Pepe Karmel insisted that the line drawings of Sean were “more seductive than anything else in the show.” The checklist alone reveals that Cain was busy, maybe even overwhelmed — he had also been selected by his unstinting supporter Kertess for that year’s Whitney Biennial, an odd choice considering his prime placement the previous installment. So there were paintings he had to make for the Whitney as well as his gallery show timed to the Biennial. In retrospect, the Matthew Marks exhibition had a peculiar air to it; the work was strong yet stiff, and there was little of it.


One of the newest paintings to be included in the show, Glider (1995), features an orange car reduced to one large taillight spanning the entire machine, the wheel wells protruding from both sides over a horizontally split background. The most noteworthy aspect of the work is the brushwork making up the long singular taillight. The paint handling is somewhere between quick and jubilant, a first for Cain and a welcome contrast to the tight handling in the rest of the painting. Up close, the light reflected off the red plastic reads like six quickly improvised approximations of an acidic Mark Rothko. Something was changing for him.


Cain spent 1995 and 1996 preparing for his fourth one-person exhibition in New York, his third at Matthew Marks, which was set to open in early 1997. One can imagine the pressure he was under, seeing the necessity of proving himself after all the attention that had been paid to his focus on cars. He finished his new work for the exhibition by December. At the end of that month, he had a cerebral hemorrhage, which was undiagnosed at the time. Feeling ill at home, he was brought to Saint Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center in Greenwich Village, where he entered into a coma. Three days later, on January 5, 1997, he died.


Cain’s death was particularly difficult to grasp, or even to believe, not just because he was so full of vitality, youth, and promise; even after his death his presence lingered. His exhibition at Matthew Marks was slated to open less than a month after his passing, forcing Marks to make a decision about whether to proceed and how best to remember Cain. The exhibition opened as planned. Despite an added section memorializing the artist’s absence, it felt as if there was some chance he was stuck in traffic on the way to his opening and would eventually show up. A picture of Cain, very much alive, standing among eighteen of his artist-peers, appeared in The New Yorker the same week he died. Marking the opening of 513–23 West 24th Street, a building housing Barbara Gladstone, Matthew Marks, and Metro Pictures, the photograph taken by Eric Boman, featured many of the artists who were represented by the three galleries. With its expansive Chelsea horizon uncannily free of the crass condominiums that now dominate the once-desolate neighborhood, the image becomes a document of a time not quite fully gone by, but mostly. 


The press release for Cain’s posthumous exhibition referred to his new subject matter as a “radical departure,” and rightly so; it noted that Cain had in essence taken up the much more traditional themes of landscape and portraiture.23 Without a car in sight, the exhibition consisted of his two new series of works: the Sean paintings and what have become known as the Los Angeles paintings. Based upon photographs taken by Cain, most likely from the vantage of a passenger seat, the six Los Angeles paintings depict nondescript storefronts and gas stations (three of each).24


The show was met with great enthusiasm and melancholy. Many critics were quick to call it his best yet, while noting that the occasion was incredibly difficult. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing for The Village Voice, praised the exhibition: “Now we see the beginning of the fulfillment of [Cain’s promising] painterly gifts and obvious ambition in the same instant as its end: an exceptional talent nipped in mid-blossoming, just short of full bloom.” Schjeldahl described the feeling and mood surrounding the exhibition most succinctly: “It makes for a singularly awkward occasion of celebration and mourning, hail and farewell.”25


The common narrative employed by writers after Cain’s death was that in the last year of his life he had had a breakthrough that resulted in the creation of this stunning, career-making work just as, sadly, his career ended. More accurately, Cain had begun his Sean drawings in 1995, including them in his exhibition at Matthew Marks and in his section of the 1995 Biennial catalogue. His doing away with cars was a methodical and measured venture rather than an impetuous stroke of passion. The aforementioned portraits — based upon his 1995 drawings, consisting of three exquisite paintings of Sean — were a commanding shift in his practice. This evolution was entirely shocking, but the organizing principles of the work — defamiliarizing something we think we have a firm grasp of — were undeniably Cain’s.


Immediately noticeable, the Los Angeles paintings do not contain any logos or typography; all of the signs have been emptied of their original content. Archival materials show that the original photographs were marked up, with some areas enlarged for further editing of the composition. While many words were removed (or filled in, depending on one’s disposition), other details were simply invented, a new tactic for the artist: a traffic cone added, the lines demarcating a parking spot slightly tweaked.


You get the feeling that Cain experienced a kind of liberation within these urban landscapes, equally desolate and teeming with activity. The paintings were created through a palpable sense of freedom. His brushwork is exuberant, his forms more peculiar than ever. A dense background of trees and shrubs in Untitled Number Four (1996) calls to mind Dunham’s figures from the same time period and also foreshadows Dana Schutz’s confident palette some seven years later. Even the brushwork of the painted asphalt in Texaco (1996) recalls the quick, dry brushstrokes of Cain’s earliest painting, the sense of liberation stemming from self-assuredness. The Los Angeles paintings carry the significance and weight of the last works produced by the artist, representing all of the works that could have been made had he lived.


Two weeks after Cain’s death, a photographer documented his studio before anything in it had been disturbed. As Goldin said in her eulogy at Cain’s memorial, it “looked like he’d just stepped out for a few minutes to buy more bananas.” Death provides unparalleled access. It takes everything from one’s personal life and renders it public. Beginning with the posthumous photos of the studio, it’s important to make a distinction between what Cain would and would not have allowed us to see (i.e., what he considered art and what he considered ephemera) were he still alive. Several unfinished works were found in the studio after his death. 


The studio photos are incredibly telling documents of the artist’s inner world. His studio CD collection offers a lovely picture of Cain as someone who kept up with what was hip at the time but also had his own personal taste: Nirvana, Sonic Youth, King Tubby, Hank Williams, Princess Superstar, some rock classics including Janis Joplin, and plenty of campy show tunes and gay nostalgia trips. A box of saltines can be seen lying open on a table; a bag from the MoMA gift shop affixed with a delivery label sits on the floor near a pea-green Naugahyde armchair with a torn seat. Above Cain’s drafting table is a cork bulletin board with several images and objects hanging from it; they include a photograph of Sean as a boy tacked next to a picture of a Sean painting, a photo of a car painting, and, nearby, an iconic Manet painting that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, The Dead Christ with Angels (1864).


* * *


A few of the individuals interviewed for this essay scoffed at the notion of considering the 1990s as a historical subject. Cain’s death has confined his entire artistic output to that era, leaving it innocent of not only the global atrocities that have occurred since but also the triumphs we have come to take for granted. Twenty years on, when driverless cars are becoming a reality and photographs can be shot, altered, and disseminated instantaneously, Cain’s iconic subjects have become less burdened with meaning. Today, in a historical moment that seems increasingly foreign, Cain’s three distinct series — the cars, the Sean pictures, and Los Angeles landscapes — offer up his ability to abstract the quotidian while discreetly pushing the boundaries of painting.


Saturday Disaster, the title of a 1995 car painting, was lifted from a painting in Andy Warhol’s early Disaster series. Warhol’s 1964 work contains two large silk-screened images of mangled bodies after a ghastly car wreck, while Cain’s presents the tail end of a green car as if it were sinking nose-first into some body of water. The appropriation of the title says much about his ambition to be worthy of Warhol’s influence. Yet the contradictory title phrase — a day of relaxation and freedom conflated with misfortune and tragedy — could also describe Cain’s final years. Stopped short just as it was growing in self-assurance and perspicacity, the true nature of his work remains undetermined, each painting a possible relic to be imbued with meaning — a bittersweet consolation. 



[1]. David Carr and Robert Ryman, “Robert Ryman on the Origins of His Art,” Burlington Magazine 139, no. 1134 (September 1997), pp. 632–33. Cited in Suzanne P. Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

2. Michael Kimmelman, “A Quirky Whitney Biennial,” The New York Times, March 24, 1995.

3. Carroll Dunham, “Head Over Wheels,” Artforum, April 1997, pp. 19–20.

4. Angela Stewart, “Peter Cain, 37, Rising Young Artist,” Sunday Star Ledger, January 7, 1997, p. 21.

5. Frank Camarda in conversation with the author, August 28, 2016.

6. Scott Rothkopf, “Paul Thek and the Sixties Surreal,” in Elisabeth Sussman and Lynn Zelevansky, Paul Thek: Diver (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 46–55.

7. Simon Watson in conversation with the author, August 18, 2016.

8. Nan Goldin, eulogy for Peter Cain delivered at the Whitney Museum of American Art, March 10, 1997.

9. Grace Glueck, “Review: Peter Cain at Matthew Marks Gallery,” New York Observer, January 18, 1993.

10. Simon Taylor, “Peter Cain at Simon Watson,” Art in America, November 1991, pp. 150–51.

11. See Bob Nickas’s take on Cain’s removal of the human, “Re-Make/Re-Model: The Car Paintings of Peter Cain” in Peter Cain: More Courage and Less Oil (New York: Matthew Marks Gallery, 2002). Robert Moor recently limned the potential effects of driverless cars on American society in “What Happens to American Myth When You Take the Driver Out of It? The Self-Driving Car and the Future of the Self,” New York Magazine, October 17–30, 2016, p. 36.

12. Carroll Dunham in conversation with the author, August 13, 2016. While there are slides of Cain’s work in the Pat Hearn Gallery Archives at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, there are no mentions of Cain’s show.

13. Jerry Saltz, “Wild Thing,” Arts Magazine, March 1990, pp. 13–14.

14. Klaus Kertess, “Cartography,” exhibition brochure (New York: Simon Watson, 1991).

15. “Robert Ryman,” October 7, 1988–June 18, 1989, Dia Center for the Arts, New York.

16. See Glueck, op. cit. Also Tony Raczka, “Defamiliarizing an American Icon,” Artweek, November 15, 1990, pp. 14–15.

17. Roberta Smith, “Review: Peter Cain at Simon Watson,” The New York Times, May 17, 1991.

18. Joshua Decter, “Review: Peter Cain at Simon Watson,” Arts Magazine, September 1991, p. 77. David Cronenberg’s movie adaptation of Ballard’s novel was released in the US a few months after Cain’s death.

19. Cain crossed the lowbrow paper’s threshold thanks to Cindy Adams and her gossip column. Adams supposedly started a feud between Cain and longtime friend Jack Pierson by reporting that the popular band the Black Crowes had shot a music video at Pierson’s West 42nd Street loft, when they had actually filmed at Cain’s new Bowery studio. “When both were on their behinds they were pals. Now they’re up-and-coming. And rivals.” Cindy Adams, New York Post, December 1, 1992, p. 10.

20. Alexi Worth, “The Trouble with Christian: Whatever Happened to Christian Leigh,” Artforum, March 2003.

21. For many years this work was erroneously titled EP 110. The mistake was discovered and corrected in 2016 during the creation of the artist’s online catalogue raisonné, www.petercain.org.

22. James Rondeau in conversation with the author, September 24, 2016.

23. Press release for the 1997 Matthew Marks exhibition.

24. Terry Myers offers insight into the source imagery in “Running on Full,” Peter Cain: The Los Angeles Pictures (Cologne and New York: Galerie Aurel Scheibler and Matthew Marks Gallery, 2005).

25. Peter Schjeldahl, “Hail and Farewell,” The Village Voice, February 25, 1997.