Death necessarily bounds and defines an artist’s career, retroactively designating the sum of all previous works as an oeuvre. Death removes an artist from the contemporary moment (in the most literal sense of contemporary as “living or occurring at the same time”) and seals him or her within the historical past. Critics have understandably mourned the work that Peter Cain would have made if he had lived. And that mourning has been all the more acute because the last works he completed before his death marked a dramatic departure from everything that had come before. Before turning to those last works, let me explain that by “everything that had come before” I mean cars — or, to be more precise, paintings of cars. Cain’s earliest pictures offer views of cars in their entirety, but he was best known for his subsequent paintings of automobiles compressed, elongated, fragmented, or otherwise dramatically reconfigured.
To make these paintings, Cain would start with a magazine ad, cut it up, and collage it back together, removing sections of an automobile (the back wheels, for example, or the entire passenger compartment) and refashioning the remains into a fantastical, if all but functionless, new model. For all the distortions he wrought on them, Cain’s cars rarely seem as though they have been violently severed from a larger whole. Nor do they ever look dented, bruised, or demolished, in the manner of a John Chamberlain sculpture. Cain’s recombinant machines appear instead as gleaming objects complete in themselves, newfangled automotive mutants or hybrids (if that term can be reclaimed from today’s eco-friendly equivalent) beckoning our visual attention.
With Pathfinder (1993) Cain offers, in side view, the radically reconceived body of a Nissan SUV. Rather than resting on four wheels, the vehicle now stands, impressively if improbably, on one. Fittingly, this wheel is its spare tire — the one generally not in use (and therefore attached to the tailgate). The artist Jack Pierson once characterized Cain’s pictures as “contemporary cars Frankenstein-ed into Cyclops in a highly skilled, photorealistic manner.”1 I like this description and would add to it only that, in contrast to Frankenstein, the stitches of Cain’s beautiful monsters never show. The surgery has happened, as it were, out of frame, in the preliminary collages, sketches, and detailed drawings through which Cain plotted and perfected his compositions. The surgery also happened, of course, in the artist’s mind. A friend of his told me that he did as much planning as painting, which is to say that the paintings were as much a matter of Cain’s imagination as of his technical process.
The artist’s peak moment of public visibility came with his inclusion in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. His “roommate” in the exhibition was Charles Ray, as represented by Family Romance (1993), a painted fiberglass sculpture in which a father, mother, little boy, and infant girl have been rendered, with anatomic exactitude, in the nude — exact, that is, save for the astonishing fact of their identical height: the parents have been shrunk and the infant expanded such that the whole family now matches the height of the little boy, the only figure who retains a realistic size for his age. As more than one critic suggested at the time, Ray’s uncomfortably exposed and impossibly equalized family would have been the perfect inhabitants for Cain’s mutant and compacted automobiles.
The Whitney’s 1993 exhibition was widely discussed by critics at the time, and almost as widely attacked, as the “identity politics” or “PC” Biennial. The show included more women, people of color, and queer artists than any in the museum’s history. But it was not simply the newfound visibility of underrepresented communities that provoked controversy — and, in many cases, consternation. It was the fact that so much of the work on display confronted issues of race, gender, and sexuality, including the urgency of the AIDS crisis and the institutional racism of museums. Perhaps the signature piece was Daniel J. Martinez’s reworking of the Whitney’s admission tags, worn by every visitor upon entry. For the duration of the biennial, the tags were imprinted with all or part of the sentence “I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE.”
I was working at the Whitney in 1993 as a tour guide so as to supplement my (shall we say) modest income as a graduate student while writing an art-history dissertation. I remember thinking of the gallery shared by Ray and Cain as a kind of straight-boy ghetto, assuming, erroneously as it turned out, that any painter so fixated on automobiles must have been heterosexual, and normatively so at that. Not unrelatedly, perhaps, I typically skipped over Cain’s paintings when I led tours of the exhibition. I had never been into cars.
What I failed to recognize at the time was the value of Cain’s refusal of political correctness in favor of a commitment to the medium and history of painting. His paintings remember and rework the legacies of Photorealism, Color Field painting, Pop, Finish Fetish, and Surrealism. If that struck me as aesthetically retrograde (or, perhaps worse, masculinist) in the 1990s, it now seems audacious. At the height of identity politics, Cain had no interest in making art about identity or revealing himself in any transparent or confessional manner. This hardly meant, however, that his identity was not marked by difference.
It was not until I was invited to write this essay that I learned about Cain’s life as an emerging artist in New York City during the 1990s — that, for example, he circulated within a downtown, largely queer art scene alongside friends and fellow artists such as Pierson, David Armstrong, and Nan Goldin. That, for a time, he dated an East Village drag queen and makeup artist named Misdemeanor (Misty, for short). That he enjoyed the occasional Joan Crawford movie no less than his monthly Car and Driver magazine. That he was all-American in looks yet shy, even socially awkward. That he identified above all as a painter yet refused to talk about his paintings.
After completing fifty-six paintings across eight years, Cain turned away from the subject matter of cars, focusing instead on the urban landscape of Los Angeles, a landscape that is, of course, inextricable from cars. As with his pictures of driverless automobiles, however, Cain’s paintings of Los Angeles gas stations and mini-malls are swept clean of people, not to mention cars (save for reflections in plate-glass windows). They likewise erase all text and logos from the ubiquitous commercial signage, presenting Los Angeles as an empty wonderland of geometry and color.
In the midst of working on the Los Angeles landscapes, Cain initiated a new series of paintings. They marked the entrance, monumentally, of the human figure into his pictorial world — or rather, of one figure in particular: his boyfriend Sean. There are only three paintings in the series — Sean Number One, Sean Number Two, and Sean Number Three (all 1996) — and no indication that the artist intended more. All three derive from a series of photographs Cain took on a beach in Fort Lauderdale in 1995. He shot them from a position directly adjacent to Sean — which is to say, lying on a neighboring towel on the sand.
In two of the paintings (Sean Number One and Sean Number Three) Cain rotates our perspective ninety degrees clockwise, shifting the orientation of his boyfriend’s prone body from horizontal to vertical. This reorientation of the larger-than-life-size figure is reminiscent of the upending of the SUV in Pathfinder, though without the “Frankenstein-ed” mutations of form. In Sean Number One we are positioned so close to the figure that we see only the side of his head (with the face cropped out) and neck, along with some sand, sky, foliage, a telephone pole, and a bit of loosely painted architecture. Sean Number Three pulls back somewhat to encompass a profile of Sean’s entire head as well as his shoulders and (arguably) a bit of chest. The painting’s background, almost entirely taken up by sky, suggests that our view of the scene has slid to the left, away from the distant foliage in Sean Number One.
Sean Number Two, the painting on which I will focus in closest detail, changes our view yet again, sliding back to the right such that we see a great deal more foliage but no architecture or telephone poles. Rather than framing Sean in strict profile, Cain captures him at an oblique angle, from below and behind. Sean lifts his head off the towel, perhaps to look at the water, and we see his shoulders, neck, upper back, most of his head, and a fractional view of his nose, forehead, and left eye. But what we see most spectacularly is his sun-bleached ponytail, which becomes, in Cain’s hands, a lovely cascade of intertwined strands of pigment. The near vertical of the ponytail divides the composition into two uneven sections: a larger “Sean zone” to the left and a smaller “nature zone” to the right.
The upward tilt of Sean’s head allows the ponytail to unfurl in all its visual splendor. In the other two paintings, by contrast, the bleached-blond strands are confined to a slender column of space between the towel and the body, and the ponytail, like the man to whom it belongs, seems to be in repose. In Sean Number Two, however, the ponytail has been raised and repositioned to suggest motion, the pull of gravity, a spiraling downward toward the sand. Paradoxically, the longer one looks at Sean’s ponytail, the less hairlike (or unambiguously hairlike) it appears. The interwoven brown and yellow filaments of paint seem as much like stalks of straw or spirals of pasta as they do strands of hair. But neither straw nor pasta nor hair is quite right, because none of these references capture the particular texture and intricate overlays of color and line that constitute this passage of the painting. As I struggled with this instability, I began to focus on something I had not noticed before: the slivers of sky and pocket of sand that peek through the brown and yellow strands. When viewed at close range, these tiny apertures not only contribute to the formal fascination of the ponytail but also remind us that we are seeing an arrangement of painted shapes and colors on canvas before we are seeing sky or sand or hair. What we are seeing, in other words, is the play of abstraction.
Cain's tendency toward abstraction surfaces even more strongly in his treatment of the birthmarks strewn across the expanse of Sean’s shoulders. Although these marks are of varying circumference, they all share the same matte-brown flatness. As we move closer to the painting’s surface, they come to seem less epidermal than optical, less a matter of sun-damaged skin than of oil paint and geometry.
I remained confused by Cain’s treatment of the birthmarks until I compared Sean Number Two with the source photograph on which it is based. Each brown spot in the painting corresponds to a specific mark on Sean’s body, but Cain has darkened its brownness and buffed away the patchy inconsistencies of texture and color. The small disks of unmodulated brown paint appear against the pink ground of Sean’s skin like dots to be connected or points of a constellation to be traced. Visible yet seemingly insignificant in the photograph, these birthmarks become epic in the painting. They pull away from physiognomic believability to become an abstract, nearly astral pattern in their own right.
Cain reportedly did not like being called a Photorealist, and with good reason. Upon viewing a painting like Sean Number Two firsthand, it becomes clear how much it departs from the reality effects of photography. I agree with the critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote, “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.”3
I have suggested some of the ways in which Sean Number Two departs from “the world as if seen through a lens” even as it relies upon and reimagines its photographic source image. In researching the Sean series, I encountered multiple photographs of Sean from that day at the beach. As I looked at them, I thought of Cain with his (pre-cell-phone) camera, lying beside his boyfriend and catching him, perhaps unawares, in the midst of a shared day of sunning and swimming. Did Cain know at the time that he would use the photographs as source material for a new series of paintings? Or was he simply taking some snapshots, for his own pleasure, of Sean? Were the photographs a byproduct of a day spent at the beach, or was the day planned around the production of the pictures? My intuition tells me it was the former, that it was just a day at the beach, and that, in looking at the photographs at some later point, Cain recognized the creative and compositional possibilities they afforded.
The Sean paintings were not the last works Cain completed. After Sean Number Three he finished several Los Angeles paintings, and he was working on at least one more at the time of his death. If the Sean series has nevertheless come to represent the terminus of his work and life, it is in part because Sean Number Two appeared on the poster for an exhibition that opened at Matthew Marks Gallery shortly after the artist’s death. The show had been in the works for almost a year, and, devastated by the loss of his friend, Marks considered canceling it. After speaking with Cain’s friends and fellow artists, however, he decided to proceed with the exhibition, and the poster went out as planned. The show was called “Peter Cain: New Paintings and Drawings,” a title that must have acquired a poignant, if not unbearably sad, meaning for Cain’s friends and loved ones. After this exhibition, there would never be any more “new work” to show. These paintings and drawings, including the Sean series, will always be his last.
Writing in The Village Voice, Peter Schjeldahl opened his review of the show in a highly unusual fashion:
“New York artworldlings ploughing through our daily curse of not-invariably-100-percent-useless art mail last month unfolded copies of a modestly sized poster and instantly reacted in ways that caused anyone who was in the room with us to stare quizzically. My wife heard me laugh from sheer startlement. Then she saw the poster and was wowed, too. Many exhibition announcements are intended to do this, and maybe two or three a decade do it: go off in one’s hands like letter bombs of unique, original beauty. It was — and is, and will be, as already a classic — the painter Peter Cain’s announcement for his present, posthumous show.”3
Schjeldahl slides in and out of different temporalities and tenses (“It was — and is, and will be,” “his present, posthumous show”) as though the critic were still adjusting both to the fact of the artist’s death and to the startling effect of the Sean series in comparison to the works that preceded it. His word choice (“artworldlings,” “startlement,” “letter bombs of unique, original beauty”) seems equally off-kilter. No less unusual than Schjeldahl’s prose, however, is his decision to focus on the poster in such detail. A work illustrated in an exhibition announcement, whether as a postcard, poster, or magazine ad, is meant to pique the recipient’s interest in seeing (and, ideally, purchasing) the original. Here, however, Schjeldahl reviews the poster rather than the painting itself. And he gives the poster a rave.
Late in the process of writing this essay, I asked the Matthew Marks Gallery for a copy of the 1997 poster. I made this request (which was duly fulfilled by the gallery) under the guise of research. In truth, I could have completed my essay without it. But I asked for the poster because I wanted to have it on my wall — to share in the beauty of Sean and in the memory of Peter.
Although we never met, Cain and I grew up in the same town: Livingston, New Jersey. Though only forty-five minutes from New York City, the middle-class suburb always seemed to me the very antithesis of Manhattan cosmopolitanism. Livingston was the province of the mall rather than the museum, the roller rink rather than Studio 54. As a boy, I never imagined that an artist (or, for that matter, an art historian) could emerge from such a town.
Rather than searching for the young Peter Cain in Livingston, I returned to that day on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I asked the gallery whether there were additional photographs, and they e-mailed me two pictures printed after Cain’s death from negatives found in his studio. In one, we see the sleepy-eyed artist in a pink T-shirt and blue cut-off shorts. He looks up at the camera, which must have been held by Sean standing above him. Peter lies vertically across a white towel set out horizontally. His legs extend off the towel; patches of sand cling to his upper thigh and calf. A pair of blue Birkenstocks, presumably his own, sit next to the towel.
Consider, as an extended caption to this picture, the following recollection of the artist by Jack Pierson:
“Peter was very boy. He smoked Marlboros, didn’t make his bed, only wore Wranglers or Levis cords with a Fruit of the Loom pocket T-shirt and a ski hat. He was a spoiled brat because anybody would do anything for him, and he basically did whatever he wanted, which was not much, besides paint and listen to music. Did I mention he was gorgeous? Pretty, like an angel that you just wanted to slap. So of course he got away with murder.”4
As Pierson remembers him, Cain was part slacker, part bad boy, and altogether irresistible. Looking at the snapshot of Peter drowsy (or maybe high?) on the beach, I know that I too would have let him do whatever he wanted.
The second photograph printed after Cain’s death shows Sean lying on his towel. It is a variant of the source photographs for the paintings except for one startling thing: Sean turns to look directly at the camera, and he smiles. Given the restricted view of his face afforded by the paintings, I was startled by the immediacy of his smile, by his lifted hand holding a lit cigarette, by the casual pleasure of his expression, by the particularity of him.
Would we know that Sean was the artist’s boyfriend were it not mentioned in almost every description of the paintings (including mine)?5 Rather than offering the sense of affectionate contact and pleasurable connection suggested by the snapshots of Sean and Peter on the beach, the paintings suspend Sean between intimacy and abstraction, between extreme closeness and partial inaccessibility. Cain’s paintings of Sean as a scruffy Gulliver on the beach are what he bequeathed to history. Although the posthumously printed snapshot provides access to Sean’s smiling face, that smile was not meant for us.
I go to the Matthew Marks Gallery to look at Sean Number Two on display in the gallery’s recent Cain exhibition. The picture has, rightly, been a given a long wall to itself. Sunlight pours in from the skylights above. I think of Peter and Sean on the beach and the distance separating that day in southeast Florida from this one in west Chelsea, the distance between a private snapshot and a public painting, between the self you show the world and the self you share only with your boyfriend. I move closer to the painting, as close as I can get without alarming the gallery staff. I take in once more Cain’s treatment of the ponytail and birthmarks, of skin and sand and sky. I back away from the painting and leave the gallery. I have just had an intimate experience with the picture. It has conjured for me a vivid memory of the artist, a memory of Sean and Peter, a memory of a day I never had. I call my boyfriend back in Los Angeles and tell him I miss him.
1. Jack Pierson, “Peter Cain,” in Peter Cain: The Los Angeles Pictures (New York: Matthew Marks Gallery; Cologne: Galerie Aurel Scheibler, 2005), p. 3.
2. Jerry Saltz, “Carpe Diem,” The Village Voice, October 23, 2002, p. 67.
3. Peter Schjeldahl, “Hail and Farewell,” The Village Voice, February 25, 1997.
4. Jack Pierson, op. cit.
5. Sean’s status as Cain’s boyfriend was freely acknowledged by virtually every critic who wrote on the paintings in 1997 save for, peculiarly enough, Roberta Smith in The New York Times, who referred to their subject as simply “a man named Sean.” See Roberta Smith, “A New Surge of Growth, Just as Death Cut it Off,” The New York Times, February 14, 1997, C 33.