Sarah Cain’s joyful, exuberant canvases, currently supplanting a handful of 20th-century masters at the National Gallery of Art, are the right tonic for a time of transition. Dodie Kazanjian reports.


Sarah Cain, a 41-year-old Los Angeles–based artist whose wildly colorful paintings dominate huge spaces, is about to take over the National Gallery of Art’s soaring East Building Atrium. One of the most heavily visited spaces in the nation’s capital, the building has been closed for several months due to the pandemic but also to allow for a major renovation. The great hanging Calder was removed; the sculptures by Richard Serra, Isamu Noguchi, and Max Ernst stayed put but were enclosed in protective boxes the size of mobile homes. “It’s going to be so deadly in there,” Molly Donovan, the NGA’s contemporary-art curator, remembers thinking when the process began. “No art, just gray construction walls. What can we do?” Her solution: Get artists to transform the atrium while the work goes on. “I was looking for color, and Sarah provides that like nobody else—joyful, exuberant, remarkable paintings.”



From the start of her 15-plus-year career, Cain tells me on Skype, “people always give me the weird spots that they don’t know what to do with.” I’m on the East Coast, and she’s in her Los Angeles studio, surrounded by eight-by-seven-foot canvases that will come together as one painting on a very large, temporary construction wall. “I was really excited about the project. I thought, Okay, I’ll go there and make a massive work on-site.” Part of the fun would be supplanting the “old dudes,” the male 20th-century masters who have always occupied the atrium, and this thought contributed to the show’s title: “My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy.”


But then the pandemic hit. The NGA had planned to remain open during the renovation, but it was forced to shut in March of last year. As of this writing, it intends to reopen sometime this spring. Meanwhile, the actual creation of the installation faced new hurdles: Unable to travel, Cain had to figure out how to work from a distance and still keep the spontaneity of her intuitive improvisation. “One of my biggest goals is to make active, exciting, breathable work,” she says. “I’ve made more than 50 works on-site, and I love the ephemerality and the present tense and the energy this can capture.” The imagery (a giant purple-violet “X,” hot-pink and multicolored geometric abstractions, etc.) was eventually applied to the protective boxes by National Gallery design staff, who worked from Cain’s detailed drawings and were overseen by FaceTime guidance. “I’m actually excited to be doing it this way,” she says. “It’s been a big learning curve, but I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to be there. I can do this until I’m 90.”

Cain lives in the Garvanza neighborhood of L.A., near Pasadena, and her studio is on the property, with a view of orange, lemon, and apricot trees. In this worst of all possible times, she is busier than ever. She gets up early to feed her rescue cats and works nonstop until it’s time to feed the cats again and go to bed. “I started doing cat rescue so I’d stop dating assholes,” she says with a big laugh. “I have a really sweet boyfriend”—a marine biologist, whom she refers to as “my cutie”—“and a lot of cats. I trap them, have them fixed at the vet, and then release them if they have a food source. I’ve flown quite a few cats to the art world in New York.” Cain, who keeps in shape with strenuous hill hiking and online Pilates, is planting an ambitious garden in her backyard and has organized her pandemic social life around FaceTime teas with friends.


As of this writing, her exhibition “In Nature” is set to open in February at the Momentary, the new contemporary art satellite of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and her “Enter the Center” show is scheduled for July at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College. She recently joined Broadway, a new gallery in downtown Manhattan, where she’ll have a solo show in September. “I’m insanely overscheduled,” she tells me. Confident and full of kick-ass feminism, she manages somehow to combine femininity with her own brand of swagger. “There’s always been tough ladies around me,” she says. “My mom and my grandmother—and my dad’s a feminist, too. They instilled this ‘You can do it’ attitude.”

“She’s tough and she’s bold and she’s not shy,” says Donovan. “But her work embraces the feminine. That’s why I love it. It’s fierce.”


Cain left home in Kinderhook, New York, when she was 15, to go to Paris. She remembers hearing an announcement over the loudspeaker at her “horrible” public high school asking for foreign-exchange participants. She immediately volunteered. “I can’t believe my parents let me go, but I don’t know if they had a choice,” she says. “I was pretty hard to tame.” Her mother was a public school teacher; her father worked for the state health industry. Cain had just dropped her French classes in order to take more art classes, and when she got to France, she was “mute for months.” That year, she says, was “really brutal, before cell phones and the internet.” But a couple of years later, she was back in France on a full scholarship to the Parsons School of Design’s Paris campus. Next stop was the San Francisco Art Institute, for her B.F.A.

Cain began showing work when she was getting her M.F.A. at Berkeley. The poet Bill Berkson, one of her teachers, saw her wall drawings in a San Francisco artists’ space, and she remembers him telling her, “No one’s going to pay attention to your work if you just do these little quiet lines in a fuck-it manner.” It took her a decade “to get loud enough,” she says, but by 2007 when she moved to L.A., she had found her no-holds-barred approach. “I think of my work as painting moving into sculpture,” she tells me. “I’m very adamant that my paintings are not murals. They’re site-specific paintings.” Her work is abstract but neither quiet nor formal. Paint slides off the canvas and onto the wall and the floor. Geometric shapes collide with loopy undulations of riotous color. The canvas can get peeled back to reveal the stretchers and the underside of the canvas, which she also paints. Beads, hula hoops, and other found objects enliven the playful, often humorous, surfaces. Not surprisingly, the artists she admires include Agnes Martin, Hilma af Klint, Isa Genzken, Mary Heilmann, Judy Pfaff, Amy Sillman, Rachel Harrison—and one guy, Richard Tuttle. “The way I paint is totally intuitive,” she says. “I don’t plan; I don’t make sketches. I sort of see it right before it’s going to happen, and I have to stay in a state where I’m open to seeing it.”


The Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnick, who put Cain in her 2019 Frieze Los Angeles show, tells me, “Sarah’s compositions may be abstract, but they cross over into some other genre because they seem animated and constantly in motion. She makes a space for viewers to move around and inside her work.” For Frieze Los Angeles, which was held on the back lot of Paramount Studios, Cain transformed a classic brownstone film set into a Cain wonderland, painting on every available surface. Later that year, her first permanent public work was unveiled—a 150-foot-long series of 37 stained-glass windows (using more than 270 colors) at the new AirTrain station at San Francisco International Airport.


Cain’s unique brand of abstraction has always been highly personal, and it makes room for portraits. “They have the energy of the person,” she explains. In her depiction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the justice’s white lace collar becomes a string of pearls above a fan of vibrant colors; her Kamala Harris is the veep’s first name spelled out in cadmium red with hearts standing in for the three A’s. It’s hard to think of an abstract artist whose work feels so intimate. “I look at a person and see colors,” she tells me. “That’s how the portraits work. There’s a translation that is intuitive and fast.


“I really believe in living fully and entering into something even though it’s a risk,” Cain says. Her parents “still don’t understand what I do, but I think they’ve accepted that there’s not going to be grandkids. I’m one of those painters who needs to paint every day. Life would be miserable if I wasn’t. I know my reason on Earth is to make paintings.”

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by Daniël Geldenhuys

Photographed by Alexa Singer

Anthony Smith loves a good corner. The streetwear designer’s Woodstock house is on a corner, a flight of stairs leading to the front door bisects the roads at 45 degrees. 2Bop is well known as one of the holy trinity of Cape Town streetwear brands that thrived in the now-closed cult-followed Corner Store. We meet for chai lattes at the coffee place on the corner of Salisbury and Fairview – his suggestion. 

 

The house, like Anthony, is unique and unassuming. Nothing screams fashion designer: the most obvious clue that this is his home would be the Polaroids framed by the stairwell. The arcade games depicted in the Polaroids lived in corner stores under apartheid South Africa, portals through sanctions into the digital fantasies of 80s game masters oceans away. Access was priced at twenty cents, colloquially a 2Bop. “You need to have a concept that that’s gonna keep you inspired, that really resonates with you,” says Anthony of the arcade game aesthetic defining 2Bop’s DNA.

“I like to give my audience the benefit of the doubt. I think they can handle it.”

Pressed to name an all-time favourite game, Anthony chooses Street Fighter 2. “I’ve referenced it like a million times in my work. There’s a nostalgic element to it but it’s also just pure design genius. I could geek out for ages.” Perhaps accidentally, his elaboration on the game’s evolution sounds like a metaphor for the erratic journey that is running a local fashion brand. “You could never really master it,” he says. “You could always improve. There were serendipitous things that happened in the game’s development: a programming glitch where you could do one punch and it would go straight into another. People started mastering these things and it became a part of the strategy.” 

 

Of course, running a South African label means you need to do a lot more than have a strong concept that fuels your creative direction. The business savvy necessary to support creative outputs - an entrepreneurial role young designers are forced to adopt - has been a part 

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Model Juliana Coetzer wears pieces from 2Bob's Blue Sky collection.

of Anthony’s story since he did “the sensible thing” and enrolled in UCT’s BComm degree after high school. Half way through second year “I basically smoked myself into obviation.” The situation spiralled: Anthony put his course on hold, moving home to Port Elisabeth to recalibrate. When he returned to UCT it was to study Film and Media, levelling up with an Honours in English Literature, his thesis on the commodification of hip hop culture. 

2Bop was born in 2004 as a side hustle. Four years later, Anthony partnered with graphic designer Bradley Abrahams to work on the brand full time. In 2011 they opened Smith & Abrahams, “a modern take on the classic mens’ outfitters,” in Woodstock. Sneakers, streetwear and magazines were sold in the front, and 2Bop was manufactured in the back. “I think it was a bit ahead of its time,” says Anthony, though even then reporters lauded the space for its ‘cult following.’ That following multiplied in 2016 when Anthony and Bradly parted ways and the space became Corner Store: a home for 2Bop, Sol-Sol, and Young and Lazy. All three brands were (at least partly) produced and sold on the premises, and for a time it was also home to a design agency - easily Cape Town’s coolest creative space. 

 

Corner Store closed in 2018, not necessarily for lack of business, but more the challenges in finding common ground between three businesses at very different stages of their evolution (Sol-Sol, for example, is 10 years younger than 2Bop). Does Anthony miss having a physical home to sell his product? “To be honest, no,” he laughs. “A lot more work goes into managing a retail space for relatively small returns.” Selling online, he admits, isn’t as easy as it may seem, explaining that a lack of physical presence can be detrimental to moving product. Still, just shy of a month after our meeting, the AW19 Blue Sky collection is almost completely sold out on 2Bop’s online pre-orders. 


Freed from the admin that is boutique retail, Anthony enrolled in Threads, a fashion business accelerator course/competition hybrid by Standard Bank. 14 weeks of coursework compiled by an Italian university spanned traditional lectures and field trips across the country to fabric manufacturers and retailer head quarters. “It was kinda like a mini MBA,” says Anthony, confirming that he’d finally reached a place in his life where he could thoroughly appreciate a business course. And though he’s definitely too humble to mention it, he walked away 

with first prize, which included funding to participate at a trade show in Paris, a popup at Patta in Amsterdam, and a fancy Benz to drive for a year. 

 

“There needs to be an incubation program for young entrepreneurs,” Anthony muses. “I get approached about once a week by a young entrepreneur who needs guidance - I don’t have the time or resources. There are a few corporates that are planning to initiate incubation programs - I’ve written proposals for how they could operate based on what I’ve seen and what people ask me.” The ideal program would need to involve the perfect mix of education and funding: “A lot of people come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Being able to develop their first range in a risk-free way would be ideal. Maybe the first range is 100% financed, the second 50%… there’s all sorts of models you could use.”

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Model Juliana Coetzer wears pieces from 2Bob's Blue Sky collection.

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A key ingredient in 2Bop’s success may well be that its creator has never been seduced by the fashion industry’s false promises of glamour and status. “I never thought of it as going into fashion,” Anthony says of starting the label. “To this day I don’t see it that way - I see it as a medium to express design ideas. I tend to take my inspiration from other media like art or music. I’m not saying other fashion designers don’t do that, but I’m just sort of oblivious to what’s happening in that fashion world – I almost don’t consider it. I think for me it just feels more honest, not being aware of what other people are doing. I feel you can get influenced like really easily, even subliminally – it can be kind of dangerous that way. Things are just more honest if you look elsewhere.”

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