If you think the Carnegie International is nothing more than a hoity-toity art show put together exclusively for the cultural elite, you’d better think again.
On display among the works of 35 artists from 19 countries are drawings by Joseph Yoakum (1889-1972), a man of African-American and Native American descent who spent much of his life as a bill-poster for several circuses before picking up a pencil to record his memories in the form of imaginary landscapes, and another self-taught artist, Guo Fengyi, a retired factory worker from China who draws with ink on cloth and rice paper as a means of meditation and to create drawings that function as cosmic diagrams or healing devices.
Works by self-taught artists have been making their way occasionally into the Carnegie International since 1927, when “Scene From the Scottish Highlands” by Pittsburgher John Kane (1860-1934) was accepted.
“This was an absolute sensation. This had never happened before,” says Jane Kallir, co-director of Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan, which represents the Kane estate. “The tabloid press was all over him. It was like a really big deal. We are used to self-taught artists today, but in 1927, it was a sensation.”
Kane was far from an academically trained artist. Born in Scotland in 1860, by the early age of 9, he was already at work in a shale mine. After emigrating to this country in 1879 and settling in Pittsburgh, he became a “jack-of-all-trades,” working on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, in a tubing factory, a coal mine, a steel mill, and as a construction worker, street paver and house painter, according to Kallir.
By the time he took to painting, Kallir says, “He had fallen upon hard times, partly because of economic problems, partly because he had a drinking problem. And in order to try and make ends meet he had begun painting, going around door-to-door.”
For Kane, the Carnegie Museum and also the Carnegie libraries, “were kind of a free art school,” Kallir says.
Undaunted by his lack of formal training, “He began painting bigger and more ambitiously, and he started sending his paintings to the jury of the Carnegie International,” she says.
“He was rejected twice, and then, on his third try, a group of more progressive-minded artists, led by a man named Andrew Dasburg, accepted him,” Kallir says.
Kallir says that Dasburg, a Cubist painter and fan of American folk art, and his fellow jurors “were looking for an American contemporary artist (like Henri Rousseau), and that turned out to be John Kane.”
French folk painter Rousseau’s natural, untrained talent was discovered and heralded by Pablo Picasso.
Despite this, many believed Kane’s inclusion in the 1927 International was an elaborate hoax. Nevertheless, the success brought to Kane continued in the few years that remained before his death from tuberculosis in 1934.
His paintings were not only exhibited at successive Internationals, but also were shown at Harvard, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Within three years of his first recognition, he had sold works to such notables as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr.) and John Dewey, chairman of the department of philosophy at Columbia University.
Ironically, today, the once well-known work of Dasburg has dropped into relative obscurity, while that of Kane is still prominently displayed in such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Daniel Baumann, one of three co-curators of the current International, says that in spite of the 1927 jurors’ good intentions, “I don’t think they were aware of what kind of gesture that was.”
Today, Baumann says, the role of the self-taught artist is much different. “I know artists who are in the art world that are making big money, and they never went to art school, either,” he says.
In that regard, Baumann says that is why visitors to this International will find works by the self-taught among those of the academically trained. “I think, nowadays, most people think all the art they see in institutions is all by professionals and that they make it for a very specific market, but that’s not true,” he says. “Art happens in places that we don’t expect it at all.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].