Westmoreland museum spotlights artist John Kane’s late-in-life fame
John Kane struggled to survive in Pittsburgh in the early 1900s.
He lost his infant son to typhoid fever and lost a leg to a train. He depended on The Salvation Army while battling alcoholism and depression. And he lived in poverty as a manual laborer and house painter.
Then, at 67, Kane became an art sensation.
His late-in-life fame is returning to the spotlight eight decades after his death. Kane artworks that were tucked away in private estates and museum storage spaces continue to make their way onto freshly curated gallery walls.
Starting Sunday, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art is displaying five Kane paintings it received from the estate of the late billionaire philanthropist Dick Scaife, former owner and publisher of the Tribune-Review.
In 1927, on his third attempt, Kane won a coveted spot at Carnegie Institute’s International Exhibition of Paintings, now the Carnegie International. The honor for the self-taught painter surprised art world elites — and humiliated his formally trained peers.
“Genius has been discovered!” The Pittsburgh Press exclaimed in a front-page story detailing Kane’s big break Oct. 15, 1927.
The praise signaled the United States was catching up to Europe by embracing post-World War I unschooled masters.
Kane blazed the trail for prolific American folk artists such as Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin, said Jane Kallir, co-director of Galerie St. Etienne in New York City. Kane was America’s answer to France’s acclaimed Henri Rousseau.
“John Kane changed the way that we looked at art as being something that doesn’t necessarily have to follow any set of rules,” said Kallir, who has handled the art estate of Kane’s descendants since the 1980s.
“It’s time for people to focus attention on Kane again,” said Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts for the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland, which has the largest Kane collection — 17 paintings and four drawings.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has on display two of its three works by Kane: “The Monongahela River Valley, Pennsylvania,” a 1931 oil on canvas of a landscape teeming with mills, trains and steamboats; and “From My Studio Window,” a 1932 oil painting of a bustling Downtown street with horse-drawn carriages, trolleys and pedestrians.
The Met features the works in its American Wing and newly reinstalled Modern Art galleries, spokeswoman Alexandra Kozlakowski said.
The resurgence in exhibitions of painters such as Kane indicates that curators are changing the narrative they use to discuss America’s self-taught modernists, once lumped together and labeled by pejorative terms such as “primitive,” “brut” and “outsider,” Kallir said.
“The story that we tell ourselves about modern art today is being rewritten,” she said, “because the story that we told ourselves 20 years ago is not valid anymore.”
The Westmoreland’s new Kane paintings — oils dating from 1929 to 1933, such as “Boulevard of the Allies” and “Turtle Creek Valley” — are displayed in the museum’s temporary site along Route 30 just east of Westmoreland Mall.
“His technique is very graphic. It’s very stylized, and every detail is there, every leaf on the trees, every row of foliage that he was trying to depict,” said Barbara Jones, the museum’s chief curator. “They certainly tell a great story of Western Pennsylvania and how an artist rises through various industrial jobs to become a highly regarded painter.”
Born in Scotland in 1860, Kane reportedly insisted at age 9 that he go to work in a shale mine to help support his poor Irish parents and six siblings.
At 19, he moved to the United States and spent time in McKeesport, Connellsville and Braddock before roaming through Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of jobs. He worked in a coal mine and a steel mill. He helped build the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the first U.S. public railroad, before the loss of his leg halted his career as a self-professed “brawnyman.”
“I was always on the lookout for better jobs,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Sky Hooks.”
“The wages interested me the most. The amount of work, the hardness of it, the hours and all like that, didn’t worry me a bit.”
When Kane watched stacks billowing smoke into Pittsburgh’s sky, he saw stunning patterns and opportunity — not obtrusive pollution and exploitation. When fellow steelworkers went on strike, Kane “was not on the side of the strikers,” Kallir said.
“No matter what we may think of that as a political position,” said Kallir, “it indicates a kind of willingness to accept one’s fate and one’s lot, no matter what deprivations it brings with it, and yet still make something beautiful out of it.”
Kane discovered his passion for art while painting railroad cars in McKees Rocks. He used a combination of realism and the abstract, what one might see in a photograph altered and enhanced through his imagination.
In many works, Kallir said, he ignored the Renaissance-born standard of single-point perspective — a realistic portrayal as though the artist is taking a photo. Instead, he combined several vantage points into a composite image to pack more elements into a single scene than a photograph could capture.
The scarcity of Kane’s pieces — an estimated 120 to 130 works — limits his exposure to collectors. Museums hold his most widely appreciated works, making their market value difficult to determine. Some pieces have sold for $50,000 to $250,000, Kallir said.
The Museum of Modern Art has acquired three Kane works since the 1930s, but “they have not been on view for some years,” said spokeswoman Margaret Doyle.
Kane’s fame did not bring him fortune.
“What he was doing was actually so new that there wasn’t a market for it,” Kallir said. When interested buyers emerged, “he didn’t have a dealer.”
Critics dismissed Kane as a “fraud” because he painted over photographic images; mixed media was a foreign concept.
Kane died of tuberculosis April 10, 1934, less than seven years after his first exhibition, in a Strip District tenement. A modest, cross-shaped headstone marks his grave in Calvary Cemetery in Hazelwood.
“He had huge accolades,” Kallir said, “and he died in poverty nonetheless.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or [email protected].