John Kane, the First Self-Taught Artist to Be Featured in a U.S. Museum, Gets the Biography Treatment

These days, the painter John Kane is unfamiliar to many. But it wasn’t always that way.

In 1927, the New York Daily News ran an article about Kane underneath the headline “Combines Art and Trade!” A photograph that came with the article showed the plainspoken artist at his easel, painting a quaint scene showing Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania city he called home.

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Three years later, when he became the only hometown artist to make the participant list of the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh’s internationally respected biennial that still takes place today, the New York Times devoted an entire item to Kane. In being included in that show, he had by some measures become the first self-taught artist in the U.S. to show at a museum. The newspaper reported that Kane was considered to be “the ‘find’ of the generation” by “international juries,” and quoted the artist as saying, “My neighbors tell me the critics are troubled whether I be impressionist, modernist or classicist, but these things I do not understand.”

How, exactly, did an artist so blissfully aware of the modernist avant-garde draw so much acclaim that Edward Hopper even called himself one of his defenders? And how does an artist with such a following drop out of art history? American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane (Princeton University Press), a new biography by Maxwell King and Louise Lippincott, explores these questions, which have some complicated answers.

For Lippincott, a former curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art, those answers lie in the false ways many of us have chosen to classify artists who do not take a traditional track to fame.

“Today, [scholars and dealers] file Kane in a multicultural ‘outsider’ box with folk, self-taught, Sunday, naïve, and vernacular artists, as MoMA considers dropping them from the canon altogether,” Lippincott writes. “But even in this fashionable context, designed to showcase rather than marginalize the undervalued achievements of women, Black, rural, and indigenous artists, Kane the surly aging white male laborer remains thoroughly out of style.”

Lippincott’s statement about the Museum of Modern Art isn’t quite true—the gallery still hangs Kane’s 1929 self-portrait in the museum’s “Masters of Popular Painting” gallery. A true gem of MoMA’s collection, it features a shirtless Kane flexing for the viewer, the veins in his arms bulging so far out, they appear as though they might pop through his skin. But she is right that the problematic terms “outsider” and “primitive,” both of them employed toward racist, sexist, ableist, and classist ends, have long dogged Kane’s work. One of the first times that MoMA showed that self-portrait, the painting figured in a show of “modern primitives.”

Painting of a white shirtless man who flexes his muscles. Three bands of white form a half halo above him.

John Kane titled this painting Seen in the Mirror for a 1928 exhibition, and John Kane in the Looking Glass in 1931. John Kane, Self-Portrait, ca. 1929.

And so it is with this book that Lippincott and King, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, aim to set the record straight. Lippincott asserts that “the disconnects between elite and worker languages and cultures” in part explain the misunderstandings, some of which are probably willful ones. Sky Hooks, an “autobiography” of Kane was authored by journalist Marie McSwigan, includes a number of erroneous details, according to the writers of American Workman. Thankfully, there is this new biography to disentangle some those lies.

For biographers, Kane’s life story poses a unique issue: he didn’t commit himself to art until relatively late in life, though at what point is also up for debate. (Lippincott writes that before Kane showed in museums, he painted between 1899 and 1927 for his bosses and his fellow workers who, she writes, served for him as “his ‘contemporary art world.’”) To solve that problem, King and Lippincott divided American Workman into two sections that they wrote separately, one focused almost exclusively on Kane’s life, the other on his art.

King takes the biographical half of Kane’s career, which King begins some years before the artist was even born in 1860 in West Calder, Scotland. King briskly charts how Kane’s parents struggled financially in Scotland, and then how Kane came in 1880 to the U.S., where he took jobs in the railroad industry, in the coal mining business, and in production of coke, which is used to make steel.

What follows is not just art history but also labor history. That King comes to rely so heavily on chronicles of the highly exploitative conditions workers faced in Pittsburgh at the time to help explain how Kane came to drawing is not a coincidence. For Kane, there was no separation between art and work.

Archival photograph of a white pan standing before a painting on an easel. The headline about the image reads 'Combines Art and Trade!'

John Kane by an easel, photo accompanying news article in the New York Daily News, October 21, 1927.

As King writes, the drawings Kane made while he was a worker served as “a reflection of the world around him, a creative outlet in the life of a hardworking laborer, and an expression of his character, increasingly given to solitude.”

Art may have also been a welcome reprieve from the difficulties his life presented, which included a leg injury that occurred when a train ran over it (he did not collect damages from the railroad because he was in the wrong, he said), a struggle with drinking that we would now recognize as alcoholism, and cracks in his marriage that resulted from his addiction. But it was not until the very end of the 19th century that he took up a brush when he became a house painter—the job that “contributed most of all towards my artistic work”—and it was not for a couple decades after that that he would devote himself more fully toward art.

What Kane wound up producing is unclassifiable. There were landscapes of Pittsburgh in which rollicking green fields exist side by side with industry. There were self-portraits like the one in MoMA that acted as a showcase for Kane’s pecs (and, rather unusually, his prosthetic leg). There were patriotic subjects, such as one painting paying homage that includes text from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and there were personal ones, such as images of Kane himself laboring away (on art, that is).

More than anything else, this is a profoundly weird body of work, something that American Workman seems unwilling to acknowledge. Take Kane’s 1933 painting Pietà, which features a weeping Virgin Mary before two cathedrals that can still be spotted today in Pittsburgh. Transposing an art-historical image of the past onto the Rust Belt of Kane’s present is a truly strange device, but it’s one that makes this painting sing. You want Lippincott to lighten up a little when she picks apart Kane’s possible allusions to 16th-century painting and concludes that Pietà is a “personal allegory” that encapsulates his own faith.

Painting mostly of an American flag with the text of the Gettysburg address. On the left center is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln

John Kane, The Gettysburg Address, ca. 1930.

Still, Lippincott should be applauded for the deep research in her half of the book, which focuses exclusively on Kane’s art. There’s a tendency to romanticize Kane’s art as being emblematic of the American experience, and she for the most part does not fall into that trap. If anything, she has devoted herself to knocking those who do so down a peg.

The organizers of the Carnegie International, for example, rejected Kane’s painting Hills and Rivers, Steamboat at Sleepy Hollow, in which green ridges are shown from an elevated viewpoint. This landscape may seem quaint, but it contains secrets legible only to those who know how to read them. Nestled in one hill is a building that Lippincott identifies as a “county prison incarcerating Pittsburgh’s poor.”

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“Kane’s view depicts the short path between a Pittsburgh workman’s earthly success and failure, but its local, working-class symbolism would be lost on a jury of modernist painters from out of town,” she concludes.

Are members of the art-world elite still like that jury, curious about art like Kane’s but unsure quite what to do with it? American Workman suggests that times may be changing, and so too does a show like “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” a landmark 2018 survey that aimed to reposition “outsider art” to be less exclusionary. Kane figured in that show alongside figures more widely accepted in the international art world, including Betye Saar and Greer Lankton. While Kane’s work may still be a fixture at MoMA, maybe it’s time he’s broken out of that stuffy “Masters of Popular Painting” gallery. American Workman may provide the groundwork for doing just that.


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