PITTSBURGH — For most of his life, John Kane toiled as a street paver, coal miner, and railroad worker. Then, in 1927, his painting “Scene of the Scottish Highlands” (c. 1927) was juried into the prestigious Carnegie International. At 67, Kane suddenly went from mill worker to unlikely art star. The press fetishized Kane’s laboring roots and lack of formal training, marveling at his double life as worker by day, artist by night — and further re-inscribing a longstanding disavowal of labor within the art world.
Pittsburgh’s John Kane: Life & Art of an American Workman at the Heinz History Center provides a new perspective on Kane. The exhibition accompanies a new biography by Maxwell King and exhibition co-curator Louise Lippincott, the first major study of the artist in over 50 years. Together, they present Kane’s experience as a manual laborer as integral to — not separate from — his art.
The exhibition also tells a broader story beyond Kane’s, a story of Pittsburgh between 1880 and 1930 and of the workers who built the city, including the artist himself.
Born in Scotland to Irish parents, Kane immigrated to the United States in 1880, eventually settling in the Pittsburgh area. Like many other immigrants of that time, he worked in the industries that made the city a powerhouse and built the fortunes of the industrialists.
After losing a leg in a railroad accident, Kane began painting, first on boxcars, then portraits, eventually creating an extraordinarily varied body of work that included landscapes, portraits, studio scenes, and pieces that merged memories of Scotland with his experiences in Western Pennsylvania.
The exhibition takes us through Kane’s journey from Scotland to the coal mines of Pennsylvania to the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are few overt references to labor in Kane’s paintings, but the lived experiences of a laborer infuse and elevate every facet of his work. The 37 Kane works in the exhibition — including rarely or never-before-seen pieces — become touchstones for wider themes including immigration, labor, and religion.
The tight intersections of “Along the Lincoln Highway” (1933), one of Kane’s signature Western Pennsylvania landscapes, echo the patterning of city streets, which he helped lay. His multi-layered application of paint in the “Gettysburg Address” (1930), draws from the techniques of boxcar painters and Catholic devotional art, both intimately familiar to the artist. From actual paving stones to a reconstructed boxcar, the richness of these comparisons is borne out in the exhibition space by the juxtaposition of Kane’s paintings with material objects, ephemera, and ambient music.
The exhibition thoughtfully integrates the more complicated aspects of Kane’s biography, including his struggles with alcoholism and mental health. A drawing by Kane, “Oakland Police Station” (1918) (never publicly shown before), narrates courtroom proceedings, an event that barred him from his family home. Exhibited alongside documents chronicling his arrests and hospitalizations, the show presents a more compassionate understanding of addiction, absent of the mythologizing tones that often accompany stories of modern artists.
The setting of a history museum allows for this type of display in a way that might not have been possible in a more traditional art museum. For understanding Kane and his world, though, these juxtapositions are not just revelatory, they are necessary. The exhibition not only gives us a richer view of the artist and his time, but also implicitly asks how — and where — does the worker of today fit into the halls and walls of museums?
Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Art & Life of an American Workman continues at Heinz History Center (1212 Smallman Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) through January 8, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Louise Lippincott and Anne Madarasz.