Self-Taught & Outsider Art

John Kane and the City of Pittsburgh

Lecture by Jane Kallir [December 2002]

John Kane is Pittsburgh's most important self-taught artist, and also one of the most important American self-taught artists of the 20th century. Some of you are undoubtedly already familiar with his story, but for those of you who aren't, I'll begin with a brief summary.


As you can see from the famous self-portrait in the colelction of the Museum of Modenr Art, Kane was a big, strong fellow, and to the end of his days he was proud of his early career as what he called a "brawny-man." The artist was born in Scotland in 1860. His family was poor, so at the age of 9, John decided to help out by going to work in a shale mine. In 1879, when he was 19, he and his step-father emigrated to the US in the hope of further improving the family's lot. During the next years, Kane roamed around Pennsylvania, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky in search of employment. Buffeted from one job to the next by the vicissitudes of the economy, he helped build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, worked in a tubing factory, a coal mine, a steel mill, and as a construction worker and street paver.


Kane's career as a brawny-man ended in 1891, after he lost a leg in a train accident. With his physical prowess diminished, he had a more difficult time finding work, and when he did finally land a job as a railroad watchman, it was at substantially reduced wages.


In 1897, Kane married Maggie Halloran, and the following year their first child, Mary, was born. A second daughter, Margaret, followed in 1901. Family obligations made it imperative for Kane to seek a higher paying job, and so he went to work painting railroad cars for the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks. Here he developed his lifelong passion for art. At noon, while the other men were eating, Kane would slip back into the railyards and cover the sides of the bare boxcars with pictures. Much to his relief, the foreman didn't object, so long as the artist's creations were painted over after the lunch break. When the boxcar business slackened and Kane was laid off, he decided to put his new knowledge of paint to a more creative use. Like a 19th century limner, he went door-to-door offering to paint people's likenesses. Usually, his customers would give him a photograph of the desired subject, which the artist had enlarged and then colored with paint or pastel.


This phase in Kane's life came to an abrupt end in 1904, when his third child, a son, succumbed to typhoid fever. Kane took to drink and temporarily lost all incentive to work. He left his family for long periods, finally losing track of them for a full decade. I've always felt that Kane's many paintings of children were a kind of elegiac tribute to the family he lost.


After wandering about Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia for some years, Kane settled permanently in Pittsburgh. During periods of economic depression, he depended on the support of charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army. In better times, he worked as a house painter and carpenter. Nevertheless, he continually tried to find a place for art in his life.


In order to teach himself more about painting and drawing, Kane haunted the only halls of knowledge that were open to him: Pittsburgh's public museums and libraries. From these sources, he developed a hazy awareness of the procedures and subjects of the "fine" artist. He dutifully copied from books the things he felt he should know, and oil paintings, which he probably saw at the Carnegie Museum of Art.


In 1925 and again in 1926, Kane submitted copies of academic religious pictures to the Carnegie International Exhibition, which was then the most important American forum for international contemporary art. On both occasions, his submissions were rejected. On his third try in 1927, however, Kane succeeded in winning over the Carnegie jury with one of his own original compositions, a painting he called Scene in the Scottish Highlands. Kane was extremely proud of his Scottish heritage, and he frequently painted subjects that alluded to his native land.


It's hard for us to imagine today the public furor that greeted Kane's debut at the Carnegie International, but you have to remember that NOTHING like this had ever happened in the United States before. Kane was the first American self-taught artist ever to be taken seriously by the artworld establishment. The only relevant precedent was the self-taught French painter Henri Rousseau.


Rousseau had been discovered prior to World War I by modernists such as Pablo Picasso in France and Wassili Kandinsky in Germany. These artists and their European colleagues believed that painters like Rousseau, who hadn't gone to art school, could help them forget the stultifying lessons imparted by their own academic training. The modernists felt that unschooled expression was freer, purer and just plain better than the stale realism which, at the time, was promoted in art academies across Europe.


After World War I, these modernist ideas crossed the Atlantic, where they came to influence artists such as Andrew Dasburg (who was responsible for convincing the International's jury to accept Kane) and Homer Saint-Gaudens, the Carnegie Museum's Director. Avant-garde artists, sophisticated collectors and cutting-edge curators were all on the look out for an "American Rousseau," and they believed they'd found him in John Kane.


Like Rousseau's, Kane's paintings depict recognizable subjects, but they lack the polished realism that at the time would have been imparted by art school training. Neither artist mastered human anatomy, single-point perspective or volumetric modeling and shading. In their works, bright colors and relatively flat shapes allude to a separate reality of the artist's own creation.


Today, self-taught art has become an autonomous area of study, with its own museums, galleries and art fairs. So it's worth stressing how completely integrated with the modernist movement this type of art was in the 1920s and '30s. Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, declared initially that his program would revolve around three equal strands of expression: abstraction, surrealism and self-taught art. And he made good on his pledge. In the first decade of its existence, MoMA placed Kane in no fewer than four surveys of contemporary trends, including its fifth anniversary exhibition, "Modern Works of Art." Kane was included in the first and second Whitney Biennials, and in every Carnegie International (then an annual event) until his death in 1934.


In 1930, Duncan Phillips bought Across the Strip for the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, which became the first museum to acquire Kane's work. Other museums followed. Among them, the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and of course, the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh eventually acquired most of the artist's major works.


Yet despite his astounding acceptance by the cutting-edge American art community--which I have to say has seldom if ever been equaled by a self-taught artist--Kane reaped very little financial reward from his late-life celebrity. He paid a penalty for being the first, because there was literally no market, in the late 1920s and early '30s, for self-taught contemporary art in America. Gallery representation came only after his death, and benefited his heirs, not the artist himself. And some of the collectors who sought Kane out directly during the early years were not above taking advantage of him, even (it's said) using his weakness for drink to swindle him out of his work.


Not only did fame bring Kane little fortune, but his notoriety often had unpleasant repercussions. Kane became the butt of Pittsburgh's tabloid press--part human-interest story, part freak show. He was treated more as a curiosity, akin to talking horse, than like a serious artist.


And then there was the fact that some artists resented Kane's success. After all, people from all over the world competed to get into the Carnegie International, and a great many, naturally, were rejected. So here you have common laborer, a mere housepainter, who gets in, seemingly at the expense of many far more highly qualified applicants. Given that Kane was the only Pittsburgh artist admitted to the International in 1927, local painters were particularly outraged, and one, a man named Milan Petrovits, plotted revenge. In 1931, he got one of the local newspapers, the Sun Telegraph, to purchase a Kane painting, and then he removed half the paint, revealing a photograph underneath. Not to be outdone, another newspaper, the Pittsburgh Press, purchased a second painting and performed the same experiment. That evening, both papers published the evidence that some people had been clamoring for: John Kane was a fraud.


Now, you have to understand that incorporating photographic imagery in a painting, which today is common practice, was totally unacceptable back in the 1930s. And Kane's sin was magnified by the fact that the reigning mythology held that self-taught artists were supposed to be totally uninfluenced. Therein lay their much-vaunted purity and importance as object lessons for their modernist colleagues.


You'll remember my saying earlier that Kane had at one time gone door-to-door selling overpainted photographic enlargements. He now insisted that the two offending works were both done long ago. He swore that his more recent, prize-winning canvases were all completely original, and his art-world supporters actually had some of them x-rayed to prove the point.


Although fame didn't help Kane personally or financially, it was good for him artistically. Many people today fear that self-taught artists don't have the stamina to withstand the pressures of "discovery," and in fact this CAN be a problem, especially with the artists commonly referred to as outsiders, whose status depends in part on an extreme degree of remove from mainstream society. But for some self-taught artists, discovery serves as a goad toward more frequent and consistent production, and with mounting experience, their work actually improves. This seems to have been the case with John Kane.


Indeed, it's extremely difficult to date Kane's work before 1927, and I suspect that most of his surviving canvases were executed after his debut at the Carnegie International. Recognition by the official art establishment not only gave Kane an incentive to paint more, but the Carnegie jury's validation of his original vision prompted him to pursue and develop his own approach to image making. Instead of emulating academic paintings as he'd done before, Kane began to formulate his own, increasingly elaborate compositions. And the sizes of his canvases increased accordingly. Kane's development between 1927 and his death in 1934 was indeed remarkable, and I'd like to devote the remainder of this talk to his style and working methods.


In 1983, the Galerie St. Etienne was privileged to be appointed representative of the Kane estate by the artist's younger daughter, Margaret Corbett. When I first went to visit her in her home, Margaret rather guiltily pulled out a huge file of drawings by her late father. She'd been told by Valentine Dudensing, one of the estate's first dealers, to destroy these, but fortunately for us, she didn’t listen. As I said a moment ago, part of the mythology of the self-taught artist hinged on the belief that these artists were totally uninfluenced, and that their creativity was completely spontaneous. It was thus a sacrilege to suggest that a self-taught artist might have actually worked at his or her craft, learning and developing just as trained artists do, albeit in a more purely self-directed and idiosyncratic manner. Today, however, there is less stigma attached to revealing a self-taught artist's sources and methodology, and the stylistic development of these artists is finally beginning to be examined with the same degree of scholarly rigor that has routinely been accorded their trained colleagues.


Basically, I think that Picasso, Kandinsky and their modernist colleagues were right: since the Renaissance, European academic tradition has taught us, erroneously, to believe that there is only one "proper" way of viewing a representational subject. Conventional, single-point perspective presumes that the viewer of a painting is standing in the same position as the artist, and so only objects that can be seen from this single vantage point are included in the final composition. A single, unified light source, projecting consistent highlights and shadows throughout the composition, reinforces the illusion of realistic accuracy. Self-taught artists show us, however, that the human mind is capable of imagining reality in many far more creative and varied ways than this. The miracle of self-taught art derives from the way the artist envisages a given subject and then goes about crafting a concrete pictorial expression of that vision, in the absence of any substantive artistic training. A self-taught artist's studies and source materials thus offer an amazing window into the very soul of the creative process.


For the paintings of Pittsburgh that form the core of Kane's achievement the artist didn't have recourse to library books. So far as I can tell, all his landscapes were based on direct observation. These paintings contain a multitude of little vignettes, and Kane did location studies of many, but apparently not all, of them. To craft his final compositions, he augmented his pencil drawings with camera studies (most of which don't seem to have survived), though the results diverge significantly from photographic reality. Kane also said that he made careful color studies on location, though these, too, don't seem to have survived, or in any case can't be conclusively identified as such. But what's most interesting to me, above and beyond basic working methodology, is that way Kane re-imagined the city of Pittsburgh.


For example, if you stand where Kane, in his painting Panther Hollow, tells us he must have been standing, you don't see any of the background details that appear in the painting. The only way you can see those details-- ushc as the Cathedral of Learning and the Schenley Park Conservatory--is if you stand on the bridge that's depicted in the painting. And of course, if you're standing on the bridge, you can’t also see or paint it. Furthermore, the Cathedral of Learning and the Conservatory can't be seen from the same angle. Kane clearly combined a number of views seen from different locations to express HIS vision of Panther Hollow.


The artist was concerned with making sure that everything he knew to be part of a particular setting be included in his final rendering, regardless of whether it should, in fact, be included according to the rules of conventional perspective. His paintings of Pittsburgh were not photographically accurate depictions of the city, but rather subjective catalogues of the elements that Kane considered important. He had, after all, helped build this city--worked on its bridges, its railroads, paved its roads, hammered and painted its buildings. In this sense, all the Pittsburgh scenes are actually self-portraits, and they reflect an emotional, rather than a literal reality.


Kane also had a tendency to tighten up or compress "empty" spaces, or, alternatively, to embellish them. He might, for example, make a tree-covered hillside more interesting by filling it with little houses. In some cases this was an act of pure imagination, and in others he merely "removed" concealing foliage to reveal buildings that were actually there.


Kane's drawings give some indication of how the artist was able to achieve his reconstructed realities. Never did he draw a complete vista. By focusing only on smaller details in his studies, Kane separated them from their original pictorial context, which must have made it easier to reassemble the vignettes in his studio. He melded the disparate components of his cityscapes so seamlessly that unless you go out and find the actual sites, you can scarcely detect his manipulation of reality.


It wasn't, however, just in his choice of vignettes that Kane's cityscapes reflected an emotional rather than a literal reality. The painting Prosperity's Increase, in both its contents and its title, gives a good indication of John Kane's take on Pittsburgh. When the artist looked at the billowing smokestacks of a bustling factory, he saw not choking pollution, but the majestic surge of prosperity. When he looked at the warm brown brick walls of a tenement, he saw not desperate poverty, but a myriad gentle, noble lives and simple, easily satisfied ambitions.


There are several ways to look at Kane's surprisingly optimistic, idealized view of his often bleak reality. Some might call him politically naïve--an exploited, impoverished worker who refused to take sides in strikes but instead seemingly worshipped American industry. Keeping in mind that Kane was painting at the height of the Great Depression, when America was beset by labor unrest and threats of Communist insurrection, it's easy to imagine that the scions of industrial Pittsburgh were heartened by his benign vision of the urban scene.


But there's another way of looking at John Kane. Cynicism and irony have become epidemic in the last decade or so. We admire our contemporary outsider artists for their wayward biographies and their often dark, bizarre visions. We choose these artists, to some extent, because they reflect our own vision of modern American society, just as Kane reflected the agenda of his contemporaries. And while his work may have provided affirmation of questionable industrial practices, it was nonetheless authentic. Kane painted slums without squalor, industry without horror--not because he didn't know the truth about industrial Pittsburgh but, amazingly, despite the fact that he did.


I'd venture to guess that Kane knew a reality far harsher than any experienced by anyone in this room today. And yet he also found the resources, both within himself and without, to transcend his daily misery. "The object of my life has been to find beauty," he wrote in his autobiography. "That I have had to do in the face of many hardships. [But] I have not lost sight of the most important thing in life, the search for beauty. It has always been my belief that unless we leave the world better than we found it, and more beautiful, our individual lives will have been failures. "


I believe that Kane fulfilled his goal in a way that few self-taught artists, before or since, have equaled.