When Andy Warhol first hit the art world, he was only the second most famous painter to come out of Pittsburgh. John Kane, steelworker and housepainter, had garnered his own headlines in the 1920s, when museums discovered his ‘primitive’ oils. Almost a century later, Maxwell King and Louise Lippincott are giving Kane the attention he deserves. They do a lovely job on both life and art, and the amalgam Kane forged from the two.
American Workman presents a comprehensive, novel reassessment of the life and work of one of America’s most influential self-taught artists, John Kane. With a full account of Kane’s life as a working man, including his time as a steelworker, coal miner, street paver, and commercial painter in and around Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century, the authors explore how these occupations shaped his development as an artist and his breakthrough success in the modern art world. A rough-and-tumble blue-collar man prone to brawling and drinking, Kane also sought out beauty in the industrial world he inhabited. This Kane paradox—brawny and tough, sensitive and creative—was at the heart of much of the public’s interest in Kane as a person. The allure of the Kane saga was heightened all the more by the fact that he did not achieve renown until he was at the age at which most people are retiring from their professions. Kane’s dedication to painting resulted in a fascinating body of work that has ended up in some of America’s most important museums and private collections. His dramatic life story demonstrates the courage, strength, and creativity of his generation of workmen. They may be long gone, but thanks to Kane they cannot be forgotten.
John Kane saw beauty where others saw a tortured industrial landscape. His artistic eye saw the can-do spirit of Pittsburgh, often filtering out the gritty ugliness that other observers could not see through. Maxwell King and Louise Lippincott have achieved something quite remarkable with their insightful and balanced examination of a most extraordinary man whose talent enabled him to elevate fleeting moments of ordinary life to works of art for the ages.
American Workman is a long-overdue reexamination of the first self-taught American painter to be taken up by the modern art establishment. As Louise Lippincott notes, there are many parallels between our twenty-first century reality and Kane’s Depression-era Pittsburgh—among them, a glaring divide between economic haves and have-nots, and an art world hungry for the next big thing. . . . This is not, however, a rags-to-riches story, but something more trenchant. Although John Kane died in poverty, he left an artistic legacy that both spoke to his time and transcended it.
Maxwell King is the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and president of the Heinz Endowments. He is the author of the poetry collection Crossing Laurel Run and the New York Times-bestselling Mister Rogers biography The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. King also served as chairman of the board of the national Council on Foundations. His most recent job was president of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
Louise Lippincott is a historian and former curator specializing in American and European art from the Enlightenment to the modern era. She focuses on artists outside the mainstream, and the historical contexts that give meaning to their work. As curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art, she managed the largest John Kane collection in the United States. Previously she occupied curatorial positions at the J. Paul Getty Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art.