Points in Pittsburgh
Heinz History Center’s Art Exhibit Spring 2022
I attended the opening this spring of a new exhibit at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s strip district. An “immersive walk-through” of American labor artist John Kane’s “Crossing the Junction” oil painting purports to let visitors travel Pittsburgh’s topography as Kane did and explore his artistic process.
It doesn’t, of course, because Kane’s painting is a painting. He created it as a painting and it ought to be experienced as a painting—not chiefly as an artifice of Western Pennsylvania’s landscape—and the Smithsonian Institution-affiliated history center offers a misconceived jumble of leftist politics which sugarcoats a self-taught artist’s abuse, alcoholism and attempted suicide. It’s nevertheless an interesting experience.
The exhibit is based on what’s touted as new scholarship by Louise Lippincott and Maxwell King, authors of American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane, and the Heinz History Center exhibition features 37 of Kane’s original works of art.
With the discovery of shale oil in Scotland, John Kane, born in 1860, was able to work in Scotland’s shale mines after his father died. Kane—the original family name is Cain—walked around with a tin whistle, which is on display, and a sense of music and art. Like Pittsburgh capitalist Andrew Carnegie, Kane fled Scotland for Pittsburgh, settling in a steel mill town called Braddock in 1880. He drank too much, married Margaret Halloran, fathered two kids and hopped from job to job. He steadily kept creating visions of metropolitan Pittsburgh during and after the Industrial Revolution. Kane kept scraps of paper and a pencil in his pocket to sketch drawings. Some of them are on display.
The exhibit is horribly out of sequence. Wall plaques contain printed words which are too small to read. Crucial information and context is left out. For example, the part of the exhibit which reports that the American painter was injured in a railroad accident fails to mention that he lost a leg—that fact comes at another point in the journey—and also fails to mention that he was a very severe alcoholic. How did the injury occur? Was it alcohol-related? No answers are forthcoming. Indeed, the writer(s) all but blame Pittsburgh’s pioneering industrialists, including railroads.
Kane was also arrested and jailed, as Pittsburgh’s John Kane: The Life & Art of an American Workman admits, if sheepishly, halfway through the display. Kane’s wife eventually had him institutionalized on more than one occasion. She took him back and later sought to obtain a restraining order against him. These and other hidden, buried details are obscured by pockets of copy conveying anti-capitalist, leftist propaganda, which fosters confusion around the entire exhibit.
The best aspect is that, besides being able to view John Kane’s oil paintings, one is able to get a sense of the American laborer in Pittsburgh and a stronger sense of this industrial city in its day-to-day growth, progress and development.
Buoyant Scottish music plays early in the exhibit and, eventually, I learned that Kane enjoyed dancing while playing his tin whistle. I’m sure he had his reasons to drink—alcoholics and drug addicts do—but one is left to speculate, wonder and suppose why. In any case, Kane learned his artistic precision as a painter from his job in Pittsburgh street paving and was able, after the railroad injury, to use railroad cars as a kind of canvas with the permission of his employer, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad.
This endeavor allowed Kane to use lead paint and mix colors. He also admired America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, for being self-taught. John Kane was a drunk. By all outward appearances, he was unhappy, miserable and self-loathing. At one point, police reported that he attempted suicide at Pittsburgh’s Sixth Street (now known as the Roberto Clemente) Bridge. He was helped through various charitable efforts by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church. He ended up living with a pastor on Pittsburgh’s South Side when his wife showed him the door.
And, though he apparently never chose to sober up, Kane kept indulging a romanticized if plain, flat vision of Pittsburgh and its smoky, industrial glory in oil paintings. I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the man, whose writings are also on display. For Kane’s apparent—at least according to this exhibit—pro-labor, anti-capitalism, he, too, gained from the charity of a Pittsburgh capitalist. A final exhibition made possible by Andrew Carnegie allowed John Kane at the end of his life to showcase his work. The exhibition occurred shortly before Kane’s death.
This new display contains rare photographs and archival pieces, including six gelatin silver pictures taken by John Kane and images from collections of the Detre Library & Archives at the History Center, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art Archives, and the University of Pittsburgh Archives. The Pittsburgh’s John Kane exhibition runs through January 8, 2023 and is sponsored by Heinz endowments, the Hillman family, Richard King Mellon’s foundation and the government.
My favorite part has little to do with Kane’s paintings, which are less compelling as art than his life and ability to sustain his art and gain an audience at the age of 67. The Scottish music he played and enjoyed, from “Comin’ Thro the Rye” by Mithril Duo to tunes by Gavin Pennycook, Dulciner Dan and the Blue Skies Band, yields a jaunty air that may have brought clarity and light to John Kane’s dark inner world.
Points in Pittsburgh
Sarris Chocolate Factory:
Roberto Clemente Statue, Bridge and Life and Flight 93 War Memorial:
Prohibition, Ayn Rand and Clemente: