Is it true that some one-legged painter has world-famous paintings hanging in the Carnegie Museum and other respected museums in the country? Is it true that he once boxed the heavyweight champ of the world, John L. Sullivan? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Is it true that some one-legged painter has world-famous paintings hanging in the Carnegie Museum and other respected museums in the country? Is it true that he once boxed the heavyweight champ of the world, John L. Sullivan? 

Question submitted by: John Mihelcic, Mount Lebanon

Sure it's true. You wouldn't think it to look at him, but Andy Warhol could really kick ass. The guy could bench-press three heroin addicts in drag with just one hand.

Okay, I'm kidding. Andy Warhol couldn't really do that, which is probably why he left Pittsburgh in the first place. If you want to be a respected artist in this town, you have to be a real bruiser. Like North Side native Gertrude Stein.

The artist you're referring to, John Kane, certainly qualifies. A first-generation immigrant from Scotland, Kane began working in the coal mines at age 9. Eventually he came to Pittsburgh, and by the time of his death in 1934, he'd done a dizzying amount of hard labor. As he later recalled in his "as told to" autobiography Sky Hooks, "I dug coal and helped make steel in one of the greatest steel plants in the world. I mined coke and sank and blasted shafts. ... I was one of a crew that built a beautiful bridge in Pittsburgh. I helped with the erection of the four great rubber factories in Akron, Ohio. But chiefly I was handy with the paint brush."

During these escapades, Kane lost much of his left leg in a railroad accident; he and a friend were crossing the railroad tracks and Kane was struck by a train that was running without lights, though he later said that he could "dance a jig" with his peg leg.

Kane even became a painter in a macho way: by painting the sides of freight cars. Eventually, however, he began to paint primitive landscapes and portraits. He was entirely self-taught, but his work showed promise from the start. As critic Leon Arkus once put it, Kane's work "reflects a freshness and a deep poetical sensitivity" who because he had no formal training, "produced a personal imagery rather than a stereotyped academic painting." He had one-man shows in New York and appeared frequently in group exhibitions in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

Kane later attributed his success as a painter to his varied career. Because he knew first-hand how industrial plants were built, "Another man might paint a plant that could never stand up. But not I." In fact, his key piece of advice to artists was much like that given by many an artist's parent: Get a job. "The best thing in the world for a young artist would be to hire himself out to a good painting contractor who knows his business," he said.

He did once get into a bout with a famous boxer, though it was Jim Corbett, not John L. Sullivan. The match between Corbett and Kane took place years before the former was a champion, and Kane recalled it being "a friendly bout" with "no knockdowns. It lasted only a few rounds. When it was finished it was called a draw." (And really, how else could a boxing match involving an artist end?)

It might not seem like Kane and Warhol were joined by anything other than a coincidental Pittsburgh connection. The only prosthetic Warhol ever owned was a wig.

They did have some things in common, though. Both underwent name changes: According to legend, Warhol's name was changed from Warhola when an art director accidentally dropped it from a reproduction. Kane's original name was "Cain" until an Akron bank teller opening an account for him wrote down the wrong spelling. "He had already written in the brand-new book 'John Kane,' and always being a peaceful man I didn't like to make a point of it." After all, "Kane or Cain, it makes no difference which as long as the money is safe."

And critics questioned the originality of both artists' work. Warhol's paintings bore a striking resemblance to soup cans, and in Kane's case, the allegations were even more scandalous. During one exhibition, an artist named Milan Petrovits charged that some of Kane's works were not done freehand -- but were merely photographs Kane had painted over. He encouraged local newspapers to take paint varnish to the images in an attempt to reveal the photo underneath.

Today, Kane's approach would be celebrated as some post-modern act of recontextualization or something. Critics would regard Petrovits as merely "fetishizing superficial ideas of novelty" and failing to understand art as a "multilayered creative process." But at the time, Kane recalled, some critics "charged it was unethical to paint in that fashion" -- even though Kane himself had always acknowledged that some of his paintings had been done in this way.

The whole affair resolved itself eventually, but the lesson remains: Life is cheap in the art world. And if you think working in a steel mill is tough, just try competing for an NEA grant.


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