Reactor

Smithsonian Brings Self-Taught Art to the Masses with James Castle

by Allison Meier on January 14, 2014

James Castle, "Untitled," found paper and soot, 8 1/2 x 10 1/4 (Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment)

James Castle, “Untitled,” found paper and soot, 8 1/2 x 10 1/4 in (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment) (all images courtesy the Smithsonian)

Using spit and soot, artist James Castle communicated with the world. Castle, who was deaf, spent his life in Idaho, using art as his main outlet; he never signed, spoke, or wrote in any direct way. This vision of a noble savant toiling in solitude on thousands of striking artworks has made Castle a favorite in the realm of self-taught artists. But the Smithsonian American Art Museum is aiming to look past this compartmentalization.

“He is often assumed to have lived a form of extreme isolation,” the text for The World of James Castle reads. “This exhibition seeks to move beyond such biography, to appreciate the remarkable quality of Castle’s vision, and to question how the works themselves can elucidate the world of one of the most enigmatic American artists of the twentieth century.”

James Castle, "Untitled," found paper and soot (Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment)

James Castle, “Untitled,” found paper and soot (Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment)

The Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired 54 works by Castle, who lived from 1899 to 1977, last year. The upcoming exhibition, organized by Nicholas R. Bell, the museum’s curator of American Craft and Decorative Art, will open on September 26 with selections from the Castle collection. The museum has focused on folk and self-taught art for some 40 years, and had a strong permanent collection in the field before many institutions were taking such work seriously.

The Castle show comes alongside other recent acquisitions like the “music catalogue” of Mingering Mike, an imagined soul singer, which will go on view in its own exhibition in February 2015. (Here’s Hyperallergic’s coverage of that acquisition.) However, what makes the James Castle exhibition especially interesting is that it will travel.

The museum’s traveling shows are a way to reach audiences across the country, especially in areas with smaller art institutions. Perhaps for that reason, they typically focus on broad ideas or iconic moments in American art: for example, two of those currently touring are George Caitlin’s American Buffalo and African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond.

Castle’s art isn’t exactly obscure — the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a retrospective in 2008 and the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid staged another in 2011 — but it’s not too well-known outside the art world. And it’s gritty and strange, scrapped together with found ads and packaging, abstract figures from Castle’s life alongside jittery landscapes of rural Idaho shaded with stove-soot; his handmade books are full of arcane symbols and allusive narratives. Maybe bringing this art out to more rural places like those Castle was responding to in Idaho will give it a context that hasn’t always been there. Maybe it will allow Castle’s work to start being discussed as less of a wonder and more of a real reflection of American art. If nothing else, it’s encouraging that the Smithsonian American Art Museum is not just continuing to make these significant acquisitions, but also to put them in the context of the greater art history of the country.

James Castle, "Untitled," found paper and soot, 7 1/2 x 10 (Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment)

James Castle, “Untitled,” found paper and soot, 7 1/2 x 10 in (Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment)

The World of James Castle will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, DC) from September 26, 2014 to February 1, 2015.  

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