James Castle (1899–1977) is an enigma. Entirely self-taught and born profoundly deaf in rural Idaho, where he spent his life, he never learned to speak or read. Making art was his life-long preoccupation and his main means of communication. Refusing to do farm chores, he retreated to his “studio,” first an unused chicken coop, later a trailer, to draw haunting landscapes, interiors, animals, people, and objects, adopting, first from necessity and later by choice, scavenged paper and home-brewed mediums.
Most mysterious are his hand-drawn “books” and “photo albums,” with their inexplicable letters and words. Some works are inventions; others reflect memories; still others are based on such random visual stimuli as ads, packaging, photos, or comic strips. Castle’s images and constructions — poetic, fantastic, naturalistic, or stylized, in monochrome soot and spit, and in color — allow us a glimpse into his silent world. Just as he was separated from his environment by his deafness, the originality and variety of Castle’s work sets him apart from many other self-taught artists.
Curated by Karen Wilkin, this exhibition surveys the full spectrum of Castle’s themes, from the well-known farmyards and interiors, to the less familiar “portraits” of house and machines, clothing and groups of geometric people, as well as some of his impenetrable books, plus ephemera, including rarely seen sources for his imagery. The breadth and depth of Castle’s many modes of working are revealed, affirming why he should be regarded simply as an American master, without qualification, albeit an elusive one.
New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, New York)
Free and open daily to the public 10am-6pm.
January 29–March 4, 2018
James Castle is featured in the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, January 28-May 13, 2018
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 24-September 30, 2018
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 18, 2018-March 18, 2019