In large measure, ideas are what make us human. Our ability to conceive and communicate them is one of the things that most distinguishes us from other species. For the majority of us, most of the time, these ideas are shaped in words. How, then, would an intelligent person, never versant in words, conceive of the world? We have an intriguing answer in the drawings of James Castle (1899–1977), the deaf artist who never learned to read or write, and spent his entire adult life on an Idaho farm producing strangely poetic drawings and cardboard constructions.
Castle’s work has garnered increasing attention over the last two decades. His reputation, once purely local, has evolved in effect from that of an “outsider” cult favorite to a member of the canon of American masters, helped by exhibitions of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.
Although the current exhibition of some 50 of his works at the New York Studio School is on the relatively small side, it provides an excellent overview of his most compelling work. Curated by Karen Wilkin, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s astuteness rather than his funkiness; absent are the odd cardboard figures that played a large part in the PMA exhibition in 2008, making room for dozens of the mysterious drawings of farm structures and interiors. Produced in his unique homemade medium — stove soot and saliva on paper scraps — they reflect his peculiar blend of delicacy and rawness, with scratchy scaffolds of lines containing remarkably subtle and atmospheric tones.
A display case reveals a collection of his working tools — sharpened sticks, string, wads of tissue and shards of glass — as well as three of the many books he produced. Apparently inspired by family photo albums or school yearbooks, the books feature neat rows of framed faces and scenes. Several cardboard constructions, stitched together to resemble folded shirts, occupy one wall; to us, the verbally fluent, these carefully fashioned objects might be poking fun at the starchy sort of person we’d call a “stuffed shirt” — but how well can we comprehend a world where tables and barns speak as loudly as people?
The exhibition includes several images of his source materials — magazine clippings and product labels — hanging helpfully next to the drawings they inspired. On one wall, the image of a magazine photograph of a downtown plaza elucidates three drawings hanging alongside; all seem compelled by the scene’s complex, diving angles and textures. Castle had obviously acquired a shrewd knowledge of perspectival space, but he approached each drawing anew, not only focusing on different portions of the scene, but also employing varying techniques.
The largest and most detailed of the urban scene drawings beautifully captures the effect of the spreading apron of paths and stairways around a large column, and then the array of skyscrapers — squat, but large and airily illuminated — pressing from either side. Their finely shaded facets lead the eye in measured intervals across the width of the paper, creating a notable sense of the completeness and variety of light. Like most of Castle’s drawings, the scene feels fully populated, but by nature (or human artifact) rather than by live, interacting people. A second drawing repeats the scene in slightly looser fashion, switching to a vertical format emphasizing the sky. Between the two drawings hangs a third, strikingly different in the way its scraped, rubbed surfaces — almost monotype-like — recall a fantastical, Gothic effect. Despite their variety, all three drawings shrewdly exploit one small detail: the slim, dark wedge of a building, just visible to the left of the column, that anchors it in space and sounds the depths beyond.
Images from comic books and the label from a carton for honey illuminate other drawings. In every case, Castle has faithfully recorded shapes and even colors, seemingly unconcerned with the images’ intended messages and omitting all printed texts. Curiously, he indicates the location of words on the honey carton with two blank strips; they could be horizontal versions of the twin, rectangular blanks that stand in for eyes in many of his doll-like figures. (Was he sorting among cyphers, exploring some and negating others?) Like the dozen or so other colored drawings in the installation, these feel somewhat more tentative than the purely tonal drawings, as if colors perplexed his mastery of tones.
But most rewarding are the drawings he produced from life. These vividly reflect Castle’s delight in the settling of light upon the familiar objects around him. About a dozen interior scenes record what you might call the rich austerity of his method: the incisive perspectival lines releasing lush, rising tones. In one drawing, the minute quivering of the floor line — angling barely upwards and down as it navigates the edges of a room — anchors the brisk verticals of walls and door. At times, the low point of view emphasizes the solemn ascent of a post or table into a dim space capped by diverging rafters. Castle’s brilliant pacing of tones sometimes culminates in a frame-within-a-frame probing of the depths; as one’s eye moves through a view of a shed’s interior, it’s arrested by a concentric arrangement of rectangles: a distant patch of sky, the surrounding window frame, a bracketing screen door.
Most remarkable of all are several landscape drawings. In one scene of farm structures, recorded on an irregularly torn bit of cardboard barely six inches wide, Castle measures out the rapid recession of the ground plane with a series of barely varying horizontal tones. From it, anchored at those intervals that he placed with such discrimination, rise various verticals: fences, buildings, and distant trees, each illuminated to its own degree by light. While the trees are summarized as a uniform wall, they talk with other elements, looping high in response to the tallest fencepost, and kinking abruptly, in the drawing’s most dramatic moment, just above the most stable, central element, the rectangle of a garage or shed. Castle, like great artists before him, proves to be nature’s hyper-sensitive but managing vessel; despite its irregular edges, and even two holes in its middle, the drawing possesses the most extraordinary sense of alert precision.
How different would Castle’s work have been had he enjoyed the gift of hearing? We can, of course, only guess. A deaf person’s experience of their surroundings is not the continuous, 360-degree perceptions of the hearing individual; the eyes must be directed, and the world assembled from sequential impressions. A door closing or a person approaching from behind does not exist until the eye happens upon it. One can imagine that Castle’s perceptions were guided by willful, directed attention — and, of course, the sharpened perceptions of an eye that must account for almost all impressions of the world. Surely these factors help explain Castle’s mixture of organizing zeal and luminous summation, and the peculiar blocking in of certain subjects — tree canopies, faces — alongside the almost obsessive attention to the repeating patterns of wallpaper and floorboards.
The artist, however, must have been even more affected by his lack of the kind of verbal language through which we routinely understand and communicate our experiences. Castle’s drawings clearly do communicate, and profoundly, but wholly on his own terms. Looking at his images, we’re bystanders to an intense visual intelligence that seems little concerned with its audience. It’s safe to say that we are more worldly than Castle, more eclectic in our tastes and habits — we certainly know more about how the art world looks. But we may also suspect that Castle knew more about how the world itself looks. If we find something new and strange in his drawings, then the communicating process — whatever Castle’s intentions — is working. We’re compelled to listen, and learn.