PRINT December 2009

Lynne Cooke

A POLEMIC UNDERPIN the conventional title of this extraordinary exhibition featuring some three hundred works spanning James Castle’s career. Born deaf in 1899, the largely unschooled, illiterate artist spent his life in obscurity in rural Idaho. Drawing daily for some seventy years, he created a vast body of work that includes intimate tonal drawings of the farmland and homestead where he grew up; sculptures of human figures, animals, and objects made by stitching together pieces of paper and cardboard; hand-sewn books containing alphabets, syllabaries, calendrical schemes, and other data laid out in grids; and myriad copies, on fragments of used paper, of texts and images culled from illustrated magazines and commercial packaging. Despite this prodigious and singularly compelling output—and the efforts of various well-placed advocates—even today few contemporary art aficionados are likely to recognize his name, and those who do tend to be familiar with only one facet of his multifarious practice.

Beginning in the 1960s, Castle’s work, which was first discovered by artists and art educators, became the subject of several modest exhibitions. Thereafter, it continued to be shown sporadically in regional venues, outside major art institutions and the market. Only after an unofficial three-decade-long embargo by its custodians was lifted in the mid-’90s (Castle died in 1977) was his art the subject of more visible solo shows, including one at the Drawing Center in New York, in 2000, and another at the J Crist Gallery booth at last June’s Art Basel. Since many of these recent shows focused on the artist’s meticulous drawings, the best-known of his several distinctive bodies of work, they have inadvertently created a partial picture of Castle’s oeuvre.

By far the most comprehensive survey of his art to date, the traveling retrospective organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art—currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago—offers a corrective to that unidimensional perspective. Accompanied by a well-illustrated scholarly catalogue (and DVD), the exhibition is the fruit of years of in-depth research into Castle’s life and work by curator Ann Percy and a team of specialists that included conservators and conservation scientists, who also contributed to the publication.1

Though the range of work presented in the retrospective is astonishing, due to the myriad genres, media, and art forms the artist employed, what is ultimately most intriguing—and perplexing—are the interrelationships among the three principal bodies of work: the tonal drawings, the books, and the constructions. As evidenced in the titles of the many group shows in which Castle’s work has been included in recent years, the categories used to classify his production range from the geographic to virtually every rubric used to situate the work of autodidacts whose practices lie outside the art world’s mainstream distribution networks.2 This litany of concepts—“primitive,” “visionary,” “art brut,” “outsider,” “self-taught,” and “folk”—corresponds to the twentieth century’s attempts to deal with the work of the socially marginalized creators it greatly admired. However, many of these terms are now considered deeply problematic. Coined to reflect notions of the innocent, visionary, primitive, and transgressive, which this art was held to embody, these appellations suggest how autodidacts came to serve as models for professional artists who sought to unlearn conventions and formulations inculcated during their academic training. Today such work is embraced quite differently by artists and contemporary audiences alike, as evidenced by the interview with painter Terry Winters included in the Castle catalogue. Fellowship and affinity have become key notions. In an art world whose pantheon now includes such luminaries as Cy Twombly, Hanne Darboven, Francesco Clemente, and Ree Morton, the work of so-called outsiders finds immediate points of reference with dominant idioms rather than providing alternatives to current conventions. Far from a search for the hypothetically aberrant, the governing social and aesthetic ideal of our new millennium increasingly involves recognition of singularities within an overriding sense of the common. Sublimating such polemics, the laconic title of the present show may indicate not only a wish to avoid pigeonholing Castle’s work in what have become contentious, even ghettoizing, categories but also an attempt to place his work on a par with that of any major twentieth-century practitioner accorded a survey show at a prestigious institution.

Extensive focus in the catalogue is given to his biography. From birth, Castle was profoundly deaf, and he never spoke. Moreover, although he attended a school for deaf and blind children for five years, he learned neither to lip-read nor to sign and seems also to have remained illiterate. No interviews with or statements by the artist consequently exist. Given the highly circumscribed tenor of his life, it is unclear whether, and in what terms, he may have regarded himself as an artist. According to visitors’ accounts, he would arrange his works (except the books, which he kept secluded) for display in a space he had cleared for that purpose, and enjoyed so presenting them to his family and their friends. Otherwise, he stacked them in bundles that he stored as if in an archive. His family accepted his obsessive devotion to his work (even offering him pencils and store-bought materials, which, for the most part, he declined to use) and did not burden him with farm chores; yet when they moved in the late 1920s to another area still within the Boise region, three decades’ worth of Castle’s work was left behind and subsequently lost.

In addition to the detailed information collected about his daily life, schooling, and self-invented techniques and preferred materials, recent research has uncovered many of the sources for the images and texts he copied from magazines, mail-order catalogues, printed goods, and commercial packaging. Among the hundreds of meticulous tonal drawings he made from soot mixed with saliva, in which scenes and domestic interiors predominate, most were based on childhood memories of the farm and homestead on which he grew up, and only a few on photographs. Castle honed his invented technique into a subtle instrument, with which he created delicate illusionistic effects. Certain drawings, replete with a quiet melancholia, betray an unexceptional realism. Others, more mysterious, include groups of blocky totemic forms and strangely flat human figures. These latter reappear, alongside pitchers and geese, architectural details and other familiar motifs, in the form of assemblages made from fragments of cardboard and colored paper sewn together. Also compelling are the handlettered books, many of which invoke, albeit inadvertently, examples of calligraphy, signage, classificatory systems, palimpsests, and codes from other cultures and eras. Common to all three bodies of work is a striking economy of means, a visceral engagement with the materials and modes of making, and an indelible expressiveness of affect. Ultimately, it is less the breadth of Castle’s practice—impressive though that may be—than the evident if elusive relations between these principal bodies of work that are most deeply engaging. While they must remain unfathomable to us, the relationships Castle perceived among this trio of genres construct a worldview to which he strove to impart order and coherence, through recourse to memory and the invention of systems and elliptical structures.

Far from seeing Castle’s work as existing outside mainstream practices, several catalogue contributors are at pains to stress its affinities with modernist artists’ methods. To this end, these writers underscore the role played by massmedia imagery and mail-order materials in his work; his use of techniques that involve collage and appropriation; his dexterous manipulation of everyday stuff that was at hand; his reliance on the materiality of gesture and touch; and his concern with reconnecting to discoveries made during childhood. Seen in this way, the singularity of his sensibility becomes commensurate with the forms of singularity sought by mainstream modernists. In addition, certain of today’s scholars, in contrast to their forebears of the past century, focus on the overcoming of disabilities or, in a related move, allude to advantages supposedly vouchsafed by constraint and other kinds of severe limitation (comparing his situation in one instance to the solitude of Emily Dickinson). In short, most commentators in this book, like their contemporary peers elsewhere in this field, refrain from any assessment of the direct impact of psychological or physical handicaps on the maker’s practice. In an era such as ours, which no longer idealizes its artists as shamans or demiurges with visions thought to be spiritually redemptive, it is perhaps not surprising that alienation and transgression are no longer qualities attributed even to those who quite clearly operate apart from, and indifferent to, canonical codes, conventions, and frameworks.3 Connectedness and community are dwelled on in place of isolation, solitariness, marginality, and their attendant anxieties, fears, and horrors. There is nevertheless a very real danger in veering too much in this direction, of missing what makes this work so exceptional—a worldview evidently rent by fractures and fissures yet nonetheless, and against the odds, tenuously held in place.

When Jean Dubuffet donated his vast collection of what he called art brut to Lausanne, Switzerland, in the 1970s, he stipulated that no loans should be made from his bequest that would juxtapose its holdings with works by contemporary professional artists: An absolute division was to be upheld in perpetuity. By contrast, in the same period Adolf Wölfli’s estate was donated to the Kunstmuseum Bern, which also holds a significant tranche of Paul Klee’s legacy, presumably on the supposition that each would inform and expand an understanding of its counterpart. A strong commitment to the presentation of works by outsiders, folk artists, and other nonprofessionals was part of the pioneering programming at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s and ’50s under Alfred H. Barr4; whereas Robert Goldwater’s landmark book Primitivism in Modern Painting (1938) seems to have indelibly shaped the curatorial agenda of Barr’s successor, William S. Rubin. In the aftermath of the culture wars of the ’80s and of the battles surrounding identity politics in the ’90s, otherness is today very differently theorized. And transgressive modalities have increasingly become the province of artists who, like Artur Żmijewski and Santiago Sierra, employ the disenfranchised—the legally, economically, physically, or mentally disabled—as agents in their artworks.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is renowned for, inter alia, its collections of early American fine and folk art. In this respect, it parallels New York’s American Folk Art Museum (whose historic collections are similarly grounded), which in recent years has spearheaded presentation of the work of some of the most preeminent among the so-called outsider artists, such as Martín Ramírez. Both institutions have recently addressed the subjects of major retrospectives through the lenses of mainstream art-historical methodologies: exploring in detail the biography of each subject, the techniques and processes in which his (the artists in question are almost invariably male) practice is based, and affinities and parallels—there is no talk of influences—with the work of modernist practitioners.5 As reflected in the straightforward brevity of this exhibition’s title, such an approach to work that does not circulate through mainstream art-world distribution networks represents something like a sea change. Welcome as it is, it skirts a fundamental issue. What makes Castle’s art—and that of Ramírez, Wölfli, and others before them—so charged is the worldview represented by the totality, the corpus, of his oeuvre. In a pioneering 2001 article titled “Blinded Insights: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally Ill,” Hal Foster critiqued the terms in which early modernists interpreted what was then known as the “art of the insane,” pointing out that what they characterized as transgressions of, even revolutions against, religious and social norms by the mentally ill were in fact “panicked attempts to restore or replace such social systems—panicked attempts, that is, both to record the breaking of an old order and to project the founding of a new one.”6 Encountering Castle’s retrospective within the confines of an encyclopedic museum reminds us of the capaciousness of the contemporary eye. But at the same time, the methodology underwriting this particular encounter also poses a challenge to us as postmodern subjects: to leave aside the apparatus of biography in our attempts to decipher the worldview limned by James Castle’s enthralling body of work.

“James Castle: A Retrospective” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 3, 2010. The exhibition travels to the Berkeley Art Museum, CA, Feb. 3–Apr. 25, 2010.

Lynne Cooke is chief curator and deputy director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.


1. Ann Percy, ed., James Castle: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2008). The DVD included with the catalogue contains Jeffrey Wolf’s documentary James Castle: Portrait of an Artist (2008).

2. The dizzying range of titles under which Castle’s work has been exhibited in group shows attests perhaps less to the difficulty of classifying it than to the uncertainty of, not to say confusion among, the terms used to address such work. Notable among the group shows were: “The Innocent Eye” (1963), Salt Lake Art Center, Salt Lake City; “Thirteen Idaho Artists” (1969), Jewett Exhibition Center, College of Idaho, Caldwell; “Symbols and Images: Contemporary Primitive Artists” (1970–71), a traveling exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts, New York; “Private Purpose” (1974), Fine Arts Gallery, Washington State University, Pullman (traveled to the Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum, Spokane, WA); “Out of the Mainstream: Visionary and Independent Artists of the Northwest” (1987), Missoula Museum of the Arts, Missoula, MT; “Memories and Visions: Self-Taught and Outsider Artists West of the Rockies” (1996), Sheppard Art Gallery, University of Nevada, Reno (traveled to the Nevada Institute of Contemporary Art, Las Vegas [1997]); “American Folk Art” (1998), Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia; “We Are Not Alone: Angels and Other Aliens” (1999), American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore; “Making Choices: The Raw and the Cooked” (2000), Museum of Modern Art, New York; “When Reason Dreams: Drawings Inspired by the Visionary, the Fantastic, and the Unreal” (2000), Philadelphia Museum of Art; “READ ALL ABOUT IT! Text and Image in Contemporary Artworks” (2001), Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle; “American Vernacular: New Discoveries in Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Sculpture” (2002), Ricco/ Maresca Gallery, New York; “American Cut-Out” (2003), New York Studio School; “Elegance of Form: Home” (2004), Boise Art Museum, Boise, ID; “American Art Brut” (2004), Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York; “Fabulous Histories: Indigenous Anomalies in American Art” (2004), Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; “Looking at Words: The Formal Presence of Text in Modern and Contemporary Works on Paper” (2005), Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; “Inner Worlds Outside” (2006), Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; “Unspeakable” (2007), J Crist Gallery, Boise; “Glossolalia: Languages of Drawing” (2008), Museum of Modern Art, New York; and, perhaps most unexpected of all, “James Castle/ Walker Evans: Word-Play, Signs, and Symbol” (2006), Knoedler & Company, New York.

3. This is evident, for example, in the recent literature on the work of Martín Ramírez: Some authors have attempted to define him as a transcultural artist, while others have stressed his identity as a Mexican American. Again the focus has been on identifying sources in his work based on childhood memories or from contemporary mass culture; few attempts have been made to characterize the worldview that his work articulates.

4. Castle’s work, however, would not enter MoMA’s collection until the 1990s, under the auspices of the Department of Drawings.

5. Ann Percy, the Philadelphia Museum curator who organized the Castle retrospective, is a specialist in drawing whose professional expertise ranges from seventeenthcentury European masters such as Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione to contemporary figures (notably, Francesco Clemente).

6. Hal Foster, “Blinded Insights: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally Ill,” October 97 (Summer 2001): 3–30; 28.