Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Literally next door to the towering, majestic & world famous quilts from Gee’s Bend¹, the drawings of James Castle (1899 or 1900 – 1977) seem tiny & muted. Most of them are monochromatic on the simplest of canvases – the unfolded backs of commercial packaging, such as cigarette packs. His favored tools were sharpened sticks. His primary pigments were stove soot and saliva. Apparently deaf from birth and unable to read or even speak, James Castle turned out to be one of the great American artists of the 20th century. His galleries and those of the Gee’s Bend quilt makers are what’s currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the same spaces that will be gorged with viewers of Cezanne come late February. Frankly, they should be there now.

Castle was not entirely an untrained artist, having spent five years in the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind, although his tenure there was not successful – he did not learn language and stories vary as to his recalcitrance & defiance. Many of his drawings depict the two-building school or focus on the various Idaho farms his family owned, most often in straightforward realist manner, with the notable exception of heads, which tends to be square or boxy or even objects, such as chairs. There is a quiet ease & precision, even in these simple, sometime minuscule landscapes, that is on a par with any of the 20th century realists – he’d look just fine alongside any of the Wyeths, for example.

But there are works here that also absolutely foretell pop art, or that look like Ed Ruscha, or even Jasper Johns. And there’s no evidence that word of any of these art trends ever seeped through the TV or photo magazines into the Boise Valley farm where he lived the last 40 some years of his life. When we see him copying art, it’s the salt girl from Morton’s (with a boxy head) or images from the Sunday funnies or editorial cartoons. Indeed, nobody paid Castle much attention at all – there were enough kin to work the farms and let him just draw away all day, or to construct tiny sculptures out of cardboard & string – until a nephew, Bob Beach, first brought him to the attention of a Portland art professor. The rest, as they say, is history.

And although James Castle seems never to have acquired language², he certainly had ideas about language. And books. James Castle was one of the most prolific manufacturer of handmade books ever, constructed out of scraps of packaging or magazine ads, very competently sewn with whatever string he could scrounge up. There are books whose only content is the line, page after page of wavy lines clearly indicating his sense of how these go on. It is, in fact, a major treatise on the function of the line as a constituent of language itself, precisely because it is conducted by someone who can look at it from the outside. Castle often puts words or titles on these books’ covers, ranging from Taxes to Kotex. There are even collage displays of packaging, in which star formations themselves are transformed into kaleidoscopes of five identical images.  I think every visual poet in the world would want to consider the vision of this man for whom language seems to have been essentially visual, as distinct from semantic.

There is another James Castle who is likewise a sculptor, so use the links here not to be drawn astray. This show will be in Philadelphia through January 4, when it moves to the Art Institute of Chicago & finally to the Berkeley Museum of Art. When you go, be sure to see the video documentary that comes with the show, a combination of Castle’s work and interview snippets with his many nieces & nephews & various art critics (John Yau prominently among them) and historians.



¹ If you go jus to see the quilts – a day in itself – be sure to visit the Perelman annex kitty corner from the main museum where they have mounted a small show of recent acquisitions from museum’s permanent collection of quilts including thirteen pieces from the Ella King Torrey collection. Torrey, the first director of the Pew Arts program and later head of the San Francisco Art Institute, gathered a series of quilts from Gee’s  Bend while studying at the University of Mississippi. There are also some other recent acquisitions to the quilt collection that will cause your jaw to drop.

² Temple Grandin, a scholar of autism & herself autistic, and others have suggested that Castle may have been profoundly autistic rather than deaf, or at least in addition to being deaf.