Every James Castle picture seems to contain a secret. Approaching one of his works for the first time, you peer into pockets of shadow and smudge, examining the depopulated landscapes and interiors for explanations. Here, an empty rural road, with telephone poles standing like sentries at precise intervals, stretching to the drawing’s vanishing point; there, a cryptic attic space with a yawning doorway, captured on disintegrating paper that is then stitched to cardboard backing with red string. A series of drawings from multiple angles depicts the walls of an unloved upstairs bedroom, which seem to be shadowed by cage-like patterns hovering behind the brooding furniture arranged haphazardly around the space. Another piece shows two empty blue coats standing upright in front of a farmhouse next to an overturned bottle, a spiritual cousin of American Gothic. Even after repeated viewings and an immersion in Castle’s sprawling, insular oeuvre, these works refuse to yield their intentions. Their power lies in their ability to remain in one’s mind like half-remembered dreams.
The circumstances under which Castle made his art have, since it was first exhibited publicly in 1951, received at least as much attention as the work itself. Central to its fascination, beyond the appeal of the images, is the idea that an ordinary American life, cut off from the wider currents of artistic influence by geography and disability, could contain such a rich, multifaceted, and mysterious aesthetic sensibility.
He was born in 1899, the fifth of seven children to survive infancy, and lived his entire life with his family on a series of small farms and homesteads in rural Idaho. He was two months premature—perhaps because his mother, Mary, had rushed from the house to put out a fire that started after a tree was struck by lightning—and born deaf, or became so soon after birth. Despite five years at the Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind, Castle never learned to read, write, or speak. There is evidence that he knew some sign language, but his family (with the exception of his sister Nellie, who lost her hearing around the age of eight, perhaps as a result of measles) did not sign. Another sister, Julia, recalled that James was close to four years old before he began walking, but that he started drawing “as soon as he could get up and use the pencil.”
For much of his life he made art only for himself, his family, and the occasional visitor, drawing on found materials with soot from a woodstove mixed with his saliva. Only after his nephew Robert Beach, an artist himself, recognized the quality of his work did Castle begin to show it in small regional exhibitions that emphasized his deafness and muteness. (Many were unfortunately titled “A Voice of Silence.”) He died in 1977, having spent the last years of his life living in a small trailer his family had purchased for him with the proceeds of his art.
Decaying bundles of his drawings and constructions, wrapped in twine or string, are still being discovered in the walls of his family’s houses. All of his work is untitled and, with rare exceptions, undated, making it difficult to assess his development as an artist over time. What we have instead is a huge body of work in a variety of forms and moods—meticulously recollected landscapes and interiors, surrealist collages, modified copies of advertisements and newspaper comics, rough-hewn people and animals constructed out of cardboard, and books written in private codes of letters, numbers, and images—that all seems to exist in the same jumbled temporal moment.
Though Castle’s work has received major exhibitions in recent years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2008) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (2014), there remains something fugitive and unassimilable about it when shown in the company of his contemporaries. At the inaugural, collection-spanning exhibition of the new Whitney building in 2015, and in “Memory Palaces,” a group show of self-taught artists at the American Folk Art Museum in 2019, Castle’s drawings and constructions seemed, even amid a wild diversity of approaches, to have been beamed in from a parallel universe of art-making with its own history and traditions. His art exerts an uncanny pull on the viewer’s attention, a result of the combination of his sober, technically adept draftsmanship and his tendency to skew or obfuscate elements of a scene just enough to create a sense of nagging disquiet.
James Castle: Memory Palace, the beautifully designed and produced new book of his art from the James Castle Collection and Archive, contains many examples of this destabilizing tendency. Trees in an otherwise realistically detailed landscape are rendered as blocky monoliths. A stark bedroom interior, depicted from a low angle, features irregular, oval-patterned wallpaper that matches the framed, scribbled pictures hanging on the wall in front of it. (Throughout his work, Castle’s lively decorative patterns often seem to tell a different story from the rest of the composition.)
Other images push more brazenly into the territory of surrealism: a man’s face is transformed into the siding of a house; a huge bottle and drinking glass are almost as tall as the barn they share a landscape with. In one of my favorite sets of images, Castle transposes a giant redwood with a tunnel cut through it, an image taken from a tourist postcard, to the family farm, matter-of-factly importing novelty to a familiar landscape. And then there are those countless works that pose bleak, unanswerable questions. A heavily inked ladder leads to a shadowy loft area, with books arranged in rows on the floor and tall, closed doors looming to the right. Three striped barrels stand warily against a checkered wall, seemingly keeping their distance from a coffin-like wooden box in the foreground. You search these careful, monochromatic pictures for evidence of a crime.
When Castle did depict people, most significantly in a touching image of himself in a doorway and in a pair of self-portraits drawn on his deathbed, the figures are ghostly and insubstantial, both there and not there. An image of a man posing on a front porch, hat in hand, has the stiff, generalized quality of a wax statue. The figures to whom he devoted more significant attention are the freestanding humanoid creatures with elemental or obscured faces that he constructed out of cardboard and included in his drawings. His family referred to these figures as his “friends”; some that have survived are so crudely formed and worn with handling that they resemble a child’s dolls, intended more for comfort and direct engagement than as art objects. They gain complexity and significance, however, when we see them portrayed in Castle’s drawings. Some of my favorite pieces show the “friends” socializing in various configurations, hovering awkwardly around the room like aliens in ill-fitting human disguises.
In American art, we are used to depictions of rural life that make overt political or cultural points, celebrating the heartland or bemoaning its plight. One thinks of the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans that foreground the individuals who suffered during the Depression, or Grant Wood’s camp classicism commemorating and subtly undermining the value of stoic forbearance. Castle’s work unsettles in part because, despite its apprehensive or playful moods, it does not easily yield its purpose or meaning. The more examples of it you see, the less confident you are in identifying a key to the whole.
Art-making and cataloging were themselves often at the center of Castle’s project. Some of his most engaging works depict his studio, where his drawings, constructions, and books are displayed, sometimes covering all available surfaces. Space is off-kilter in these drawings, as though Castle has created extra pockets in the room to accommodate the multitude of his imagination. His totemic figures are lined up at attention, ready to be admired or engaged. Like paintings of nineteenth-century salons, Castle’s works communicate the pleasure of abundance, though his wobbly line and stark color palette shade them with a sense of melancholy. In a particularly poignant drawing of this type, Castle himself seems, with a creator’s anxious pride, to be showing a room full of his figure constructions to his brother-in-law, Guy, in the process demonstrating his familiarity with the emotional climax of any artistic practice: the sudden revelation of one’s inner life to a scrutinizing public.
Castle was discriminating in sharing his work. In her catalog essay for “Untitled,” the Castle exhibition at the Smithsonian, the curator Leslie Umberger writes, “Family members recall that his text pieces and books were reserved for private reflection, while landscapes, interiors, and color washes were paraded out to share with relatives, friends, and visitors to the Castle home.” It’s a tantalizing glimpse into the way Castle perceived, or perhaps even played to, his audience. In his more straightforward images, he was giving his viewers what he imagined they wanted; in others, he was going deeper into his own world, experimenting with new aesthetic possibilities. Umberger goes on to posit the sharing of these works as a way, deeper perhaps than that of an artist with more conventional means of communication, of conveying his physical reality. “To thrust a drawing into the hands of another was to entangle an outsider within Castle’s experience of his world,” she writes.
The recognition of a paper’s original function, of its weight and its thumbed, irregular edges, the smudged and roughened surface, the scent of highly acidic stock, inks, and soot worked in league to communicate viscerally James Castle’s sensory surroundings.
The apparently more private books he made also convey a sense, or imitation, of record-keeping. The pages resemble catalogs, newspapers, or yearbooks: drawings of figures are interspersed with wavy lines to simulate writing, or sometimes full pages contain a series of letters and numbers. In his admirably thorough and illuminating text for Memory Palace, John Beardsley writes that the books
reveal a lexical or even indexical quality, functioning either as dictionaries of his own language or as guides to terms whose meanings are dependent on the context in which they are presented—if only we could figure them out.
A phrase that recurs in many pieces (alongside a classical Zodiac Man figure) is the enigmatic “Purse!Discusses,” sometimes shortened as “P!D.” Beardsley proposes that Castle adapted this personal insignia from speech drills he remembered from school. It is hard not to interpret it, with the near-homonym of “parse” and interrupting exclamation point, as an urgent cry for comprehension.
There’s an understandable anxiety, running through almost all contemporary writing about Castle, to take the circumstances of his life into account without making them the all-encompassing explanation for his abilities and output. Beardsley writes that Castle’s “deafness might have been as much a creative asset as a limitation,” suggesting that it “enlarged Castle’s non-hearing sensate capacities; in particular, it may have sharpened his memory of physical surroundings to a degree nothing short of extraordinary.” Considering that many of Castle’s earliest works were lost when the family moved, it does seem that his depictions of the first farm he lived on were drawn with astonishing accuracy long after he’d left it behind; this can be appreciated on foldout pages in Memory Palace, where his architectural and landscape drawings line up seamlessly in panoramas.
Beardsley acknowledges, however, that loss of hearing by no means necessarily enhances a person’s other faculties, and he is careful to make Castle’s “acute visual-spatial memory, and not his deafness per se,” the overarching theme of his study. After quibbling with Umberger’s suggestion that Castle was “without any conventional linguistic constructs in terms of his internal thought process,” and dismissing another writer’s supposition that Castle may have been autistic, Beardsley argues more broadly that “speculations about cognitive and behavioral differences are a distraction, engaging us with possible pathologies instead of Castle’s extraordinary achievements.” It’s a fair point, but as Beardsley’s text amply demonstrates, a full understanding of Castle’s work benefits from both biographical investigation and aesthetic engagement, just as it does for more conventional artists. Why deny his life the ardent conjecture less fretfully imposed on Louise Bourgeois or Willem de Kooning?
Even if this reading of the work stems from romanticized suppositions about Castle’s psychology, it’s hard not to feel that his drawings, even the less unsettling ones, radiate a profound sense of isolation. The interiors and landscapes that he created are almost always empty, even as his inanimate objects—the chairs, beds, windows, houses, and sheds he repeatedly drew—are imbued with intense particularity, their significance verging on talismanic. Castle also made hats, jackets, and vests, presumably for the “friends” to model, or simply to imagine the outfits they might try on. Separated from their wearers, the clothes take on independent, if forlorn, life.
Umberger observes that Castle
frequently instills his vistas with a palpable sense of limitations; entanglements and obfuscations are the norm…. Bedframes impede doors…fences challenge access to further realms…and words are not conveyors of shared meaning but instead, poignantly signal an awareness of a vast, inaccessible realm.
It’s tempting, then, looking at these objects and pictures, to imagine Castle as a lonely child grown into a lonely man. But as Jacqueline Crist, the managing partner of the James Castle Collection and Archive, writes in her foreword to Memory Palace, what we know of the artist’s personality doesn’t easily fit with the desolate mood of his best-known work. “He laughed a lot and found joy in simple pastimes like reading newspaper comics,” Crist writes.
He seems to have possessed an internal clock that allowed him never to miss a TV comedy he loved. He sensed when his nieces and nephews were misbehaving, prompting him to make it known to his sister Peggy that she needed to check on the children. He was a man completely integrated into his family’s life and was a respected member of the household.
None of this, of course, precludes an artist from rendering alienation and despair, or from consciously or unconsciously gravitating toward images and scenarios that suggest he was not as “completely integrated” as he might have appeared. If he made images of cheerful family life, not many of them have survived to be reproduced, and his inability to communicate clearly with most of his family members couldn’t have been easy on him. He was probably sent away to board at the Idaho State School in 1910 or 1911. Following the trends in deaf education, advocated at the time by Alexander Graham Bell, the school encouraged students to vocalize and read lips, and strongly discouraged signing. His representations of the school indicate mixed feelings. There’s an unusually convivial drawing of a room crowded with seemingly happy students and teachers sitting in a circle, the walls covered in Castle’s characteristic scribbled circles and animal forms. There are also drawings more in keeping with Castle’s standard aesthetic: empty stairwells and empty classrooms, and a picture with the hand sign for “dumb” in place of the subject’s head. A neighbor who grew up around Castle remembered that other children called him “Dummy” with such consistency that the acquaintance was “somewhat along in years” before he learned James’s actual name.
Castle was spared most of the chores around the house and farm, and spent much of his time making his art. His parents were the local postmasters for Garden Valley and the surrounding area, with part of the house serving as a general store and post office. This provided Castle with access to a wealth of printed materials that served both as visual influences and, once discarded, as materials from which to create his art. (In more than one image, the pointed flap of an envelope becomes a gable roof.) It may have also informed the habit of bundling his material—perhaps in imitation of, or homage to, the mail bundles that came in and out of the house on a regular basis. Though his family provided him with standard art supplies, Castle preferred his own methods, and in later years they went to great lengths to supply him with materials to his liking. According to a letter written by Beach, after the Castles traded their woodstove for an electric range and oil furnace, they acquired soot for him from the Veterans Hospital in Boise.
As Castle’s work is integrated into the canon, it has been justifiably placed in conversation with his contemporaries. Stephen Westfall has compared Castle to Giorgio Morandi and Philip Guston, noting that, like those two giants of twentieth-century figurative painting, Castle “developed a slow line that itself feels like an animate creature becoming the consciousness of the form that it fills out with a nearly comic doggedness, without flourish or ornament.” It’s a fittingly idiosyncratic way of linking a group of artists who, while resisting or rejecting abstraction, conjured hermetic, metaphorical worlds that are as open to interpretation as those of Rothko or Frankenthaler.
Including Castle in this company requires one to forgo the more straightforward measures of conscious influence and instead consider how the visual culture of a society permeates the art created within it. After all, Beardsley writes,
Castle was responding to some of the same cultural circumstances that attracted the attention of other artists—print media, advertising, and the larger culture of abundance, obsolescence, and disposal.
Reading this, I thought of Warhol’s tendency to instinctively repurpose American society’s clutter without offering explanations or judgments, as well as his working-class origins and childhood illness, establishing his identity as an “outsider” from an early age in much the same way that Castle’s circumstances made him an artist.
John Yau finds a link between Castle’s transcription of his surroundings and a typically gnomic statement by Jasper Johns, another artist, notably, from a rural background who found inspiration in metropolitan detritus. “Sometimes, I see it and then paint it,” Johns said. “Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.” The ambiguity of the distinction between these two “situations”—between that of the conjurer and the recorder—is present for all artists, but especially acute in Castle’s case. He can’t tell us what to look for in his work, but we can see what he shows us.