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James Castle: A Retrospective

October 14, 2008 - January 4, 2009


The Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting the first comprehensive museum exhibition of the art of James Castle (1899-1977), one of the most enigmatic and remarkable self-taught artists to emerge in the United States during the 20th century. James Castle: A Retrospective, on view October 14, 2008 - January 4, 2009, examines the full visual and conceptual range of the artist's work, bringing together almost 300 examples from 60 public and private collections. It will explore the variety of modes Castle employed throughout his life, from drawings and colored wash pieces to handmade books, assemblages, and text works, for all of which he used found pieces of paper or cardboard and homemade inks and colorants primarily of his own invention. (right: James Castle (on the farm), date unknown, Photo collection of The James Castle Collection L.P.)

That Castle left behind at his death a huge and varied body of work is exceptional, as he was born profoundly deaf and did not adopt speech, sign language, lip-reading, writing, or any of the usual modes of communicating with other people. He did not marry, travel, or hold a job but lived with his family on the three small farms in Garden Valley, Star, and Boise, Idaho, that the Castle family occupied successively during his lifetime. He attended the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding, about 100 miles southeast of Boise, for about five years (1910-15) but for unknown reasons he resisted its teaching program, instead pursuing art as his primary means of communication.

From early childhood onward, Castle drew nearly every day of his life. He invented an idiosyncratic "ink" medium by combining wood-burning stove soot with saliva and sometimes water, the mixture applied with sharpened sticks and homemade cotton or paper swabs. The papers and cardboards that he used were household throwaways, such as empty food containers, product packaging, old letters, used envelopes, the homework pages of his nieces and nephews, or empty flattened matchboxes. Many of his soot and spit drawings show rooms in his family's farmhouse and outdoor views of buildings on the property, usually represented from memory, sometimes depicted literally but often embellished with odd surrealistic images. These works exhibit a superb handling of stick-applied line and deft tonal washes. He achieved an absolute mastery of linear perspective and took pleasure in delineating interior spaces with floorboards and ceiling beams receding in space.

Castle produced remarkable color works as well, sometimes using home-found materials such as laundry bluing, face powder, or color leached out of crepe paper by soaking. These compositions are often characterized by startlingly "surreal" shifts in scale or are peopled with fantasy figures like women with cat heads or wheel feet, or they may appropriate images from popular publications and mass-produced printed materials. He created three-dimensional "constructions," or assemblages of people, barnyard fowl, articles of clothing, household objects and furniture, and architectural elements such as doors or windows. Small, simplified, abstracted explorations of the structure of various things, they are also complicated, requiring skillful cutting, tearing, folding, stitching, and gluing of his found papers and cardboards. (left: James Castle (1899-1977), Girl in green dress with yellow hair, Construction of thin gray cardboard faced with pink paper, green and yellow tissue papers, cream paper, with string and twine; 14 x 5 1/2 inches. The James Castle Collection, L.P. Courtesy of the J Crist Gallery, Boise, Idaho.)

"James Castle is an artist of great merit who falls outside the parameters of the usual art-historical discourse," said the exhibition's curator, Ann Percy. "His work makes the point very clearly of how effectively the art of the self-taught can resonate with that of mainstream figures. The exhibition will introduce Castle's art in its full range and variety to a large museum audience for the first time."

The installation emphasizes the interweavings of Castle's themes and motifs. It shows the artist's fascination with the potential of patterned surfaces and images from the realm of representation to become abstraction. Castle's handmade books, with images drawn or collaged on found papers and hand-stitched with string or twine between paper or cardboard covers, suggest the importance of books and language to the human condition. Among his most challenging explorations are his text and "code" pieces, consisting of words, letters, numbers, and pictographs, drawn or collaged, out of which he created a sort of visual poetry. Evocative sequences of altered, twinned, or repeated letters, numbers, and punctuation marks reveal an adaptation of "found" language to his own arcane purposes. The exhibition is organized by Ann Percy, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator of drawings.


Concurrent exhibitions

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a longstanding commitment to collecting work by self-taught artists which is reflected in what has grown to become a major collection of self-taught art, almost 300 works in many different mediums by 56 artists. The Castle exhibition coincides with other exhibitions at the Museum: Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Tinwood Alliance, Quilt Stories: The Ella King Torrey Collection of African American Quilts and Other Recent Quilt Acquisitions, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Thomas Chambers (1808-1869): American Marine and Landscape Painter, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These share with the Castle exhibition a focus on self-taught or vernacular art.


(above: James Castle (1899-1977), Woman in blue coat and red plaid skirt, Construction of gray/tan cardboard, thin tan cardboard, cream paper, with string, bright blue and pale purple washes, soot wash, red and yellow stick-applied lines; 12 3/4 x 4 1/4 inches. Collection of Judith Lile-Hynes, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.)


(above: James Castle (1899-1977), Woman in red coat and boater hat, Construction of thin gray cardboard faced with pink coated paper, gray corrugated cardboard, animal feed bag, white, black, and blue papers with string, braided yarn, soot and spit, blue and red wax crayon; 11 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches. Collection of Susan and Alvin Chereskin, New York.)


Catalogue and DVD

James Castle: A Retrospective is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue, which includes a just-released DVD of a 53-minute documentary film on the life and art of James Castle (entitled James Castle: Portrait of an Artist), sponsored by the Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists in Philadelphia. The film, which premiered at the Philadelphia Film Festival in April, helps bring to life Castle's family, milieu, and art for the viewer. It was created by filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf and is being shown as part of the exhibition. Click here to view a trailer for the film. [01:55].(right: front cover of James Castle: A Retrospective, image courtesty of Amazon.com)

The 280-page catalogue, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press and containing over 350 illustrations, considers Castle's remarkable art from a variety of perspectives, examining his life, modes of depiction, working methods and materials, and the "visual poetry" of his text works. Edited by Ann Percy, the catalogue includes essays by Ann Percy, Castle expert Jacqueline Crist, folklorist Brendan Greaves, Philadelphia Museum of Art paper conservators Nancy Ash and Scott Homolka and conservation scientists Beth Anne Price and Kenneth Sutherland, as well as an interview with painter Terry Winters by Jeffrey Wolf. The catalogue is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Scholarly Publications. It is available in the Museum Store.

RL editor's note: readers may also enjoy:

and these videos

Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, The is a 60 minute DVD from Alabama Public Television, available through the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Store. For more than 150 years, the women of Gee's Bend have made quilts reflecting their history and daily lives. Over generations they worked in isolation, continuing to inhabit the remote plantation land their parents once slaved. Today, art critics worldwide compare them to the great creative enclaves of the Italian Renaissance.

Quilts of Gee's Bend, The is a 28 minute DVD from Tinwood Media, available through the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Store. Set in the quiltmakers' homes and yards, and told through the women's voices, this music-filled documentary takes viewers inside the art and fascinating living history of a uniquely American community art form.

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