Soot, Spit and Paper: James Castle’s Transfixing Worlds

To look at James Castle’s work is to enter his secret world. The artist often bundled and then hid away his works in the walls of homes and outbuildings or even buried them in holes.

This habit of hiding exists in tension with the wondrous drawing on the second floor of David Zwirner Gallery in Manhattan, showing a bare plank-and-beam attic crowded with nearly 100 of his artworks, including books, dozens of sculptural figures leaning against a wall or standing on shelves, and nearly 20 drawings hung from the wall. Does this crowded but intuitively ordered display of his own work within a single drawing contradict his cloistered practice? Perhaps the drawing served as a catalog for works that were to be stored, so that he could later recall what was no longer at hand. While Castle’s intentions cannot be discerned, the pleasure comes in puzzling out the connections in his vast and often mysterious visual universe.

Castle was born deaf and deemed “uneducable” as a teenager at the school for the deaf he attended for five years. Born in 1899 in rural Idaho, he seems never, at least in the conventional sense, to have learned to read and write. From a young age, until his death in 1977, he dedicated his life to making art among the farms and ranches in and near Boise. His principle medium throughout was soot from the family stove mixed with his own saliva on the repurposed material he salvaged from his family home, which doubled as a post office and general store.

While formally untrained, his work may have prefigured, in uncanny ways, major art movements, including Pop Art, concrete poetry, the Italian movement arte povera (literally “poor art” that utilizes readily available cheap materials). May have because it is difficult to date his work with any precision, as he was known to hold on to materials for decades (an advertisement from 1940, say, could be used in 1970 to make a drawing).

Though he exhibited regionally and on the West Coast in the final decades of his life, Castle worked largely without contact with the art world. His breakthrough retrospective was posthumous in 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Still, it is somewhat discordant to see the humble drawings and objects now on gleaming display at Zwirner, organized in collaboration with the James Castle Collection and Archive, from a collection acquired in 2012 by the late famed collector William Louis-Dreyfus. The limited gathering of objects on view are like peering into a keyhole, though only a sliver of Castle’s world is brought into view.

Missing here are his drawn reproductions of product packaging, his handmade books and calendar-like constructions, as well as his experiments with hand-drawn typography. The ample selection on offer — drawings, sculptural objects made of cardboard, paper and string, as well as the lesser pigmented works — still allows for playful looking and comparing.

In the first of three rooms here, the drawings on the surrounding walls all feature landscapes or farmscapes. In both his interiors and exteriors, Castle is a master of spatial perspective: the same scenes are treated from different views, creating a dialogue among the works as well as a rich sense of three-dimensional space.

The realism of these landscapes, in his loose confident lines depicting farm buildings, tents, fences, power wires and treelines, is unsettled by what looks to be invented and fantastical sculptural elements. One structure appears in variations, like an altered crucifix with multiple crossbars stacked from the bottom to the top. (John Beardsley in his substantial 2021 book “James Castle: Memory Palace” has linked this form to a common barn-ladder design utilizing a single central post.) At other times, the same shape appears like a giant cartoon cactus with nubby symmetrical arms ascending on either side, echoing vaguely biomorphic Franz West sculptures.

The mix of real and imagined feels starkly contemporary and conceptually rich. In turning real farmscapes into imagined sculpture gardens, Castle’s drawings anticipate augmented reality applications where a VR headset or a phone’s camera reveals a Pokémon in a public park or a KAWS sculpture hovering over Times Square. Maybe Castle’s drawn sculptures were themselves a reaction to technological change, replicating in memory and feeling how the landscape was once transformed by the installation of power lines and their towers.

Beyond the paper’s gradations from off-white to ocher and cardboard mediums, I never thought there was much to see in Castle’s use of color. The series of pigmented works here, mostly depicting houses, look uncharacteristically vague, and may be the product of his later years when his vision, dexterity and memory were flagging. But the presence of these made me pay attention to the color in his cardboard, mostly figurative constructions, which his family referred to as his “friends.”

I was charmed by the range of pinks on the untitled “flamingo,” flecked with yellow on the head and neck, and tilting to lavender with maroon on the body. Castle’s irregular stitches contrast with the ordered deep-blue stripes of the near-abstract “vessel” as the hand-sewing in narrow yellow ribbon, white thread and blue-toned string play atop as another form of drawing. The star of the show may be the nearly three-foot-tall paper doll flapper in a red-and-white striped dress, and black shoes that match the band of her hat. There is a sense of exuberance and play in these objects, making me imagine Castle’s attachment to them, and how they may have brought jolts of life and color to his otherwise monochromatic yet transfixing worlds.

James Castle

Through Feb. 12 at David Zwirner Gallery, 537 West 20th Street, Manhattan. 212-517-8677;

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