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James Castle at Smithsonian American Art Museum

Washington, D.C.

James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, and color of unknown origin, 4¾" x 7⅜".  SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM, WASHINGTON, D.C., GIFT OF JAMES CASTLE COLLECTION AND ARCHIVE, BOISE, IDAHO, AND MUSEUM PURCHASE THROUGH LUISITA L. AND FRANZ H. DENGHAUSEN ENDOWMENT

James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, and color of unknown origin, 4¾" x 7⅜".

SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM, WASHINGTON, D.C., GIFT OF JAMES CASTLE COLLECTION AND ARCHIVE, BOISE, IDAHO, AND MUSEUM PURCHASE THROUGH LUISITA L. AND FRANZ H. DENGHAUSEN ENDOWMENT

James Castle (1899–1977), who was born deaf in Garden Valley, Idaho, made captivating, often enigmatic drawings of farms, houses, and people. An autodidact, he eschewed professional art supplies and drew with a mix of stove soot and saliva on any printed ephemera he could get his hands on, including food labels, flyers, and box tops.

Castle sold enough drawings in his lifetime that his relatives were eventually able to buy him a trailer, which he used as a studio on the family farm in Boise. His parents and sister and her family appear in some of his strangest drawings as stiff, blocklike figures standing in living rooms and yards. Other works show a breathtaking talent for economy and perspective, such as a drawing of an empty room with a door opening onto a landscape of distant hills, or a still life of dolls arranged on a piano, evoking the quiet intensity of Giorgio Morandi.

Maddeningly for curators, none of Castle’s soot drawings, collages, or small color compositions have titles or dates, although nearly all that survive are believed to have been made after 1931. Castle also made clever paper-and-thread sculptures of birds and other objects, a selection of which appeared in the 2013 Venice Biennale. Although this survey regrettably included only a few of those, it nonetheless gave a rich sense of Castle’s extraordinary gifts.

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 90.

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