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Untitled: The Art of James Castle

September 26, 2014 – February 1, 2015


  • Browse artworks by Castle in our online gallery, and let us know what you think in the comments
  • Buy the book!
  • Watch a webcast of the "Exploring Castle" panel discussion
  • Attend exhibition-related public programs
  • Who is talking about the exhibition?

Image for Untitled: The Art of James Castle

James Castle, Untitled, n.d., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment

In 2013 the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired 54 pieces by James Castle (1899-1977). With this acquisition, the museum now holds one of the largest public collections of Castle’s work. Untitled: The Art of James Castle features this representative selection of the artist’s immense oeuvre, including drawings, handmade books, texts, and constructions.

Castle spent his formative years in remote Garden Valley, Idaho and his adult life at locations near Boise, where, for nearly seven decades, he devoted himself daily to intensive art-making. Castle worked with materials that were immediately available, including a wide range of ephemera—advertisements, periodicals, and packaging—that he manipulated with soot, sticks, string and improvised colors to create an elaborate and unmistakable representation of his world. Subjects range from the farms of Garden Valley and interiors of homes, to family members, household objects, and snippets of popular culture. Other works move beyond the documentary to include invented words and symbols, fantastical calendars, and books with cryptic pictorial narratives.

Since Castle’s work first came to light in the 1950s, attention has focused primarily on the unusual circumstances of his life: Castle was born profoundly deaf, remained illiterate, and never acquired a conventional mode of communicating with others. He is often assumed to have lived a form of extreme isolation. This exhibition seeks to move beyond such biography, to appreciate the remarkable quality of Castle’s vision, and to question how the works themselves can elucidate the world of one of the most enigmatic American artists of the twentieth century.

Nicholas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Senior Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art, organized the exhibition.

A lovely catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with a foreword by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, and essays by exhibition curator Nicholas Bell, and Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book, co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and D Giles Limited, is for sale ($49.95) in the museum store and online.

Free Public Programs
Thursday, October 2, 2014, 6:30 p.m. – “Exploring Castle” Panel Discussion
Tuesday, October 21, 2014, 2:30 p.m. – “James Castle: Draw and Discover” sketching session with Nicholas Bell
Wednesday, November 12, 2014, noon – “Conservation of Our Collection – The Art of James Castle”
Tuesday, November 18, 2014, 2:30 p.m. – “James Castle: Draw and Discover” sketching session with Leslie Umberger
Monday, December 1, 2014, 6:30 p.m. – Film Screening - “James Castle: Portrait of an Artist”
Wednesday, December 10, 2014, noon – “Conservation of Our Collection: James Castle” Gallery Talk

In the News
Washington Post, November 21, 2014, James Castle, subject of Smithsonian show, put ‘taught’ in self-taught by Menachem Wecker
Smithsonian, October 17, 2014, A World of His Own: The Art of James Castle by Natasha Geiling

National Tour
Untitled: The Art of James Castle is available for tour after closing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. If you are interested in hosting the exhibition at your museum, please visit our traveling exhibitions page for contact information.

Untitled: The Art of James Castle is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Endowment.