Untitled: The Art of James Castle

September 25, 2014 — February 1, 2015

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Media - 2013.27.1 - SAAM-2013.27.1_1 - 92203
James Castle, Untitled, n.d.

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.

Exhibition Catalogue

Untitled: The Art of James Castle

The accompanying catalogue includes a foreword by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, with 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 available for purchase online.

Online Gallery

James Castle (1899-1977) was one of the most enigmatic artists of the twentieth century. For nearly seven decades he devoted himself daily to intensive art-making using materials gathered around his rural Idaho home. This online gallery presents selected works from the exhibition Untitled: The Art of James Castle, divided into three thematic sections. To see all fifty-four of Castle’s works held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Search the Collections for James Castle.


One of the central themes of James Castle’s art is his representation of home. The steady flow of drawings illustrating barns, sheds, fences, and a rural horizon alongside interiors with coal stoves, simple furniture, and patterned wallpapers recall a recently tamed West in the early twentieth century.


Castle made his art with found paper such as newspapers, magazines, catalogues, food packaging, matchboxes, calendars, and, most charmingly, his niece’s homework, which he collected during his daily scouring of the family home.


While Castle produced large bodies of work representing both places and people, the subjects were almost never combined and elicit different responses.


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