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.
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.
Untitled: The Art of James Castle is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Endowment.
James Castle lived his whole life in the Boise Basin of Idaho. He was deaf from birth, and despite some schooling, never became fluent in alternative forms of communication such as lipreading, signing, reading, or writing.