The Accidental Artist

James Castle, who painted with soot and spit and found objects, gets a major retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. VIEW OUR GALLERY of an Outsider Art star.

James Castle was born deaf. He never learned to read, write, or speak and only once did he ever leave his home state of Idaho. He was an outcast by nature, but social and geographical isolation didn’t inhibit his artwork: Castle, though untrained, was a master draftsman with a dry sense of humor and an overactive imagination. The first full-scale retrospective of his work, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 3, rightly introduces him as a highly nuanced artist with inadvertent ties to several major movements in 20th-century art, Surrealism and Pop among them.

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For Castle, who died in 1977 at the age of 78, art was everything and everything became art. Throughout his life, the artist—who, because of his disabilities, could never live completely independently—would scavenge his family’s home for old cigarette packs, notebooks, schoolbooks, matchboxes, and discarded pieces of cardboard to use as canvases. An inky mixture of soot and saliva was his primary medium, though as his work developed he would sometimes incorporate hues derived from watercolor blocks and other pigment-heavy materials.

Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignNo one outside Castle’s immediate family saw his drawings and sewn-cardboard sculptures until the 1950s, when Idaho museums and galleries started to take notice. Castle sold some pieces in the 1960s but his work didn’t truly reenter the market until the mid-1990s, after his sister and caretaker Peggy died. (It’s quite possible that Peggy didn’t see the value of his work. She said in 1976: “Everybody’s been elated with [James’s drawings], but I can’t be.... I’ve been around them all my life.”) Twenty years after his death, Castle earned praise at the 1997 Outsider Art Fair in New York. He has been slowly gained clout both here and abroad ever since.

The some 200 works on view at the Art Institute (and previously at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) aren’t dated, but the curators here have done their best to create some semblance of a chronology, starting with Castle’s landscapes and schoolbook doodles (he briefly attended the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind) and ending with a more playful series of figures. Throughout, Castle’s mastery of linear perspective is remarkable. When he sketches his parents’ farm, Idaho prairies, trees, and picket fences recede into the distance, adding depth to the monochromatic sketch. Sculptures from this era bear a similar attention to detail and perspective. Castle built geese with wings puffing out from their bodies by layering pieces of cardboard then stitching them together. His later figures (descriptively titled Dresser Head Man, Chair Head Man with Chair Legs, Girls in Tan Coats with Landscape Faces) are delightfully surreal, bringing to mind 1920s-era paintings by Max Ernst and foreshadowing Nam June Paik’s boxy, TV-headed robots.

But most fascinating, perhaps, especially given Castle’s specific handicaps, are his text-based works and affinity for mass culture. Though illiterate, Castle was drawn to the look and shapes of typography. He could mimic printed text with alarming accuracy and dissociate the shapes and lines from their inherent meanings. “B”s went with “Q”s and “?”s, “M”s with “P”s; uppercase letters weren’t just for proper nouns and starting sentences; and words like “short ribs,” “sold,” and “learn” became poetic when rendered and presented out of context and on their own.

His exposure to text and life outside of rural Idaho came largely from his parents’ side business: they ran a post office out of their home. There, the artist devoured unclaimed magazines, letters, books, and brochures. He cut-and-pasted them into collages. He illustrated scenes starring men in suits and cocktail waitresses to create what look like comic books or storyboards for movies. He also sketched logos and now iconic product designs (the Morton Salt Girl canister, for one).

Castle’s cardboard sculptures conjure Robert Rauschenberg’s combines; his figures border on the surreal; his collages and storyboard-like illustrations use the same visual language as Pop; and his text-based pieces seem dutifully Dada. But these connections have less to do with Castle than they do with the artistic movements themselves. Castle had no known knowledge of art history or Modernism. Warhol and Lichtenstein riffed on product logos and comic books because it was ironic. Castle did so because they were in his yard. Surrealists advocated looking inward to find that raw art of the subconscious. Castle did that naturally. These are fascinating (albeit accidental) parallels that demonstrate the vast reach of consumer culture as well as efforts by certain 20th-century artists to tease out those instinctive skills with which Castle was born.

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Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.