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James Castle: A Retrospective

October 10, 2009–January 3, 2010
Galleries 124–127

An artist who has received growing attention over the past few decades for producing a remarkable body of work without undergoing formal training, James Castle is especially admired for the unique handmade quality, graphic skill, and visual and conceptual range that characterizes his art. Bringing together over 200 drawings, books, and constructions from across the United States, James Castle: A Retrospective marks the first comprehensive museum exhibition of the artist’s work.

Castle, an Idaho native who was by all accounts deaf since birth, drew over and over again the living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, barns, sheds, and chicken houses that were rooted in his rural surroundings. His favorite medium was a combination of wood-burning-stove soot and saliva. Because he used found papers, not commercially produced ones, and homemade rather than professional artists’ materials, his works have a singular, immediate, and natural quality—a sort of passionate commitment particular to his art—that complements perfectly the skill and acuteness with which he manipulated his materials.

Castle did not learn to lip-read, fingerspell, or sign but instead seemed to have turned his obsessive and constant production of drawn images into his primary mode of communication. Lacking the tools of vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, Castle structured his own sense of place through the precise architectural and spatial references of his familiar surroundings. He also drew upon a broad assortment of sources for inspiration, including magazines, books, catalogues, advertisements, commercial packaging, newspapers, and cartoons, as well as from the deep resources of his constantly investigatory and analytical mind.

A fully illustrated catalogue explores the particular world that fed Castle’s imagination. The volume traces his art from the early 1960s to the present and redefines the understanding of the artist’s life, working methods, creative processes, and conceptual investigations. The book also comes bundled with the documentary film James Castle: Portrait of an Artist, directed by Jeffrey Wolf and produced by Wolf, Jill Bonovitz, and the Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists.


This exhibition was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and made possible by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Additional funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.

Major funding for the Chicago presentation of James Castle: A Retrospective is made possible through the generosity of an Anonymous Donor. Additional funding is provided by Deone Jackman and Eugene Goldwasser, and Dr. Robert Grossett. Further support is provided by Jeffrey M. Goldberg, Linda and Jerome Meyer, Willa and Scott Lang, and James A. Young, M.D.

James Castle. Stork, n.d. Boise Art Museum, Idaho, purchased with grant funds from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, 1977.4 .1.