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Viewers attending the exhibition of drawings, books and constructions by James Castle, on view at Knoedler & Company, will undergo a jumble of reactions–most of them difficult, few of them welcome.
At the risk of being callous, Castle (1900-77) is a dream come true for those who make a cult of the “outsider.” Born in rural Idaho, Castle was deaf, mute, illiterate and, as some conjecture, autistic. Deemed “uneducable” and “recalcitrant” by local authorities, he lived with his parents and, later, in the home of his sister’s family. Fashioning ink from soot and salive, Castle took to drawing on whatever material was available: scraps of cardboard, store receipts and what appears to be the bottom of a milk carton.
The pieces are worked, worn and weathered–grubby with unsettling devotion. Castle’s drawings of farmhouse interiors are remote in character, but also blunt and dutiful. They’re fascinating. Yet after having viewed a handful of them, our fascination begins to seem indecent. By the time we reach a drawing of a room inhabited by “friends” constructed of cardboard–as chilling a portrayal of isolation as we are likely to need–we feel that Knoedler’s “common place” is less a “rare and wonderful discovery” than an uncalled-for intrusion on one troubled man’s psyche.
Let Castle rest in peace, and pray that sales of the work are benefiting his next of kin.
© 2000 Mario Naves
Originally published in the December 11, 2000 edition of The New York Observer.