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Robert Storr on James Castle

Robert Storr on James Castle


Good evening everyone, My name is Lucinda Barnes,
I’m Chief Curator and director of Programs and Collections at the Berkeley Art
Museum and Pacific Film Archive and it is my very great pleasure to welcome you tonight
to hear our distinguished speaker Robert Storr. This evening’s program is occasioned by the
museum’s newly opened exhibition, James Castle: A Retrospective, an exhibition that has been
organized rather brilliantly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and made possible by the Pew
Center for Arts and Heritage and additional funding was provided by the National Endowment
for the Arts. The Berkeley presentation has been made possible in part by the Karen Lennox
Gallery, the Fields Family Foundation, Luba Moshenek, Betsy Aubrey & Steven Lichtenberg
and anonymous donors as well as the continued support of BAM/PFA trustees. We are grateful,
indeed, for the very generous support of each and every one of them. For their support of
tonight’s lecture I would like to thank the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities
at UC Berkeley and especially Tony Cascardi, director of the Townsend for his enthusiastic
partnership. I also want to acknowledge Rick Owen and Lisa, American Sign Language interpreters
here tonight. My hearty thanks to Karen Bennet in our education department who diligently
organized tonight’s program. James Castle was a prodigious and singular
artist who without formal training created a remarkable and vast body of work over the
course of his life rural Idaho. He was born profoundly deaf, and although as a child he
attended a school for the deaf and blind, Castle did not appear to have learned to read,
write, sign or lip read (perhaps by choice). He did, however, make art from a very early
age and with undeterred focus and attention throughout his life. He developed a rich and
determined artistic vocabulary striking in its formal strength, structure and visual
cadence and full of imaginative exploration and experimentation. This wonderful exhibition and comprehensive
catalog that goes along with the exhibition span the full range of Castle’s work resulting
from several years of focused efforts by the curator and Percy at the Philadelphia Museum
of Art and in close collaboration with Jacqueline Crist and J Crist Gallery in Idaho who act
as agents for the artist’s estate and who are largely responsible for documenting and
preserving and bringing to a wide and avid international audience this marvelous work. The exhibition will be on view upstairs in
gallery 3, if you haven’t seen it already, through April 25th. It’s accompanied by a
wonderful film, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist which is screening continuously
in the theater gallery and you may have already seen the monitor with the film as you walked
into the theater. The film was made in 2008 by filmmaker Jeffery
Wolfe in conjunction with the exhibition and includes commentaries by a number of artists,
critics, curators, Castle family members and, our guest this evening, Robert Storr whose
eloquent insights are, I think, rooted in his own polymath practice. It’s really quite
a daunting task, I have to admit, to summarize Rob Storr’s accomplishments which fully span
the art world. He is a painter, an art historian, critic and curator, and a prodigious writer
about the theory and practice of art. Since 2006 Rob has served as the dean of the Yale
School of Art. Previous to this he was professor of modern art at the Institute of Fine Arts
at New York University. In addition to NYU Rob has taught painting, drawing, art history
and criticism at numerous colleges and art schools including the Rhode Island School
of Design, Tyler Art School, Harvard University, Bard Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard
College and so on. From 1990 to 2002 he was curator in the department of painting and
sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ten of those years he oversaw the Projects
Series which, like our own Matrix Series, is a series of exhibitions devoted the work
of contemporary artists. Ultimately he served there as senior curator. At MoMA Rob curated
scores of exhibitions, among them major exhibitions on the work of Elizabeth Murray, Gerhard Richter,
Max Beckmon, Tony Smith, Robert Rymon, etc. In 2007 the Venice Biennale, the first American
invited to assume that position. For the Bienalle he curated the exhibition Think With The Senses,
Feel With The Mind. He has been a contributing editor at Art in America since 1981, he writes
frequently for Art Forum and Parkett and currently writes a bi-monthly column for Frieze Magazine. Rob has also contributed dozens of essays
to exhibition catalogs at museums across the country, including his insightful essay titled
Please Pay Attention, Please written for Connie Lewellen’s tremendous 2006 exhibition of Rose
Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960’s. Rob is currently completing a new book, Intimate
Geometries: The Work and Life of Louise Bourgeois, and of course there’s more but at this point
please join me in welcoming Rob Storr. Robert Storr:
It’s a pleasure to be here, I have lots of friends in this region and when I was 10 years
old I actually lived a few blocks from here. So I spent today walking around sniffing the
eucalyptus and trying to find the place that I lived in and try to reconnect with various
and sundry little Proustian bits of my early life. This is going to be a talk, not a lecture.
I am not an expert in any of the things that I am going to talk about except drawing, I
know a lot about that both in the practice of it and the looking of it, and it is primarily
in the relationship to drawing that I am here at all, I think. But I would like to talk
around it as well as to it and I would like to talk about some of the problems that I
see in presenting this kind of work or at least in the ways that it has been presented
in the past (not problems that at all present in this case). Also to the people who are
signing warn them that I tend to speak rather quickly and I will try to contain myself but
the accommodation of a lot of good Bay Area coffee and New York nerves does what it does. Another side of this is that I am not a systematic
thinker in that I sort of begin some place then go to the end to prove a point, I am
sort of a crab walker. As I get settled in circumstances, see things, my path changes
somewhat so I would like to just now interrupt where I was going to start by an observation
that happened as a result of sitting there and looking at that. Lucinda mentioned the Tony Smith exhibition
that I did at the Modern. One of the remarkable things about Tony Smith was, well first of
all, he was a very very late blooming artist and I have sympathy with those kinds of artists.
But he was an artist that for much of his life did small things that in a sense kept
his imagination working, kept his sense of possibility open even though he executed very
few things at large scale and very few things that were exhibitable for much of his life.
As a result of which he made lots and lots of little models and partly they were models
because he didn’t really have a studio to work in. Partly they were models because he
didn’t have the money to build them big and so on. One of the pleasures of making that
exhibition was to see the sense of monumentality that he instinctively had regardless of the
scale of the object he was making. His three daughters were responsible for making a lot
of these models so what you see in a Tony Smith exhibition is sort of the family origami
industry (the folding and scotch taping and so on and so forth) but the conception was
entirely Tony Smith. I say this because if you look at this drawing, which is in fact
tiny, you get a sense of an instinctive awareness of scale that Castle had that translates at
any scale. In other words the size of this drawing is about so, but he is looking at
an interior space which is a restively small domestic space in some ways but the way it
is constructed as a drawing and the way it’s executed as a drawing can bear enlargement
and the construction doesn’t wobble. The sense of the enclosure doesn’t wobble and the sense
of the indwelling of that space does not dissipate. Now that is a primary artistic instinct operating.
And more than an instinct because we are not talking about something that is unaware of
its own reality. Rather, this is something that is an aptitude, a faculty in operation
at whatever scale dictated whether by materials or circumstances. If you think, for example,
of Virginia Woolf’s description in A Room of One’s Own, of Jane Austen sitting in the
corner of a house writing while the life goes on around her. In a way Castle was occupying
a similar sort of position, there was this family that do the things that families do
and he had his space within that family making these things which many of them were very
small. But the ability to concentrate and at the same time be a part of a social, domestic
ensemble is something we normally associate, excuse me, with womens’ work but in this case
we find in a man’s work. I was talking to some curatorial students at the beginning
of the day and I thought, if somebody wants to do gender politics it would be very interesting
to look at his life and his situation in terms of gender politics and for once not to make
it an argument about gender but actually an exploration of different role types and how
it is that this particular man adapted to his reality and those around adapted to him
in that reality. Circumstances have dictated that I am simultaneously
here to talk about this and trying desperately, against the clock, to finish an essay about
Jean-Michelle Basquiat who, for all intents and purposes, was also an untrained artist.
Basquiat was the child of a dysfunctional but nonetheless middle class family in Brooklyn
and he went to school as little as possible. He went to a special school in the New York
school system which allowed him certain freedoms and encouraged aptitudes and inclinations
that he had but he was not a trains artist in the way that many of he other people who
were part of his ensemble were. For example Keith Harrins, famously, was a student as
SVA in New York but this was not true of Basquiat. Basquiat was also African-Carribean-American
and was an acting-out kid apparently dysfunctional in certain ways although super intelligent
and was very quickly typecast as a primitive in the New York scene. All the ways in which
he was not a primitive is what makes his art interesting and all the ways in which he was
self-conscious is what makes his art interesting. All the ways in which he was curious and prepared
is what made his art interesting yet had to battle with this conception. And in a way
Castle occupies a similar position albeit having lived an entirely different life. I
would help, in a sense if one takes apart the way in which Basquiat has been cast in
a role for the market or for the 80s or for whatever set of particular cliched circumstances
he was cast. If one learns to take that apart one can apply the same skills to maybe taking
apart not what was actually said of Castle but what might have been said about Castle
if people had not done such good work and also what has been said about him previously
or at least by people less informed. It revolves around a whole set of attitudes toward, to
use the Levi Strauss phrase, the raw and the cooked and the value that the raw has for
people who mostly eat cooked cuisine. Martin Rameriez, another on of the group of
the so called untrained artists that I’ve written about falls in the same category.
In his particular case Rameriez is interesting because he belongs to a particular cultural
milieu and a particular moment of Mexican-American history or border history and so on. The work
done on Rameriez is a matter also of recovering not just his self consciousness as an artist,
not just gathering together his work, not just doing all the basic things that need
to be done, but to negotiate very complex relationships between the north and Central
America. These things don’t come up in such a pronounced way with Castle but they hover
in a certain way, and why? Because for the longest time, really since some time in the
19th century, this nostalgia for a kind of artistic identity and a kind of being that
was innocent of cultural preparations, innocent of ideas imposed on it by adults or imposed
on it by central powers or a whole series of institutional organizations. This nostalgia
has haunted modern art in a whole series of ways that have led to the positive discovery
of things but often in terms or in categories or with angles which are not positive. I was just at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Ave.
looking at the upstairs collection of books, and found there a 1922 copy of The Prinzhorn
Collection. Oddly enough it was an edition that belonged to Dunoyer de Segonzac who was a French
conservative watercolorist, primarily. A member of the French high society painters of the
1930s return to order painters, a very skilled person. But to think that this man, who was
so much a creature of salon art, should have The Prinzhorn Collection book in his possession,
annotated actually, is interesting. The Prinzhorn Collection was a collection formed of art
made by artists in the asylum and Dr. Prinzhorn, who did this, gathered these materials, analyzed
them, classified them, did an enormous amount of basic work and with this text, which was
published 20s, provided raw materials for any number of artists to look at. Among them
was Max Ernst, of course, but others as well, Paul Klee. Others who consulted this material
because this material was marvelous but also because it offered an alternative to the idea
of the artists schooled in the ways of the western tradition. Expressionism in Germany
picked up on the same material and of course after the war you have Jean Debuffet and art
brute and the whole series of developments after the war that were summarized in his
essays called Anti-Cultural Positions, a talk that he gave at the Arts Club of Chicago in
the 1950s that was a profound influence, among other things, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero and
the Monster Roster of Chicago. Incidentally aside from having a brief bit of my childhood
here I mostly grew up in Chicago. So I am a product of the art world in which the celebration
of those kinds of art, which are made by untrained artists, in opposition to what was thought
to be, the over cultivation of certain aspects of art in both the modernist and pre-modernist
traditions, was very very powerful. Now I’m not going to do a whole spiel on all
of this but simply to say that if you think that to romanticism and enlightenment on down,
the rebellion against the idea of deliberately made art, an art in which dealt in conventions
both consciously and admittedly, and developed those conventions was a powerful force. It
was the counter term to classicism. (The classicism is a much abused category these days. I’d
recently been reading around recently in books on classicism because I find it very interesting
what that art represents and what it once at least tried to accomplish. The kind of
classicism that we associate with the decadent styles of the late 19th century are one thing,
but the kind of classicisms that are the early part of this whole tradition, in the late
17th to early 18th century, actually late 18th early 19th century, is actually kind
of remarkable. If you read contemporary criticism that treats, for example, the classical impulses
as if it were ipso facto a sign of incipient fascism as one sometimes finds, that’s kind
of crazy.) Incidentally Mr. DuBuffet, who spoke ardently against the sort of high traditions
of studio art was in fact himself a return to order quasi neo-classical painter before
he became the art brute painter, or art brute influenced painter, that he became later.
If you look at the art that made in the 1930s before he went into the wine business, made
enough money like Jeff Koons going into the securities business so that he could afford
to become an artist, you see in him doing these things that every good technician who
draws according to the academic model could do.
A more sophisticated version of all of this begins with Robert Goldwater. In 1937 Goldwater
published a thesis as a Harvard University graduate student on the primitive and modern
art which was later published in a book which was widely circulated. Goldwater’s book is
a very interesting document because it delves into all the variations on the idea of the
primitive at the same time succumbs to that word in ways that are problematic. He recognized
that within all these tendencies surrealism, expressionism, etc., cubism for that matter
as well, that a reference to tribal arts, to the art of the insane, to the art of children
was a powerful influence; a necessary influence, an indispensable influence.
Goldwater was a self-conscious intellectual. For example he was fully aware of the imperialism
of French culture and therefore all of the difficulties of treating tribal art as “primitive”.
He chose this word by default because it was the word in use and also because it represented,
again, the current in modern art that needed documentation. If you think that he is writing
this book in 1937 it was early on in the development of modern art and all these tendencies he
was actually bringing to the surface and sorting it out. It had to do with attitudes towards
the insane we no longer share as well all the other things. There is another thing that is interesting
and was mentioned a little bit by Lucinda, Robert Goldwater’s wife was Louise Bourgoise.
Louise Bourgoise who often worked in fugue states of her own. Louise Bourgoise who work
can very interestingly be compared to the art of people who are, if you will, outside
of the norm because Louise is often outside of the norm. At the same time Louise is one
of the smartest women you will ever have the chance to encounter and she is one of the
best informed about art that you will ever have the chance to encounter. So that the
co-existence of exceptional states of consciousness with fully stocked and analytically sharp
minds is not at all. Our view of what it is to be exceptional in certain ways does not
preclude being exceptional in almost the antithetical way. Almost like there is an alternating current
back and forth between a kind of real intellectual grasp of things and another kind of understanding
which is not the antithesis of intellectuality except in the minds of people who like antitheses,
but rather a different way of approaching that very same thing. Louise is an instructive
character to look at in this and it is not unimportant that Louise’s perceptions informed
Robert Goldwater’s writings. It was partly because of what she taught him that he was
able to write as he did about a kind of work that correlated to some extent with hers. In any case, the necessity of having or creating
a primitive in relation to the modern is interesting since it started out as the opposition to
the classical. But whole areas of modern art have turned out to become quasi-classical
and we are bedeviled still by this kind of romantic attitude which at the same time diminishes
the art we’re looking at and puts in a series of quandaries. It’s not for nothing, for example,
that the primitive is a prejudicial term used not only in relation to the art of other cultures
or in relation to psychological states that are seen as un-developmentally equal to intellectual
things but even within the western tradition. It wasn’t until the 20s that the so called
primitives like Simone Martini and Piero della Francesca were treated as artists of equal
consequence to Leonardo or Michelangelo. So this whole concept is fraught with difficulties
from the very beginning. One can ask, then, a series of questions if
you are using this kind of language; primitive in relation to what, outside in relation to
who or what, brute in relation to what being the opposite of brute and so on down the line.
If you look at this drawing, for example, what is brutal about it? Practically nothing
that I can see. It is, in fact, the exact opposite, full of uncannily delicate nuances
of touch and of tone. It is done with materials which allow this to happen in the way that
other materials would not have done so and if you look at Castle as many other kinds
of artists who operate in this area there is nothing at all brutal except if it’s measured
against some kind or relatively conservative canonical version of good academic draftsmanship
which, by the way, practically nobody but Degas ever did very well. I’m being deliberately
polemical. The point is is that the model that is held up as the example to be followed
was really in the grasp of relatively few artists even in the best of circumstances. Naive, naive respect to what? Are we to presume
that people such as Castle were inarticulate in terms of language? Were naive about what
was going on around them? Didn’t understand the dynamics of the people? The dynamics of
situations around them? Based on what do we presume this? Why should we think that this
was so? Skilled? Well, yes maybe. Unschooled? Yes,
also. We have now a situation where deskilling is a category that is highly emphasized in
certain contemporary art as if it was a virtue which is nothing other than the recreation
now on a post-modern version of a lot of the things that belonged to these earlier phases
of pre-modern and modern art. The idea that there is some inherent virtue in not being
able to do things a certain way. Well there is an inherent virtue in not being able to
do them a certain way if that way has gone stale. But ineptitude has never been a virtue
so far as I can see. So all of these things that I have tried to stretch out a little
bit and I haven’t stretched out too long, come in to the way in which people see and
talk about such work. Let me add one more while we’re at it. Folk
art. Is this folk art? This kind of work is indeed shown at the Folk Art Museum in New
York, which is a very interesting museum. The Ram’rez show was shown at the Folk
Art Museum. But what is a folk, just while we’re at it? I know that we have some politicians
lately who can’t get enough of talking about folks. They used to say people but then they
decided to get elected so they decided to talk about folks. I come from the midwest
where people do use such language but they don’t use it in a folksy way, they use it
in a casual, normal way. But what is folk art? It has, unfortunately, very negative
connotations for anyone who lived through the 20th century or knows anything about it.
The volk, the German volk, was a terrible idea that had terrible consequences under
the Nazis. And similar kinds of atavistic tendencies have occurred in all kinds of nationalisms
around the world at one time or another and are actually a holy terror. In this country folksiness is celebrated in
opposition of what? In opposition to sophistication, cosmopolitanists, in opposition to all kinds
of things that represent genuinely interesting currents of art. Such that people like the
Gee’s Bend blankets, which I like very much, that scorn geometric abstraction when similar
forms appear on canvas in museums not made by the folk. People love Grandma Moses but
the same time they are maybe uncomfortable with some folk artists who show them things
that they would prefer not to see. Who show them things that in fact are just as descriptive
of the ordinary experience of so called ordinary people as expressed of course by very unordinary
people with exceptional skills of expression. But the kindly old lady Grandma Moses version,
and she actually made some pretty good pictures, is preferable to, for example, another kind
of old lady who wasn’t so kindly who was not entirely self taught in the same way that
Alice Neel. Alice Neel’s a nice counter-term to Grandma Moses and a nice corollary to Louise
Bourgoise and a host of other peoples. A cutely self-conscious woman who painted absolutely
harrowing pictures and also historically funny pictures of all kinds of people in a style
which was not, in all intents and purposes, proper and ladylike and academically just
and so on. So I’m scattering these thing around just
to complicate the field if at all possible. There’s a vast literature on the subject of
outsider, naive, folk, and the list goes on now being written. Some of it is very very
interesting and the most interesting parts are usually the parts an individual, which
was the case in Ramierez and now in this show with Castle, has gone deeply into the specifics
of the artists involved asked those people around them what can be known about them,
looked at the local history which is one of the very interesting aspects of this catalog
and really tried to find out as much as possible as opposed to theorizing based on a little
bit of information in ways that elevate this right back into a certain set of discourses
that are probably left behind to the benefit of all. There is a lot of work being done
and there is a lot of theorizing being done too such that the assumption is made that
exceptional artists need analysis almost as much as if they were patients or if they were
sociological specimens and that without it their work is not as valuable. Here is an interior on the insides of a matchbox.
Of course there is a huge market now for this kind of material. That market, frankly, is
responsible for us seeing a lot of this and people who hate the market on principle have
to think twice about that as well. The sense of being shocked that art shall be sold, that
money shall change hands around art is the attitude that people take when they haven’t
bought any or when they think that somebody else will buy it for them, i.e. in museums,
or that they believe that money is a curse except when its attached to their salary or
some other benefit that they like. The idea that art should be pure of money is nonsense
and anybody who reads carefully the life of Valesquez or Reubens knows this as well. So,
again, primtivizing, simplifying crude attitudes towards art often descend when it comes into
the category of this kind of work because what people are really seeking is a kind of
eganic state where art is absolutely unencumbered by all the contingencies of the world and
therefore when somebody comes along with (Long Green?) to buy it they are immediately typecast
as the villains of the peace. Now there is, of course, lots of villainy around in the
art world and particularly in the market but there are good agents who act in this world
as well and this is the case here. Of course that also infantilizes or belittles or in
some ways underestimates the artists themselves. The idea that an artist who is untrained and
lives in isolation up to a certain age and then is discovered has no interest whatsoever
in making a living out of their work or in having it shown and appreciating that it is
shown and celebrated is again a desire to keep the noble savage noble and savage. I remember going to visit Mose Tallifarro
in Montgomery, Alabama towards the end of his life and he had an entire industry in
his house of cousins and family members making Mose Tallifarro’s all painted in his manner
signed Mose Tallifarro and available if you wanted them as you walked out the door. Now
how this is different from a Renaissance studio, in terms of the economics of it, I can’t really
say. It seems to me that you could choose, as you would in a Renaissance studio, which
one you liked better and which one had more or less of the hand of the master. But again
to keep the artist in this category isolated from the market is an artificial imposition
that people have, as I say, reductive attitudes towards markets, towards art and towards everything
else. What interests me about this work is that
not all of that’s around, but it is in fact the work itself. What interests me about the
artist is not the artist as a type or as a character or as a case but rather how knowing
about the artist informs us about the art. I’m talking to the young students today I
made the mistake of talking, if you will, about the artist as the subject of exhibitions.
Actually that’s not true. It’s the art that’s the subject of the exhibition and that the
art that people make is why we are interested in them. We’re not interested in curators
because they’re curators and we’re not interested in artists because they’re artists we’re interested
in art and curators and artists come together in order to get the work forward in some way.
I think this is true here. It is very interesting to know the things
that can now be known about Castle. The film has a lot of wonderful material some of which
is featured in the catalog itself and was previously not available. In the same way
it is very interesting to know about people for whom there’s a record. William Edmondson
is a case of an artist who was discovered, if you will, by the big world by Louise Dahl-Wolfe
who was a photographer who was a photographer working for Harper’s Bazzar and who interviewed
Edmondson towards the end of his life and in these interviews there’s all kinds of interesting
sort of positioning going on because he was a very shrewd guy who understood what was
coming at him in certain basic ways and at the same time he was completely and directly
connected to his work through a kind of sense of destiny or necessity. He told Dahl-Wolfe
that God basically told him to do it. It seems, at least in my reading of what has been documented,
that he had a bit of a smile on his face and that he understood that this was not only
partially true, it was inspiration, but it was also a very good defense to put up in
the situation where you might be picked apart. We don’t have this from Castle. We don’t know
really very much about what he would say because he didn’t say it. But one has a sense, at
least I have a sense, of a kind of satisfaction in recognition an appreciation of the dangers
of the embrace of an audience and a complex relationship to a complex body of work made
over a long period of time. I’m basically arguing that you should treat Castle simply
as an artist, as a three dimensional person operating in a world which was smaller than
ours, more isolated than ours but no less detailed than ours. In a way the work and
the way in which he dealt with the world around it should be taken in that sense as complicated
and that those complications are what we need to look at but most of all that the complications
of the art itself. This is, by the way, you can see a collage.
It’s made out of folded papers with string and twine put together. This is sort of a
later piece I would think in judging from the chronologies that have been written but
none of this stuff is dated but it is a wonderful kind of peek backwards into this domestic
environment that he is by this time already drawn in many, many, many forms. The indicators or the guides to this work
have been in some cases dealers, curators, and so on and so forth but they are very often
artists. It is very often the case that it is the recognition by practicing artists of
this work that has brought it into the world. Ben (inaudible), I gather, was the person
who was principally involved in bringing Castle forward. Jim Nutt was one of the key
people responsible for bringing Rameriez forward. In this particular case my introduction to
Castle came through an artist Harvey Kuchinsky who worked as an art handler at the museum
of modern art and who makes beautiful drawings, graphically intense grid drawings, and who,
when we were installing a show (I don’t know which one) he started telling me about this
person he’d been collecting I guess from the late 80s or so. So before there was a general
sort of widespread awareness of Castle in the New York Scene, I think before Hirschl & Adler did a show or whenever it was exactly, Harvey had spotted this stuff and
picked it up. So I learned about this from Harvey and I owe him that. I owe him a lot
of things but I owe him that. One of the first things he said to me was
what it was made out of; spit and ash. That resonated immediately. Because I am a person
who draws and parenthetically I am dyslexic and for a good deal of my early life I could
not read or write and I drew compulsively in a way that makes me entirely sympathetic
to the ways and to the intensity with which Castle drew. I have unfortunately overcompensated
in this department and written and spoken a lot). A good many people that I know who
are in the visual arts are dyslexic; Chuck Close, for example is dyslexic and the first
serious conversations I ever had with anybody about this was with Chuck and I think it’s
not for nothing that people who are dyslexic very often are interested in structured drawing,
Chuck most certainly is. Chuck’s work is made out of grids and it’s made out of textures
and marks within grids. The business of locating yourself in the visual field of finding a
place and navigating from it is deeply satisfying in ways that I think people who are more conformable
with the written word and within a certain open field do not find it so. When I look
at this computer here I look at chaos. Finding top bottom left and right is really difficult
for me. The other side, the plus side is being able to do something like that, to find where
that center rectangle is, to navigate a little this way or a little bit this way. to move
down, to go in, to make all of the different devices work and to structure and create an
orderly space out of a chaos of perception. Out of a tendency to lose one’s bearings profoundly
emotionally engaging. One does this not in order to create a space, and I’ll say a little
bit more about this why I think Castle relating to me is so satisfying, not in order to create
a fantasy space, an alternative space, not to take the projections on the back of your
mind and sort of shoot them out your eyeballs forward and to do what the surrealists to
mine psychology for something. It’s actually the perceptual set of relationships, organizing
visual material where in fact one feels more or less at a loss much of the time is just
great. Looking at this kind of work that’s a lot
of what I see. I see somebody calibrated, measuring, positioning and then nailing something
down and then nailing it again. But I see somebody do this kind of work and see them
repeat something it is because they can never be satisfied by it because it’ll start moving
again the next time they start moving their eyes. If they then put it back in its place
that is deeply, deeply satisfying. If you thing of Agnes Martin as somebody else
of this case, I don’t know whether Agnes had dyslexia or not but at least the kind of way
in which she made and then reiterated these relationships is something that I think is
resonate in all kinds of emotional ways that are separate from her individual mysticism.
The idea that what she was doing was symbolic is perfectly true for her. I happen not to
be a mystic I happen not to believe in transcendental things. I happen to be very down to earth
but down to earth can be fraught and these kinds of artists mean that the down to earth
is less fraught. It has position, it has place, it has balance and order. It has, in fact,
all the things that classical art has. In a way if I talk about Castle I am thinking
about an artist who does indeed do what classical art has done which is proportion and position
and rightness of form. He did, of course, fantasize and those fantasies
are interesting as well. Let me just quickly run through this. These are a series of…
he also rehearsed and this is partly here because of Basquiat. Basquiat was somebody
who drew and redrew things that he found. Basquiat kept notebooks, Basquiat bought Gray’s
Anatomy famously but he bought a lot of other things as well. He was constantly copying
out of books and then paraphrasing in his own particular graphic style. Now if you think
of Basquiat as a an amazing composer whose notes, if you will, were almost all of them
derivative of somebody else. He’s more of an orchestrator even than a composer I think.
Basquiat was somebody who culled out a visual culture a host of images it’s his selection
of which images are resonate and which are not that make him interesting. It’s why, for
example, Basquiat is more interesting than Schnabel because his selection is better,
righter, truer and his way of manipulating these things once he had identified them is
freer. That the sort of overburdens, sort of encyclopedic side of Schnabel combined with
his operatic tendencies weigh his art down when it should be crisp and have a snap to
it. Whereas in Basquiat’s case he is much more ruthless in his choice and much more
deliberate in his execution. And if there is a degree of repetition which is sometimes
problematic, redundant, not sufficiently fresh, it is only the way in which no artist is sort
of on top of their game every day. But when he is on top of his game it is very interesting
to see notebooks like this, and this, and so on as Basquiatian, proto-Basquitian. My
argument would be that they are proto-Basquiatian and that neither Basquiat nor Castle are primitives of any kind. They are simplifiers.
They are staters of what needs to be done with nothing extra. Even with minimal art
and minimal types of art in general and schematic types of art in general the question is not
how simple is it in the sense of how much has been taken away from us, how complexity
has been reduced, but rather what is sufficient. If you have a form that holds true, holds
its place, is legible and at the same time not dull then you create a different relationship.
An artists efficiency is an art, that seems to me, exactly again what we need more of
and we have arts of surface and extravagant wastes of energy but one looks at something
like this, a herringbone pattern, a check pattern, and so on and so forth, these are
amazing things. If anybody’s in the Rudolf Arnheim sphere of things it’d be interesting
to run this through Gestalt psychology and see why it is that they work so very very
well. There is this aspect to it and I’m going to
head into some of the later things. As I said, to talk in these terms is to try not to normalize
Castle in order to make him more acceptable but rather to treat him as if he was in the
spectrum of artists essentially normal as an artist, although exceptional in other ways.
The things that he did has a range that one does not always find in things typed as outsider
art. There are many, many artists who belong to this amorphous category that does not find
a place in the canon but is used as the counter-term to the canon who make a few things in absolutely
astonishing ways and then make them again, and make them again, and make them again.
Repetition, in that case, is truly compulsive and sometimes it’s elaborately compulsive.
Sometimes embellishment and sort of a fullness accrues but they don’t do things that are
different very much. One thing about Castle is that he does a lot
of different things. This exhibition shows that very clearly, upstairs there are geometric
drawings which are kaleidoscopic and kaleidoscopes were popular and the catalog explains indeed
that he got them for Christmas presents. There’s a wonderful drawing where there’s a kaleidoscopic
drawing done on a flat page and then you look at the wall in another drawing and there is
that drawing being drawn on the wall. So he is drawing a naturalistic description of his
own geometric abstraction. There is an element of play in these drawing
that is not something that can be explained by any version of the unselfconscious artist.
There’s a marvelous one where there are two women with bright red lips pulled from magazines
and butted up against each other and they have this sort of double whammy that would
make Warhol jealous. Or maybe a Lichenstein or maybe Rosenquist. It’s an amazing piece
of pop art made in fact within the time frame of pop art, maybe in the 50s or 60s. But it
is a case of somebody recognizing visual analogies, visual procedures, of making something out
of the things he found and of making something more than he had previously made out of the
same devices. That gives you a sense of invention and innovation within an area. At the same
time he can take that same drawing and insert it back (or at least in the case of the kaleidoscopic
one) into an early form of his own art and draw it naturalistically in a setting where
he is describing his own world. Not that, again, establishes a range for this
artist that is very different than the graphomaniac who sits at the table and just does a lot
of the same thing. This is someone who picks his shots and who executes according to an
intention and who changes his speeds and who does a variety of things. One of the things
he did was to make imaginary playmates or paper dolls. And boys make dolls too and again
the gender politics is kind of interesting in this respect. What you see here are figures
that he made, effigies that he made by folding cardboard, by sewing, by painting cardboard
and putting them up in an environment which then means if he does the same thing I described
before, draws his own art in its environs, now he suddenly has populated those environs
with a series of surrogates. I’m going to say something towards the end about all of
this but this ability to create visual metaphors for people or symbols for people and to locate
them in a real site is very different than a hallucinogenic state in which one fantasizes
and there is no distinction between reality and made up things. Here is a wonderful example
of the graphic play where he has a herringbone, a check and a stripe and then he allocates
them to different parts of the drawing. Now this is really smart stuff, right? I don’t
see how you can second guess this and I think it’s much better to just marvel at it. John Baldessari once said to Sigmar Polke
that Polke was the kind of artist who any one chapter of which somebody could make a
whole career out of their art work. If you just pulled one device that Polke used you
could have a very successful career. Then, of course, he had another one and another
one and another one. This is the case of just one perception of how to play with pattern
in context that certainly can get you through two or three seasons in New York. The fact
that there aren’t a lot of these drawings is also interesting, the fact that he would
move on. He keeps making the imaginative leaps and he keeps making them very decisively. Here is the point in which color enters in,
again dates are not precise but by chewing up or masticating or in some ways taking crepe
paper and extracting its pigmentation he does a perfectly Warholian Morton Salt girl. If
you took this and said, okay this is basically Superman and you had the blue background and
you added a little bit of red in the tunic and so on and so forth you would have a similar
kind of simplification of form. The analogy is not to say that they are doing the same
thing exactly but at the level of basic aptitudes, visual devices, ways of thinking of being
able to manipulate form they are doing the same thing. Why they’re doing it, where it
goes, where it doesn’t go is where the differences begin. But one doesn’t look at this kind of
work in order to see a primitive version of what Warhol does, one looks at it in order
to see another version of what Warhol does and another reason for doing it. Here’s a wonderful kind of monstrous version.
Here is one of those sort of shirt board kinds of constructions. But I’m going to end up
here. As I said, I have particular reasons for being interested in this work and the
business of gridding and articulating and locating and then creating volumetric space
in very rudimentary terms but very convincing terms is what keeps drawing me to this work.
It is in part, I suppose, a nostalgia. I’ve described having moved around a good deal
and I thing I probably have a nostalgia for place, for a sense of dwelling, of being some
place absolutely. Inasmuch as Castle was displaced several times it seems as if he would’ve had
it too. He was born into a place which was very specific, they moved twice and he paid
attention to where he was then recreated it at various and sundry times in his life to
recall it. In this he had an ability to describe plainly
what that place was and we’ve seen it in a variety of forms; the landscape outside and
the domestic environment inside. Again, dwelling is very much a part of this when anyone looks
at one of his drawings one is looking at it in a sense with him in the room so that whether
or not he puts a doll there you know that he is there. If you look at this room you
are in some sense inhabiting him while he inhabits that space. There is in this an aspect of direct observation
and recording and matter-of-factness that one finds very rarely in such work. The analogies,
I would say, are a couple; if you think of Giocometti’s drawings of his studio in Paris.
Giocometti did two amazing drawings of his studio from the same vantage point, more or
less, looking one way and another. He drew that studio with the objects in it which,
of course, were his own sculptures which had this same sort of uncanny inhabiting of space
by surrogate bodies. Those drawings are relatively small, they were painstakingly made, they’re
slow and they’re almost without flourish or dramatic effect. They are telling you where
he was and where you are in relation to the things that he was seeing. It seems that the
satisfaction for Giocometti who also was very much engaged in the rest of his graphic work
and his paintings in measuring, describing, delineating, containing, filling that this
kind of graphic activity, the atmospheric qualities of it as well which is to say, in
his case, erasure and correction in Castle’s case layers of tone, that this is very much
a kind of primary psychological activity expressed through a primary graphic means. So Giocometti is one, in terms of the landscape
another would be John Kane. John Kane who was collected by the Museum of Modern Art,
who was a so called naive artist but not very, who lived in Pittsburg and made the marvelously
dry, descriptive landscapes of his area of Pittsburg and all of the surround. They’re
amazing paintings, he did some figurative studies, he did one very beautiful self portrait
with his chest bare and so on. He was collected by the Museum of Modern Art very early by
Alfred Barr. It’s the landscapes which are most interesting
because if you look at the range of American landscape from the Hudson river valley painters
to the painters of the majestic west and so on you have to look pretty far to find anything
that is that prosaic and at the same time that evocative. He is, in the terms of art
history perhaps, closer to the British topographical drawers and draftsmen of the 19th century
who simply told you what the land looked like than he is to anything in the more art traditions
of American landscape paintings. Of course he was one of the people who described the
American landscape as it was. In other words he didn’t describe the bucolic pastoral America,
he described an industrialized America meeting the bucolic pastoral America. He described
the way in which we actually live when city and country come together. For that reason
he’s been very important to another artist who I think actually has some thing in common
with Castle and that’s Rackstraw Downes, an American painter of prosaic pictures about the meeting
of city and country with a dry touch who is very concerned to structure space in certain
kinds of ways. I’ll just throw this in, incidentally there
are some other people who were involved in activities that were not the same but have
some interesting corollaries. One would be Ellen Phelan, a painter of dolls and
dolls in atmospheric situations and somebody who also projects outwards and also populates
her environment with dolls. I’m going to sort of end with that idea of
the child. We say something is child-like because why? John Yau in the film talks about
these drawings being child-like and is at the same time embarrassed by the application
of that word. But the whole idea of the child is a very problematic one in western culture
and I think Castle is a very helpful person to think about in this respect. As I said,
Rousseau’s idea of the innocent uncorrupted intelligence and appetite and avidity is problematic
partly because by now we know thanks to Freud and a careful examination of our own innards
that children are not in a bit innocent. Baudelaire was one of the first writers to talk about
this lack of innocents in children and in describing the painter of modern life, so
called, described basically somebody with that kind of sensibility. He described the
painter of modern life as being one of two things; the invalid who returns to the world
with an acute sensitivity to what is out there and then correspondingly a child reborn. And
he says, “convalescence is like a return to childhood. The convalescent, like the child,
enjoys to the highest degree the faculty of taking a lively interest in things, even the
most trivial in appearance.” One of the things, of course, that artist with serious purpose
tend to do is to not take a lively interest in everything but to be highly selective in
what to take an interest in and therefore leaving out a lot. One of the things about
Castle is that he leaves out nothing. “The child sees everything as a novelty; the child
is always ‘drunk'” Baudelaire was often drunk. “The man of genius has strong nerves; those
of the child are weak. In the one, reason has assumed an important role; in the other,
sensibility occupies almost the whole being. But genius is no more than childhood recaptured
at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with
the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily
amassed. To this deep and joyful curiosity must be attributed that stare, animal-like
in its ecstasy, which all children have when confronted with something new, whatever it
may be, face or landscape, light, gilding, colors, watered silk, enchantment of beauty,
enhanced by the arts of dress.” Now Baudelaire was a wonderful decadent and he played this
for all it was worth but I think his description is actually very interesting because he essentially
says that this is an involuntary thing and what the mature artist does is to discipline.
If we look at Castle and think about him as being not so involuntary as all that, but
very much possessed of that animal-like ecstasy in just looking. Somebody who, in fact, did
express his will, worked exceedingly hard, as I said, worked in a variety of different
ways, worked in ways that renewed his vision, changed his vision but never lost that primary
avidity. To go to one last poetic version of this, which is my favorite poet which is
Walt Whitman There was a Child Sent Forth Every Day and the first object he looked upon
and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became and that object
became a part of him. For that day or for a certain part of that day or for many years
or stretching cycles of years. It seems to me that we have as very nearly as we can a
perfect Whitmanian-like artist in Castle who was, in fact, part of Whitman’s world very
nearly in terms of time and who described America without sentimentality, who described
America without aberration, but who described it marvelously well. Thank you.

Comments (8)

  1. 57 minutes ayayayayay

  2. and your point regarding Castle would be…?

  3. world be castle…

  4. a 3 year old draws better castles

  5. BRAVO to you for making this video captioned!  (so we do not have to rely on the ludicrous version that the auto-captions feature provides on youtube!)

  6. I love his art. I don't think a 3 year old could do what James did. It's primitive, but there's a certain sophistication to it. The guy was an autistic deaf mute… and even if he wasn't, I'd still like his work. My only complaint, I wish they had shown more art during this video.

  7. It's too bad that, out of respect for the people who are hearing his lecture he would improve is speech, lecture ability…terrible delivery.

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