Robert Storr on James Castle

Uploaded by BAMPFA on 30.03.2010

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
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.