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James Castle at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art includes, above, “Untitled (Pram Construction),” an undated work by the artist, constructed of found paper, string, soot and ribbon. (Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art)

James Castle was the artist of silence, grayness and folded cardboard. Silence because he was born deaf and refused to read, write, speak, sign or finger spell. Grayness because of the velvety, overcast drawings he made all his life: extravagantly tonal images of landscapes, farmyards and interiors rendered in a mixture of soot and spit applied to found paper with sticks and rags. Their muted yet solid forms in some way embodied both Castle’s silent world and his loyalty to it.

And folded cardboard because of the flattened yet bulky toylike sculptures — figures, farm animals, articles of clothing and pieces of furniture — that Castle made from discarded boxes, string and paper. This detritus he gleaned from the post office and general store that his parents oversaw in their house in an Idaho farming community named Garden Valley. In his understanding of structure, moving parts and the abbreviation of familiar forms, Castle used cardboard as brilliantly as Alexander Calder used wire, but with more corners.

Castle was born in Idaho in 1899, nine years after it became a state, and died there in 1977, without ever venturing very far from the three successive farms on which his family lived. He probably never knew the meaning of the word “artist,” but he must have sensed his specialness on some level. You can feel his conviction in the drawings and constructions in the two latest New York gallery shows of his extraordinary work, which has been known to the mainstream art world only since the late 1990s.

Knoedler & Company has mounted its fourth Castle show, a display of 34 of the atmospheric, intimate drawings that make Castle something like the Vuillard of the American West; the works in this show have not been previously exhibited. Ameringer Yohe Fine Art is showing drawings and constructions, including an especially imposing one of a big, black pram whose square wheels are highlighted with foil.

These substantial shows are coincidental and taken together offer compensation if (like me) you missed the lavish Castle retrospective that was mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art last fall and that will travel this fall to Chicago and Berkeley, Calif., with a possible final stop in New York.

Castle’s artistry is implicit in his work’s consistency, optimism, command of perspective and proportion, and psychological delicacy. His soot medium permitted a singular range of grays — charcoal blacks to cloudy-day silvers — as well as variously wet-dry surfaces that suggest charcoal, then ink, then ink wash, then crayon.

The constants are a fervent concentration and an affection for both the process and the subject. His many views of the farmstead of his childhood (executed largely from memory) include everything from doorknobs to open vistas, all methodically studied and recorded in a way that makes his environment feel safe and firmly grounded.

Castle not only spent most of his waking hours making art, he also fit the classic if not clichéd persona of an artist. He was touchy about the reception, display and preservation of his work. He insistently showed his drawings to visitors, wanted a positive reaction and noticed when he didn’t get one.

As Castle’s niece, Gerry Garrow, remarks in a documentary on view at Ameringer Yohe, the less than enthusiastic were not shown anything the next time they visited. (Directed by Jeffrey Wolf and produced by the Foundation for American Self-Taught Artists, the DVD comes with the catalog of the Philadelphia show.)

Castle’s curatorial tendencies included storing much of his art in wrapped and tied bundles, putting his drawings up around the house and objecting if anyone moved them. As Ms. Garrow notes in the documentary, he liked to commandeer empty sheds or chicken coops for use in making and displaying his work. From the film you get the feeling that given more leeway, Castle might have created his own private, diminutive Marfa, à la Donald Judd.

The pride and pleasure artists take in their efforts is nowhere more evident than when Castle’s depicted his own art. Once he had installed his pieces to his liking, he often made drawings of the arrangement. An especially elaborate one at Knoedler shows several drawings mounted on two sides of what appears to be a stall with books that were also his handiwork laid out on the floor.

(There are no books in either show, although they appear again in a kind of close-up rendering, also at Knoedler, of the scene in the stall. Made primarily by copying images, words and letters from other books, magazines or comics, Castle’s books tend to resemble either school primers or photo albums.)

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Roberta Smith
New York Times

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