Two Kinds of Artistic Intelligence

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James Castle (1900-77), a deaf mute, grew up on a frontier farm and lived his entire life in Idaho. Walker Evans (1903-75) was a pioneering photographer who documented the streets of New York City and the working poor of the South. Though their lives never intersected, both were intrigued by fragments of text found in everyday signs and labels, as an exhibition of nearly 80 works at Knoedler makes clear. Evans proves himself the more accomplished artist, but Castle steals the show with the sheer, primal strangeness of his work.

Verbal communication may be one of mankind’s distinguishing traits, but for Castle it appears to have been superfluous. Despite the caring attention of a large family, he refused to learn to speak or sign, and his reading and writing skills seem never to have developed beyond the rudimentary. His childhood home doubled as the local post office and dry-goods store, and postal forms, package labels, and magazines became the raw materials for his preferred means of expression. Shunning conventional art materials, the artist produced thousands of remarkably sensitive drawings on unfolded cartons and scraps of paper, using sharpened sticks and a unique homemade medium of saliva and stove soot.

The works at Knoedler, all untitled and undated, include simple, mandalalike collages made of canned-foods labels and other items. Often the artist painstakingly copied these collages onto new paper scraps using soot and saliva. On view are also a number of his hand-stitched books, as well as many drawings consisting of neatly spaced numbers and letters, apparently inspired by calendars.

Mr. Castle clearly understood the distinction between numbers and letters, and was fascinated by their patterns. He sometimes copied or collaged into his drawings entire words: “Discusses,” “Taxes” and, unsettlingly, “Slaying.”

The neatly inscribed letters D-U-OY-U-K stand out blankly at the top of one drawing. Solipsistic nonsense, it seems, until one recognizes the secretive discipline at work; the artist had diligently transposed the numbers from the calendar-like drawing hanging alongside,turning 5s into Us,and 7s into Ys, and so on. (Zeroes baffled him, perhaps because of their similarity to the letter O.) In five drawings across the gallery, the very same numbers have been meticulously transposed again, this time into indecipherable symbols vaguely reminiscent of Mayan hieroglyphs.

Almost entirely absent from the installation are the views of the interiors and farm structures that appeared in Knoedler’s two previous exhibitions of Castle’s work. This is a shame, because their careful lines and smudged tones richly evoke the stilled atmosphere of his surroundings. Populated only by odd, totemic figures, these drawings give the strongest impression of what the late curator Jay Tobler called a “disquieting mix of domesticity and chilling silence.”

Evans’s 16 tiny, time-darkened photographs, too, speak of modest materials. In the photographer’s 70th year, the Polaroid Corporation provided him with an unlimited supply of color film for his SX-70 instant camera, and he turned his rigorously composing eye to images of billboards, street markers, and shop signs. These overlap in busy patterns, or stand out in suggestive isolation, emphasizing their visual and sometimes literary impact. One features a close-up of a license plate; in an other, the first letter of the word “Park” has been cropped, invoking a certain Biblical vessel.

Knoedler’s inspired pairing of these artists highlights the differences between two kinds of artistic intelligence, one visual and the other social. For most of us, the two are inextricably blended; the first is rewarding but dispensable, the second crucial. Evans was a man of our social world in a way Castle never was, and he shares with us his sardonic humor. His worldliness, though, can seem a little calculated and arch next to Castle’s drawings, which take us to a far stranger realm, one both charming and disconcerting in its elemental perceptions.

***

Nothing could be more different from James Castle’s stillness than Stanley Goldstein’s robust, affectionate paintings of people at work and play. With confident brushstrokes and sunlight-charged hues, the artist uses tradi tional means to animate scenes of swimming pools, playgrounds, and a Passover Seder.

In one of several canvases depicting the artist’s family, the brilliant blue of a sunlit curtain contrasts vividly with shadowed skin tones of father and clambering toddler. But the most compelling compositions tend to be the most austere. These include a number of paintings depicting nighttime dance classes viewed through a window.

In “Dancers” (2005), fragments of the intensely preoccupied dancers appear within a grid of window frames and the ballet barre’s rhyming horizontal,while tree trunks twist darkly in the foreground. The separation of these two worlds – warm, busy studio, and the vantage point among cool, serpentine trunks – imparts a remarkable sense of distanced intimacy.

Mr. Goldstein’s colors always convey the vibrant illumination of his subjects, but sometimes not their pictorial weight. The 6-foot-wide “Playground” (2004), for instance, is filled with vital moments – sunlight glowing through a tricycle wheel, or glinting on windblown hair. But these effects don’t build from a single color scheme establishing the weight of figures on pavement, and the ground receding into the depths. (Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by poignant gravity of intervals in “Dancers.”)

But the artist is back on track with two scenes of swimming pools, in which compact figures measure out the shimmering, turquoise expanses of water. In these, the swimmers’ exuberant play finds complete expression in vigorous forms and colors.

Castle/Evans until August 11 (19 E. 70th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212-794-0550). Price range: $5,000-$25,000; Evans photographs not for sale. Goldstein until June 10 (511 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-645-2621). Price range: $750-$9,000.


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