“Aesthetics is a very important part of the whole thing because, as I say, it is the language but it is also part of the means. . . . I think aesthetics are something that absorb me only in the sense that I have to have the thing visually exciting to me, besides having it do something for me beyond the visual effect. In other words, the visual thing will attract me to it enormously and yet something will pull me into it, which is the thing itself. I am very strongly for form and matter, the combination of both.”
Born one of seven children in Alhabia, a city in Almería, Spain, Federico Castellon lived in Barcelona before his parents moved the family to the United States when he was seven. They settled in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, New York. As a Spanish-speaking child with limited English living in a new country, Castellon found himself ostracized by his peers; he was also held back in school for two years. As a means of expression and “to save my sanity,” Castellon turned to drawing, which would consume him for hours. Largely self-taught, as a teenager he visited New York area museums to view the work of European masters, but it was at Erasmus Hall High School where an art teacher gave him his strongest encouragement and exposed him to modern art for the first time. Shortly after graduating from Erasmus High School, he completed a mural for the school based on the subject of arts and sciences. The mural, obviously informed by his interest in modern European movements, attracted critical attention and was exhibited in New York at Raymond and Raymond Galleries before being permanently installed in the school.
In the early 1930s, Castellon was introduced to Diego Rivera at a lecture given by the artist on his Man at the Crossroads murals for Rockefeller Center (destroyed in 1934 at Nelson Rockefeller’s request). The older artist took an interest in the young man’s work and brought Castellon’s drawings to the attention of the director of the Weyhe Gallery in New York, who subsequently gave the eighteen-year-old Castellon his first solo exhibition. So impressed with Castellon was Rivera that he also began writing letters to the Spanish Minister of Education on Castellon’s behalf, and through his efforts, the Spanish Republic awarded Castellon a government fellowship to study art for four years. In 1934, Castellon left to study painting and printmaking in Paris and Madrid. While there, he befriended leading artists and intellectuals who made European cafés lively places for debates about art and modernism in the 1930s. But Castellon’s return to Spain was meaningful on another level as well; it stirred up memories from his childhood that he had forgotten, “these memories became real all of a sudden where I had seen them, thought of them as dreams, never really seeing them as dreams but thought of them. All of a sudden I saw that I was moving in a dream.” This dream-like reality would become a key component of his style.