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The Museum of Modern Art

Joseph E. Yoakum. Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont, n.d. Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.


The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw

At age 71, Joseph Yoakum (1891–1972) began making idiosyncratic, poetic landscape drawings of the places he had traveled over the course of his life, creating some 2,000 extraordinary works that bear little resemblance to the world we know. This exhibition is comprised of over 100 of those works, predominantly from the collections of the artists in Chicago who knew him and admired and supported his work.

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Landscape  of American Zeppolin by Joesph Elmer Yoakum

Joseph E. Yoakum, American Zeppolin Flight from New York City to Paris France in Year 1939, 1969. The Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Whitney Halstead. 

The Art Institute of Chicago
Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw
In 1962 at the age of 71, Joseph E. Yoakum (1891–1972) reported having a dream that inspired him to draw. Thereafter the retired veteran began a daily practice and over the next 10 years produced some 2,000 works.

This exhibition follows a shifting progression of Yoakum’s mountainous terrain, arid deserts, and majestic waterways, as well as a selection of his portraits of African American icons, testifying to the rich imagination of an exceptional American artist as well as to the remarkable circumstances that led to his lasting legacy.

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The New York Times

The New York Times
Joseph Elmer Yoakum’s Delirious Vistas
By Roberta Smith

The visionary landscapist Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1888-1972) has been categorized as an outsider, self-taught or folk artist. Whichever: His place in the expanding canon of 20th-century American art is assured, both for his achievement and influence. The latest evidence of Yoakum’s originality is this enthralling exhibition, among the largest ever devoted to his work.

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Smart Museum

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Caucasus Mts On Black Sea near Urmavin in USSR, 1968

Smart Museum of Art
Joseph Elmer Yoakum: Line and Landscape
This solo exhibition features works from the Smart Museum's permanent collection, and is paired with a related presentation of works from the Chicago Imagists.

During the last decade of his life, self-taught artist and South Side resident Joseph Yoakum (1890–1972) began drawing almost full time. He produced several thousand works in this short period, mostly of highly stylized landscapes. Although he titled his drawings after specific locations from around the globe, Yoakum was less concerned with their likeness to the physical sites than with the feelings they evoked—a process he referred to as “spiritual unfoldment.”

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Museum of Modern Art

Works by Joseph Elmer Yoakum (left) in A Trip from Here to There, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Museum of Modern Art
A Trip From Here to There
Joseph Elmer Yoakum featured in group exhibition exploring practices and works generated by walking, wandering, and travel.

As members of exploratory expeditions and surveys, painters and draftsmen have long played key roles in the plotting and investigation of place. Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, as artists increasingly emphasized the process by which an artwork is made, road trips and other journeys became both medium and subject.

Yoakum is featured alongside artists including Marcel Broodthaers, Juan Downey, Hamish Fulton, Brion Gysin, Mona Hatoum, Richard Long, and Jorge Macchi.

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Joseph Elmer Yoakum

Joseph Elmer Yoakum with “Mississippi River Neir Noth Side," c. late 1960s. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Whitney B. Halstead papers

Joseph Elmer Yoakum was, according to official record, born in Ash Grove, Missouri, in 1890. Much of Yoakum's background is shrouded in legend, in keeping with the dreamlike nature of his work. What appears certain is that Yoakum, of Native American and African-American descent, had traveled widely before he began his artistic work in 1962 in his early 70s. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I—deployed at one point to France—and claimed to have toured with the circus in his youth. This nomadic narrative strongly marks Yoakum’s seminal creative output, which was conceivably inspired by real places even though his surrealistic landscape drawings were completed through what Yoakum called “spiritual unfoldment.” Self-taught, Yoakum nevertheless influenced many important artists. The critical attention of art historian Whitney Halstead, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was crucial in bringing Yoakum’s innovative works to a broader public. Yoakum was a particularly strong influence on Chicago imagists, including Jim Nutt and Roger Brown. Yoakum’s work has been the subject of numerous solo presentations. In June 2021, The Art Institute of Chicago will present Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw, a retrospective of the artist’s work. Previous solo exhibitions include the David and Alfred Smart Museum of the University of Chicago; Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Yoakum’s work is frequently featured in major group exhibitions, including recent presentations at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. His work is held many public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; The Menil Collection, Houston; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Joseph Elmer Yoakum lived and worked in Chicago until his death in 1972.


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