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Drawing by Joseph E. Yoakum titled Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont

Joseph E. Yoakum, Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont, n.d. Black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper, 7 7/8 x 9 7/8 in. (20 x 25.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2013.

Drawing by Joseph E. Yoakum titled Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands, stamped 1968

Joseph E. Yoakum, Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands, stamped 1968. Blue felt-tip pen, blue ballpoint pen, pastel, and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 19 1/8 in. (30.5 x 48.4 cm). Collection of Christina Ramberg and Phil Hanson

Drawing by Joseph E. Yoakum titled The Open Gate to the West in Rockey Mtn Range near Pueblo Colorado, from 1966

Joseph E. Yoakum, The Open Gate to the West in Rockey Mtn Range near Pueblo Colorado, stamped 1966. Blue fountain pen, blue ballpoint pen, pastel, and colored pencil on paper, 12 1/8 x 18 in. (30.7 x 45.7 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous gift

Drawing by Joseph E. Yoakum titled Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India from 1969

Joseph E. Yoakum, Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India, stamped 1969. Black felt-tip pen, blue fountain pen, black and purple ballpoint pen, colored pencil, and pastel on paper, 12 x 9 ½ in. (30.5 x 24 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous gift.

Joseph E. Yoakum titled Joseph E. Yoakum, Mt Baykal of Yablonvy Mtn Range near Ulan-Ude near Lake Baykal of Lower Siberia Russia E Asia

Joseph E. Yoakum, Mt Baykal of Yablonvy Mtn Range near Ulan-Ude near Lake Baykal of Lower Siberia Russia E Asia, 1969. Blue felt-tip pen, blue fountain pen, purple ballpoint pen, and pastel on paper, 18 7/8 x 12 1/8 in. (48 x 30.9 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous gift.

Drawing by Joseph E. Yoakum titled Spring Little Falls in Spring River near Thayer Missouri in Red Clay Range

Joseph E. Yoakum, Spring Little Falls in Spring River near Thayer Missouri in Red Clay Range, n.d. Watercolor, pen, and colored pencil on paper, 12 × 19 1/8 in. (30.5 × 48.6 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Purchased with funds provided by the Charles Engelhard Foundation.

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled American Zeppolin Flight from New York City to Paris France in Year 1939 from 1969

Joseph E. Yoakum, American Zeppolin Flight from New York City to Paris France in Year 1939, 1969. Blue ballpoint pen, colored pencil, and pastel on paper, 12 × 19 1/8 in. (30.4 × 48.4 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Whitney Halstead.

Drawing by Joseph E. Yoakum titled Flying Saucer in 1968

Joseph E. Yoakum, Flying Saucer in 1958, n.d. Purple and blue felt-tip pen, pastel, colored pencil, and blue ballpoint pen on paper, 11 7/8 × 9 5/8 in. (30.2 × 24.5 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Whitney Halstead.

Press Release

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw is the first major museum retrospective in more than twenty-five years to focus on the dream-like landscape drawings of Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1891–1972), a self-taught, visionary American artist. The show illuminates his vivid creativity, imaginative vision of the land, and deep spirituality and also explores his complex biography as an African American man who claimed Native American heritage.

Much of what we know of Yoakum’s extraordinary life story comes from the artist himself. Born in Missouri just twenty-five years after the end of the Civil War, Yoakum had little schooling before he left home to work for several circuses, traveling across the United States as well as abroad. He later served in a segregated noncombat regiment during World War I before settling in Chicago’s South Side. Inspired by a dream, he began his artistic career at age seventy-one, ultimately producing some two thousand drawings before his death in 1972.

As the exhibition title intimates, Yoakum’s drawings reflect his travels to every continent except Antarctica. As he put it, “I had it in my mind that I wanted to go to different places at different times. Wherever my mind led me, I would go. I’ve been all over this world four times.” Awareness of his biography is critical to a contemporary examination of Yoakum’s body of work—marked by a distinctive, linear style of draftsmanship—but so, too, is recognizing his agency in transforming his visual memories into works of art. His idiosyncratic drawings, predominantly landscapes in ballpoint pen, colored pencil, pastel, and watercolor, convey his poetic view of nature. Simultaneously, Yoakum also made many portraits of African American icons.

The exhibition at the Menil Drawing Institute will feature more than 80 drawings by Yoakum, most from the collections of Chicago-based artists affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who deeply admired the singularity of Yoakum’s creativity. His collectors, supporters, and friends include Roger Brown, Cynthia Carlson, Whitney Halstead, Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg and Philip Hanson, Karl Wirsum and Lorri Gunn, and Ray Yoshida, all of who helped promote the artist’s work during and after his lifetime.

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw is co-organized by Edouard Kopp, John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation Chief Curator, Menil Drawing Institute; Mark Pascale, Janet and Craig Duchossois Curator of Prints and Drawings, The Art Institute of Chicago; Esther Adler, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, MoMA.

The exhibition will show at the Art Institute of Chicago (June 12–October 18, 2021) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (on view November 28, 2021–March 19, 2022).

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw is generously supported by Leah Bennett; Diane and Michael Cannon; Hilda Curran; Cindy and David Fitch; Barbara and Michael Gamson; Janet and Paul Hobby; Caroline Huber; Mary Hale Lovett McLean; John and Stephanie Smither Visionary Art Fund; James William Stewart, Jr.; Nina and Michael Zilkha; Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation; and the City of Houston through Houston Art Alliance.

An extensive, richly illustrated exhibition catalogue provides new scholarship on the artist and expands upon key themes of the show. It highlights friendships that Yoakum forged with the Chicago-based artists who cemented his place in art history; it explores how religion may have helped him cope with a racially fractured city; and it examines his complicated relationship to African American and Native American identities, while also situating Yoakum’s contribution in the wider context of American art.

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