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Antiques and the Arts

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw

May 31, 2021

Drawing by Joseph Yoakum titled Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont, no date
A photograph of Joseph Yoakum taken by Roger Vail c. 1969

By Jessica Skwire Routhier

CHICAGO – Given our present moment in history, and the ongoing conversations about expanding and democratizing access to art and its histories, it may seem only logical that a leading American art museum like the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) is presenting a major exhibition on the work of Joseph Yoakum. Raised in poverty in rural Missouri, unschooled in art, and relegated to the margins of society both racially and economically, Yoakum only began making his alluring and utterly unique drawings when he was in his 70s and living in Chicago. Curator Mark Pascale has been fascinated with Yoakum’s story ever since he himself came to the AIC, shortly after Yoakum’s works were bequeathed there. So while the timing of the show “may seem prescient,” Pascale says, “actually I have been thinking about it since 1981.” “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” is at the Art Institute of Chicago June 12 through October 18.

The exhibition is very much a Chicago story, Pascale says, although he acknowledges that curators at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Menil Collection, where it will travel to, may have somewhat different spins. Pascale arrived at the AIC too late to be part of the cohort of artists there who knew Yoakum and collected his work – from about 1968 to 1972, when Yoakum died – but he remembers the 1970s as “an incredibly pluralistic epoch.” Scholars like Whitney Halstead (who became Yoakum’s closest art friend and champion, and who engineered the bequest of his work to the AIC) and artists like Roger Brown, Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum and Lori Gunn, Ray Yoshida, and others who assiduously collected Yoakum’s work, were interested in a multicultural view of art and – taking a cue from Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut movement – returning to “that very elementary state when you were a child, when everything was interesting, everything was wonderment.” So when Yoshida and others encountered Yoakum’s visionary, alluring ballpoint pen and watercolor landscapes at a famous South Side open-air market called Maxwell’s, “it was sort of like finding the thing they were trying to find themselves.”

Yoakum’s artist friends appreciated him as “a person who created this work without any of the schooling that they had had or any of the advantages that they had had,” says Pascale, noting that previous scholars’ attempts to characterize their friendships with him as exploitative or even racist are off the mark. Both Halstead and Brown compared Yoakum to the much-loved French painter Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, who was similarly self-taught, taken under the collective wing of a group of professional artists, and created a slightly fabulist self-constructed identity. It’s true that Yoakum existed outside of the circle of mainstream art and even the counterculture art movements to which many in the AIC group belonged. Although Yoakum was Black and at least part Indigenous American (probably Cherokee and not Navajo as he claimed; he was known to refer to himself as “Nava-Joe”), “he wasn’t aware of AfriCOBRA, a major Black art movement that happened on the South Side of Chicago,” Pascale says, and “he never visited the South Side Community art center,” a hugely influential WPA-era art center that still exists today in the neighborhood known as Bronzeville, near where Yoakum lived.

In this way, and also “economically, socially and otherwise,” Pascale says, “in his time, Yoakum was out of the center.” However, he adds, “the term ‘outsider art’ is really derogatory, and I don’t believe in it, and I don’t use it.” With or without that problematic label, there can be challenges for museums dedicated to the history of art in interpreting and presenting the work of such artists whose work defies easy categorization. So much of the curatorial work efforts in museums like the AIC and MoMA – whether in relation to historical or contemporary works of art – occurs in the context of relationships between eras and traditions, resonances with the work of other artists and intellectual movements, a handing down of knowledge and influence. How to deal with a body of work that seems to exist outside of such considerations?

The excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition, edited by Pascale along with Esther Adler of MoMA and Édouard Kopp of the Menil, attempts a variety of approaches. There are many, many threads to follow in considering Yoakum’s work: among others, nonacademic art and “memory painting,” psychology, race and ethnicity, and spirituality (Yoakum described his art as a “spiritual unfoldment” inspired by a dream in which God told him to make drawings). The essays that pull upon these threads are brief but thought-provoking, offering a multiplicity of ways into the work. The problem ends up being less one of “what could there possibly be to say?” and more one of “how could all this possibly be communicated in the exhibition gallery?”

For the most part it won’t be, says Pascale, adding that he’s “very minimalist” when it comes to object labels. There will be a chronology in the exhibition, a drastically abbreviated version of the book’s thorough chronology by Emily Olek, and some “small anecdotes” will be included in the labels. He notes that while he recognizes and values the importance of that background information, and the interpretive work done in the catalog, “for me it’s peripheral to the enjoyment of the work…I think that Yoakum’s work in principle is so visually attractive and enchanting that people don’t need a lot of words to get into it.” Pascale’s two previous shows on Yoakum (neither as extensive as this one) were titled “The Force of a Dream” and “The Picture Tells the Story,” and he says that the latter essentially encapsulates his view of Yoakum’s work. “I think at its most basic level Yoakum produced this beautiful picaresque novel about his life…[The drawings] are strong memories of where he’s been and his connection to those places…That’s what I hope people come away with.”

The pictures do tell that story, very affectingly. It sounds like the picaresque novel Pascale describes to say that Yoakum ran away to join the circus when he was only nine years old, but that is indeed what happened. For the next five years he traveled all over the country and as far overseas as China. Many of his drawings of rural America – “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont,” “Poverty Hollar in Ozark Mts near Luck Green County Missouri,” “Rain Bow Bridge in in Bryce Canyon National Park near Henriville Utah,” “The Open Gate to the West in Rockey Mtn Range near Pueblo Colorado” – may reflect memories of those places and travels. While there is some evidence that his memories were sometimes enhanced by postcards or pictures in encyclopedias or atlases, research of circus itineraries has revealed that he may well have traveled at one point to most of the places he depicted. In these works, the distant views and the predilection for dramatic landscape forms like gulches and mountains suggest the experience of traveling by train, which is probably how he visually encountered most of these places.

Of course they don’t look exactly how they might look to us from a train window. Yoakum’s landscapes are exaggerated and fantastical; his repeating forms, stylized mark-making, and dreamy, luminous watercolor washes are his own unique vision of what he saw and remembered. In this way there is often no real distinguishing – apart from his carefully recorded inscriptions – between the landscapes of his native land and some of the farther-flung places he drew in works like “Mt Baykal of Yablonvy Mtn Range near Ulan-Ude near Lake Baykal of Lower Siberia Russia E Asia.” It’s possible he encountered some of the European locales during his service in the US Army during World War I; certainly his army service could, in part, have inspired “Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands.” But to some extent the personal connection, if any, to the places in works like “Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India,” and “Wilks Land in East Sector of Antartica Continents on Rose Sea and Ice Shellf Cliffe” must remain unknown.

A partial explanation may be found in what Pascale describes as Yoakum’s practice of “spiritual enfoldment”: he made the drawing first and only then remembered where it was and labeled it. This may also go some way to explain the prevalence of certain stock forms in Yoakum’s art. Similar mountain and river forms repeat themselves, as do the lines of pointed trees, grouped together to represent forest. Yoakum had a recurring motif he called the “Weeping Pebble,” a sort of ovoid rock form that seems to stand upright on its narrow end that may or may not be somewhere in Nevada. It is frequently centered in his compositions, with a path leading to it, like a shrine.

Yoakum also had an interest in historical figures and events, even if – like his landscapes – his drawings do not always represent them exactly as they were. “American Zeppolin Flight from New York City to Paris France in Year 1939″ must in part reflect Yoakum’s own experience traveling in a zeppelin during the war, even if its inscription does not precisely align with what we know of transatlantic travel. “Beulah Dudley 1st Negro Woman to Win Golff Record in Year 1927″ shows some engagement with Black history, reflecting a news item from his younger adulthood. “This is Our Rememberance of Old Ex President William Jennings Bryan Our 1st Democrat President,” somewhat defies explanation, to the point where it seems almost silly to dissect what Bryan’s story actually was. What’s interesting here, and in similar works, is the cultural and visual detritus that accumulated during Yoakum’s life and later found expression through his pen and paper. The similarity of the seemingly abstract forms in this latter work to another drawing in his notebook suggests a standard artistic practice of working out compositions in advance, refining and adjusting them as part of that process.

Yoakum’s materials, it bears noting, are by and large what we think of the materials of writing more so than artmaking: notebooks, ballpoint pens, stationery that has been identified as coming from Woolworth’s. In that context his attention to inscriptions is particularly interesting, especially because he often wrote those inscriptions with a flair that can only be described as artistic. The memories that these words recorded was important to him, and it’s telling that the words on his drawings often convey what may be either a mishearing or a regional pronunciation of the place pictured – as, for instance, in “Saw Toot Mtn Montana.” Where earlier catalogers at the AIC had corrected these spellings or marked them as errors, Pascale has retained them in his scholarship, unapologetically. Yoakum had his own lexicon – including what he called “patron” or “modle” drawings that he kept and reused as patterns or models for other works – that is very much part of his process, his personality and his unique legacy.

The connection to storytelling and literature invites an interesting comparison. In certain circles of art criticism, the kind of work that Yoakum created has been much maligned, belittled as “memory painting” and thus not worthy of serious consideration. But no one has ever criticized literature for being “memory writing.” Yoakum’s favored language for recording his experience on this earth was visual, and he created a remarkable body of work that blends fact, fantasy, memory and emotion in no less engrossing a way than a great autobiographical novel. In our present moment, such personal histories and engagement with the ideas and images of the past are increasingly a part of contemporary art, but this was not true of Yoakum’s time, when artists bristled under the hegemonies of modernism. In Yoakum we can see-just as the counterculture artists of Chicago did in the late 1960s and 1970s – a prescient glimpse of what other kinds of art histories might be possible.

The Art Institute of Chicago is at 111 South Michigan Avenue. For more information, or 312-443-3600.

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