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Art in America


January 15, 2021

Joseph Yoakum drawing

Joseph Yoakum: Mt Brock of Air Cave Pass Near Carson City Nevada, ca. 1963–1965, black fountain pen and graphite pencil on tan wove paper, 12 by 18 inches. Photo: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Joseph Yoakum

This show’s subtitle, “What I Saw,” emphasizes the visionary character of this outsider artist’s some two thousand landscape drawings, all produced in the last decade of his life. The exhibition features about one hundred works utilizing colored pencil, ink, and watercolor. Only a few facts in Yoakum’s biography are firmly fixed: he served in the United States Army in WWI, spent several months in a psychiatric hospital, married twice and had five children, and resided for some thirty years in Chicago, where he died in a nursing home in 1972. Much else is in dispute, beginning with the place and year of his birth (ca. 1889). Was he African American or Native American or both? Did he really travel with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and, later, the Ringling Brothers Circus? Did he work in a coal mine and on the railroad? Did he actually visit the myriad precisely labeled locales—both throughout the US and abroad—that he portrayed in his dreamlike pictures? What is indisputable is that the eccentric self-taught draftsman was a major influence on the Chicago Imagists and that he is now securely established in the folk art canon.

Art Institute of Chicago, June 12–Oct. 18, 2021; travels to Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2021, and Menil Collection, Houston, Apr. 22–Aug. 7, 2022.

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