Joseph E. Yoakum, A Cyclone in Action at Iola Kansas in Year of 1920, 1969, ink and pastel on paper, 12 × 19".
By Joe Bucciero
THE CLOSING DECADES of the nineteenth century experienced a crisis of certainty. New techniques and technologies had promised untold capacities for the verification of facts and images, and yet these new developments, such as photography, often failed their evidentiary tasks. As many discovered, photos could be faked, miscaptioned, lost, destroyed; veracity remained a matter of trust more than of objective record. Perhaps fittingly, these decades also witnessed the birth of artist Joseph E. Yoakum: likely in 1891; likely in Ash Grove, Missouri; likely to parents of French, African American, and Cherokee ancestry. Yoakum traveled extensively throughout his life—first as a youth member of the Buffalo Bill and Ringling Bros. troupes, later as a soldier and rail worker. Sometimes, along the way, he proffered alternate dates or places of birth; sometimes he distanced himself from Blackness or claimed Navajo heritage instead of Cherokee (as an in-joke, he pronounced it “Nava-Joe”). So, in the early 1960s, when the then-septuagenarian artist inaugurated a series of some two thousand drawings, it made sense that these pictures—renderings of sites he had visited, he said, plus the occasional portrait—would, like his personal narrative, throw certainty into limbo.
To art historian Whitney Halstead, writing in 1972, Yoakum’s landscapes represented “memories of places he had seen blended imperceptibly with fantasy.” Halstead anchored a cohort of Chicago-based writers and Imagist artists who befriended Yoakum after the latter’s debut exhibition in 1967 and went on to evangelize about his work. The elder artist had settled on the city’s South Side earlier in the decade and, with limited art experience, had begun drawing every day. With a focused formal tool kit—including what Philip Hanson catalogued in 1969 as “outlined sinew form[s],” “converging lines,” and “overlapping tree forms”—Yoakum devised a loose but consistent pictorial idiom. Woozy rocks, at once flat and textured like geological cross sections, press against the picture plane; uniform evergreens cluster between them, receding in dissonant perspective. Often, water flows from the center (or the stones deliquesce). Sometimes a bridge, train, or cabin indexes human presence (rarely, a single person or animal appears). Absent realism’s truth effects, the landscapes instead bear titular stamps of certification. In 1972, the year he died, Yoakum’s art grew even more abstract; still, he chose documentary titles for it, such as The Attraction of All Wanders Which Is Located in Central Australia I Have Seen Them Twice My Self.
Yet his pictures courted doubt. Regarding the undated Prairie Mounds in Western Iowa on Chicago Milwauke and St Paul R.Y., the Iowa-raised Halstead commented that his state lacked the steep peaks Yoakum depicted. “Well,” the artist replied, “that was just because you never looked.” The comprehensive exhibition “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” organized by Esther Adler, Édouard Kopp, and Mark Pascale at the Art Institute of Chicago, presents more than one hundred drawings, workbooks, and pieces of ephemera that together testify to the artist’s idiosyncratic ways of looking. Although he based the images on places he had visited, Yoakum bolstered his recollections with cultural iconography, substrates of which—postcards, magazines—are on display in the show. But mass imagery had a greater, if indirect, effect on Yoakum, beyond visual reference: It also modeled methods of authority. To demonstrate the truth and singularity of his vision, the artist developed a proprietary system of reproduction and distribution, what he called “copyright.” Especially after 1967, as demand for his drawings increased, Yoakum drafted on carbon paper to produce multiples of certain designs. Quasi-interchangeable labels—“re coppy,” “patron” (pattern), “modle”—identified uncolored templates that Yoakum usually retained to trace over. Yet the “copies” he made to sell possessed original traits, as he added soft, semi-realistic color to each in pencil or pastel and tailored the lines in pen. He dated many works either in pen or with a stamp, sometimes appending subsequent dates to indicate modifications to a piece’s composition or availability. Shrewd insofar as they endowed fungible items with continuous uniqueness, the amendments also frame the viewing experience, encouraging revisitation. If something seems off, it might just be that you never looked; if so, Yoakum suggests, here’s another chance.
Incorporating conditions of production and circulation into his work, Yoakum might be thought to have mirrored contemporary tendencies in Conceptual art and Pop (his portraits of cultural icons fertilize connections to the latter). But if his medium was likewise ideas, those ideas appear less structural than personal, less material than metaphysical. Yoakum described his drawing process as a “spiritual unfoldment,” adopting the term from Christian Science. “After I draw them,” he said, “I have a spiritual remembrance and I know what is pictured.” Coupled with the assured lines and geographic range of his landscapes, his esoteric proclamation has summoned, for many observers, the visionary aspect of much so-called outsider art, where correspondences between referent and image are often said to matter less than the artist’s situation. But correspondence mattered to Yoakum. Formally generic, his art is historically specific: Note the various illustrated World War I munitions and the precise dates added to events, such as cyclones marked 1903 and 1920. These details, inscribed upon given objects or within Yoakum’s elaborate titles, affirm the reality of his experiences; even more, they activate them as representation. And, while aspects of his past, like the war, were no doubt troubling, Yoakum’s act of depiction seems to serve him less as a traumatic repetition (à la Surrealism, to which the Imagists were drawn) than a rapturous reanimation. His drawings evoke what Frances Yates called mnemonic loci and what Halstead, in possible reference to Walter Benjamin, termed memory images. Benjamin conceived such images to interpolate past into present in a flash, like lightning, followed by the thunder of text: “Actualization,” he wrote, “not reflection.”
In the exhibition catalogue, Adler notes that many of Yoakum’s published statements were relayed by younger white listeners with greater financial and institutional resources. Christina Ramberg quoted the artist in her diary: “There’s few places I haven’t been . . . And there’s nothing I haven’t suffered to see things first hand.” Certainly, near the end of his life, Yoakum relished sharing his memories, these oral components of his work. Halstead understood the artist to be crafting a mythos; in his account, Yoakum’s topographical motifs act something like Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “mythemes,” narrative units that can be reassembled without altering a story’s meaning. Yoakum indeed maneuvered units (forms, spellings) within a mythic framework; yet if he systematized elements of his production, his overall story evades clear structure, instead miming the spontaneity of memory, where images might signify something else at each transmission. Like the trees he embedded within geological cavities, Yoakum used myth to support a narrative laden with structural gaps. The late-nineteenth century’s crisis of certainty was coterminous with Jim Crow, after all, the conjuncture pointing to who had the power to “authenticate.” Yoakum’s mother had been born enslaved; his birthdate remains uncertain due, in part, to missing censuses: Nearing the end of his life, the artist produced his own, self-verifiable report. Teeming with detail, his drawings became a paper trail. If some seem incredible—consider Mt Atzmon on Border of Lebanon and Palestine SE. A., 1968, with its proliferating ecosystems, tricolor rainbow, and conflations of dusk and midday, biblical and present time—they advance the artist’s myth, reproducing a complexity that, in the phrase of Chicago musician Lester Bowie, sits “beyond the people who are trying to define it.”
In some ways beyond, Yoakum’s story still turned on his (somewhat vexed) social position. He inflated his Indigenous affiliations—perhaps, as Navajo curator Kathleen Ash-Milby suggests in the catalogue, as a problematic kind of sublimation: Native culture held romantic associations for him, whereas he understood Blackness in terms of oppression. In respective essays, Adler and Chicago-based artist Faheem Majeed note Yoakum’s negligible contact with, or interest in, local Black Arts and civil-rights activity, even if his pictorial strategy recalls, on a descriptive level, the AfriCOBRA objective of “mimesis at midpoint”: the production of images in which, writes artist Jeff Donaldson, “the real and the overreal” meet. Like identity, politics for Yoakum was personal, pliable, dubious. He privileged what made him different; he believed what he had “suffered to see.” To wit, he mistrusted the moon landing but not UFOs, claiming a flying saucer “buzzed” the only airplane he had ever taken. He later drew several saucers, two of which hover in view of rock formations that resemble human faces, as if avatars for the artist-witness. Here as ever, Yoakum co-stages myth and reality, memory and event, subjective account and historical subjecthood (the saucer scenes are said to occur in 1958, amid the space race). If these dialectics found a key illustrator in Yoakum—in images of sites at once implanted and invented—their key theorist was Sun Ra, who departed the South Side around the same time Yoakum began to draw. For Ra, reality was an effect of power. “I’m not real,” he says in his film Space Is the Place (1974). “I come to you as the myth, because that’s what Black people are,” in a society that strives to withhold Black power. “Myth is the seemingly false and the seemingly impossible,” he wrote elsewhere; it delimits reality, “beyond” and “before.” While the terms limn one another on earth, Ra saw them fusing in the cosmos, the site of collective liberation.
Yoakum’s extraterrestrial encounter ended quickly; his plane made an emergency landing. “We got off and all of us took a train.” His earth, like Ra’s, can appear inhospitable, but Yoakum nevertheless found security there (indeed, on six continents). As he traced its surface, on land, sea, and paper, he and what he saw sustained a tension “between the mapped and the unknown,” as Clyde Woods and Katherine McKittrick write of what they call Black geographies, producing spaces “that ‘no one knows’ do exist, within our present geographic order.” Topographically impossible, Yoakum’s landscapes herald telluric possibility, and not only for him. Less a global village than a set of discrete but spiritually and physically connected territories, they persist, unoccupied, on the precipice of past and future freedom.
“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through October 18; travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 28, 2021–March 19, 2022; Menil Collection, Houston, April 22–August 7, 2022.
Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago and based in Brooklyn.