Skip to content

Culture Type

Joseph Yoakum Drew Real and Imagined Landscapes: ‘Wherever My Mind Led Me, I Would Go. I’ve Been All Over This World Four Times’

December 3, 2021

Joseph E. Yoakum “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont,” n.d.

Joseph E. Yoakum (American, 1891-1972), “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont,” n.d. (black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper, 7 7/8 × 9 7/8 inches / 20 × 25.1 cm). | Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 1793.2012. Photo by Robert Gerhardt

By Victoria L. Valentine

THE POETIC LANDSCAPES of Joseph Yoakum (1891-1972) are transporting. Yoakum said he drew what he saw as he made his way in the world. He depicted meandering streams, mountainous vistas, and forest terrain, creating texture and dimension within the topographical scenes using dense hash marks made with ballpoint and felt-tip pens. He further added dream-like qualities to the pictures working with colored pencils and watercolors in a spectrum of desert hues—from coral and pink to sea blue and sea foam green.

Yoakum wrote descriptions of his subjects directly on his drawings. Titles such as “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont,” “Mt Popocatepel of Sra Madre Occidental Range near Mexico City C.M.,” and “A Rock in the Baltic Sea near Stockholm Sweden E. Europe” give a sense of the diverse locales he experienced and visualized.

A rare opportunity to see Yoakum’s landscapes, more than 100 drawings by the artist are on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” is the first museum presentation dedicated to Yoakum in more than 25 years. The exhibition features works dating from approximately 1963 to 1972. (Many of the drawings are undated.)

Born in Ash Grove, Mo., Yoakum said he was still a child when he left home to join the circus in 1902. He started with the Buffalo Bill Wild West show and then moved on to work with the Sells Floto Circus (which took him to China) and the Ringling Brothers Circus. Later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving during World War I with the 805th Pioneer Infantry, an all-Black, non-combat regiment that deployed to France and was active across Europe. Late in life, living in Chicago, Yoakum began drawing full time, making real and imagined landscapes inspired by memories of his international travels. He was 71.


“Joseph Yoakum: What I Saw” opened at the Art Institute of Chicago earlier this year and will travel to the Menil Collection after the MoMA showing, which is on view through March 19, 2022.

“Yoakum insisted that every one of his highly stylized landscapes was based on his firsthand experience of actual places, that he was driven by a self-declared wanderlust: ‘I had 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.'” Édouard Kopp, chief curator of the Menil Drawing Center in Houston, recounts in “When the Sun Neither Sheds Light nor Creates Shade, his essay for the exhibition catalog.

“Most of his drawings represent North American locations but he claimed to have visited all the continents (except Antarctica, which he nonetheless represented), where he would have been exposed to some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. While his drawings may echo the outside world they neither take it at face value nor seek verisimilitude: ultimately they provide little evidence of being grounded in observed topographical realities.”

Kopp added: “Instead, they invite us to suspend disbelief, in that they seem to function largely—but not entirely—as dreamscapes, where his memories and visions of places merged. His is a world where different rules apply, where the sun neither sheds light no creates shade.” CT

“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, from Nov. 21, 2021-March 19, 2022

Back To Top