‘Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily between Tynhenian and Mediterranean Seas’ (stamped 1968) © Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
By Ariella Budick
In 1962, a 71-year-old man on Chicago’s South Side had a dream that moved him to take up a pencil and draw — every day for the rest of his life. In the decade he had left, Joseph E Yoakum summoned radiant landscapes from the folds of his memory and his imagination, turning the world’s topographies into a universe of forms. He charted vistas bounded by large masses: a channel separating two islands, a pair of peaks parted by a valley, a gulch between southwestern hoodoo rock-spires. Pine trees link the protuberant sections, offering verdant relief from exposed summits or jagged crests. From his urban studio, he looked down on wildernesses infused with a divine spirit.
At first, he displayed these drawings in his home’s storefront window, where they attracted a small but fervent following. Word of his deeply idiosyncratic accomplishments spread; by 1971, New York’s Museum of Modern Art included a few of his drawings in a group show. The Whitney presented his work in a full-scale retrospective that opened a month before he died, aged 81, in a Chicago nursing home. His career had been late, rocketlike and brief.
Now, Yoakum’s astonishing output has returned to MoMA in an exhibition jointly organised with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Menil Collection in Houston (where the show travels in April). Mark Pascale, one of the curators, sees the drawings as an illustrated journal of the artist’s travels, some real, others imaginary, though it’s not always obvious which are which. Yoakum made his autobiography tricky to navigate: the landscape “Back Where I Were Born 2/20-1888 AD” shows a log cabin in a mountain range that could be the Ozarks; later he claimed to have been born in Navajo country, 1,000 miles to the west.
In plain, factual terms, Yoakum was born in Ash Grove, Missouri, in 1891. His father, a farmer, claimed Cherokee descent. His mother was a former slave. Yoakum literally ran away to join the circus, working odd jobs at Great Wallace, then Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and finally landing at Ringling Bros, where he stayed for five years. He settled in his hometown with a wife and children, but was drafted into the army during the first world war. In the segregated military of those days, he served in an all-black regiment in Europe, repairing railroads and maintaining supply lines.
After he was demobilised, Yoakum began to drift. He left his wife and kids and roamed through Iowa, Illinois and Florida, supporting himself as a labourer and salesman. He later claimed to have visited every continent except Antarctica. “Wherever my mind led me, I would go,” he once said. It seems that many of his voyages, too, remained in his mind, fed by tourist postcards, atlases and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He savoured place names, inscribing each of his pictures with detailed captions that were fastidious in their penmanship, if not their spelling. “Mt Tara Piva near Bilfel Montenegro Proviance in Yugoslavia E and Asia” reads one. “Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily between Tynhenian and Mediterranean Seas” goes another. [Sic]s abound.
These were mostly rural prospects gently touched by human presence. Steam engines wind their way through canyons and beside waterways, indicating the happy coexistence of nature with technology. Warships flying the Stars and Stripes ply the straits between continents or idle in bays, waiting to be deployed. A delicate iron footbridge connects two peaks in Colorado. Every so often a house appears among the rocks, a testament to civilisation’s tenacity and fragility. Even the cosmic grandeur of the Grand Canyon bears the stamp of settlement; two tiny farm buildings and a weathervane burrow beneath the protection of those giant cliffs.
Cities held no interest for him, although he lived in Chicago for decades. His approach to people, on the rare occasions he drew them, brims with indifference to their individuality. An ostensible portrait of “Ella Fitzgerald Moovie Star” shows her not as the broad-shouldered black diva she was, but as the generic “Breck Girl” from the era’s shampoo ad, a long-necked white woman with a Jackie Kennedy bob and no discernible spark of life behind the eyes. The same face, with her lipsticked half-smile and blue eyes, also served for “Luella Ocondo, Secretary of American Indian Center”.
There’s something impishly Warholian about Yoakum’s appropriation of advertisements and popular imagery. At the same time, he was too immersed in his own inner version to have much truck with the Sixties zeitgeist. Was he criticising Fitzgerald as a peddler of sanitised jazz whose grit had been soaped away to make it acceptable to whites? More likely, he just floated serenely above the South Side’s racial activism and the artistic currents of the day. He remained apart from his moment, in a world of his own making. Indeed, he referred to himself as “Nava-Joe”, though any claims of Navajo heritage seem to have been invented.
That refusal to join makes it as difficult to assimilate him into the politics of today as it was in the 1960s. At MoMA, the wall labels are studies in puzzlement and political tiptoeing. “The artist’s attempts to rewrite his personal narrative suggest that he was conscious of the ways race shaped how he and his work were perceived. This awareness might have informed his portraits of African-American performers and athletes, whom he often depicted as white, although his exact reasons for doing so are unknown.” Stumped by such evasiveness, the curators flesh out his bona fides with “mays” and “mights”.
There’s little to be gained in dwelling on the paradoxes of his stiff and awkward portrayals of people, especially since human forms and emotions flow so richly from his landscapes. A face with an angry brow and a snarling mouth materialises out of rock in “Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India”. All over the artist’s mountainous globe, outcroppings resolve into dogs, ducks and dinosaurs. His vision was rapturously detailed, ecstatic yet precise. Wherever he went — or didn’t go — Yoakum perceived an animate Earth, pouring forth imagery to an artist eager to nestle in its pantheistic embrace.
To March 19, moma.org