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The Brooklyn Rail

Joseph Elmer Yoakum

July 20, 2019

Joseph Elmer Yoakum Trinity and Brazus Valley near Elpaso Texas, 1964
Joseph Elmer Yoakum The Home of Jesse James Near Bonner, 1964
Joseph Elmer Yoakum The Little Home that Money Can’t Buy, Bay Shore Acroes on Moro Bay San Luis Obispo Cal, n.d.
Joseph Elmer Yoakum The only woman ruler of Assirea Asia Se., 1970

Joseph Elmer Yoakum

by Alfred MacAdam

The 60 works on paper by Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1890–1972) assembled here automatically make us wonder who this bizarre artist was. Yoakum's picaresque life and his late embrace of an artistic vocation call to mind traditional myths that assume artists are born, not made. The reductive myth that has shaped our perception of Yoakum is that of the artist who had no formal art training, was excluded by poverty and race from schools, and who was afflicted by madness.

But that is only a myth. The sheer volume of the works in this show, all from the 1960s and 70s—and which does not include work from the artist's comprehensive 1972 Whitney show—tells us we must set aside sociology, psychology, and the pathos inevitably associated with Yoakum the man and focus on these astonishing images.

First, the landscapes. Trinity and Brazus Valley Near El Paso Texas (1964) deploys blue ballpoint pens, graphite, and watercolor on tan woven paper. This is not the drawing of an imaginary place but a translation of a real place into Yoakum's signature style. A Yoakum image is like a skin or a rippling map. He subordinates depths, heights, and perspectives to his artistic will, much in the way that Gainsborough and other artists of the 18th century brought the fearsome sublime of wild nature under control by deftly domesticating it in the picturesque. Yoakum tosses aside realism and melodrama in order to transform nature into juxtaposed masses of green and brown defined by the geometric patterns he imposes on the composition.

The artist's use of buildings reinforces the idea that seeing something is merely the jumping off point for his imagination. The Home of Jesse James Near Bonner (1964), a 12 × 17 color pencil drawing exemplifies this. First, the legend of Jesse James evaporates: there are no shoot-outs here, only a vaguely Arcadian view of the skewed geometry of a shack with a mass of green, stylized trees behind it. We might compare Yoakum's vision with that of Albert York, who also painted small pictures of houses in isolation. But where York masses color and geometry to the point of abstraction, Yoakum creates a fluid surface where all his elements enter into a dynamic harmony. Not for nothing is Jesse James's well with its prominent water pump foregrounded: this little drawing is a hymn to human creativity, fueled by nature but utterly transformed by imagination. 

Another domestic structure, The Little Home that Money Can't Buy (n.d.), a 12 × 19 inch drawing in ballpoint and color pencil synthesizes Yoakum's transformed nature and his geometry of domestic bliss. This is home as utopia: rigorous structuring of the domicile with untamed nature brought to heel. Masses of trees, greater masses of mountains, miniature twin peaks in the right foreground: all of it a metamorphosis of the given into the idealized. It is as if Yoakum took Plato's injunctions against imitating trivial reality to heart: this is his reality, emotionally poignant and sophisticated as composition at the same time.

The Only Woman Ruler of Assirea Asia Se (1970), a 19 × 12 inch drawing in color pencil on paper is one of Yoakum's few nudes. She is a goddess, but a Christian, as the crosses she wears demonstrate. A hieratic figure, but not a terrifying female demon: her dainty purse pulls her back into civilized culture. She is a queen, and like Yoakum himself, has imposed her will on her own nature, her body. Just as he transforms mountains into molehills, Yoakum here makes Eve, erotic temptation, the dangers of the flesh into a controlled structure whose limits are imposed by his powerful imagination. 

This is a unique opportunity to see the work of an authentic, autochthonous American genius; don't miss it.

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