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The Brooklyn Rail

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw

February 2, 2022

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

Joseph E. Yoakum, Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont, n.d. Black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper. 7 7/8 x 9 7/8 inches. Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

By Lyle Rexer

Around 400 AD, the Chinese artist and theorist Zong Bing wrote, “Landscapes have a material existence, and yet also reach into the spiritual domain.” He might have been describing the work of Joseph Yoakum (1890–1972). In the tradition-bound milieu of Chinese landscape painting, deeply attentive to cosmological principles, I believe we can find the most illuminating lens for considering the unique drawings of the self-taught Yoakum. 

Yoakum’s landscapes have been well-known in the world of folk and outsider art for four decades, but their enfranchisement by the larger art world has taken longer, even though the work of this Chicago artist was recognized and collected by a group of trained artists in the same city almost as soon as it appeared in the 1960s. Many of the works in this astonishing exhibition, organized jointly by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Menil Collection of Houston, come from the private collections of several of those artists. 

There were exceptions to institutional marginalizing, most notably inclusion of some drawings in a group show at MoMA and Marcia Tucker’s bold curation of a one-person exhibition at the Whitney the year Yoakum died. Otherwise, the lead time was long. Naming highlights the problem. “Self-taught,” “outsider,” “folk,” and even the more specific “art brut” are all words used to designate apparently sui generis work that originates outside familiar art-world boundaries. This is how Yoakum’s art was labelled. But these are often racist terms, which effectively deny the works, especially by African Americans, content, complexity, and communicative authority. In the case of Yoakum, who was Black and possibly also Native American, another blanketing term has been “visionary.” Its apparently positive valence also sets the work beyond serious consideration of form, iconography, and style, to say nothing of social and political context.

But if the past furnished few and limiting terms for appreciating the drawings, the present (which arguably began with the 2001 publication of Darrel Depasse’s Traveling the Rainbow: The Life and Art of Joseph E. Yoakum) has furnished many. These include Yoakum’s connection to the circus and the railroad, both of which he worked for in his eventful life; formal analogies with Native American art, especially from the Northwest coast; African American rural imagery; Christian Science; and last but certainly not least, a “tradition” of idiosyncratic American landscape painting that includes such iconic names as Thomas Cole, Charles Burchfield, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Arthur Dove (a category that only kicks the interpretive can down the road). In the wall texts of the current MoMA exhibition and especially in the catalogue, Yoakum gets the full curatorial treatment and then some, with discussions of his formal evolution, sources, materials and techniques, and even his formal “language,” as well as two essays devoted to his ethnic self-identification, or denial. Yoakum rejected African American labels and claimed an almost certainly fictitious Navajo ancestry. Given the repetitive nature of his work, its hermetic character, and its limited time frame (most of the drawings were done in a ten-year period from 1962–1972), this may strike some viewers as a big hammer for a small nail. At the least, consider it conscience paid for past critical pigeonholing, as has been the case with work by Martin Ramirez, Bill Traylor, and Henry Darger, among others.


I spend time on these dry, nomenclatural issues to avoid what too often happens with many “outsiders”: wandering into the rich jungles of biography as a substitute for looking at the work. People love and expect such artists to have stories, and Yoakum obliged. He was a self-mythologizing character, a raconteur and a traveler, who claimed, as a result of stints with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the US Army, among others, to have visited all the hundreds of locations he drew. Anyone familiar with what artists actually do—and this one in particular—will see these claims immediately for what they are: part of the imaginative construction of the works themselves. As with many of the greatest Chinese painters of shanshui (literally “mountain and water”) landscapes, accuracy was not the point; interpretation according to cosmological principles was. And like them, Yoakum, too, often worked from previous images, gaining knowledge and inspiration. A postcard or a railway brochure might serve the same purpose as a scroll by Guo Xi.

One consequence of the spiritualization of the landscape—for Yoakum as well as the shanshui painters—was the absence of Western perspective. There are gestures toward depth and a vanishing point, but they are swallowed up or overwhelmed by an energetic discourse of rigidity and flow, delicacy and aggressiveness, defined by Yoakum’s line drawing and enhanced by his pastel vocabulary of color. His confusion is nevertheless organized and consistent, requiring the eye to travel horizontally and often vertically, to register contending masses, “titans in perpetual dialogue,” as Randall Morris described them. There are many moments when energy seems about to be unleashed into the gallery itself, as with The Cyclone that Struck Susanville California in Year of 1903 (1970). Here the evidence of human habitation, always minor in shanshui, is simply disassembled by nature’s swirling force.

Zong Bing termed landscape painting “describing spirit with form.” Yoakum had his own phrase, likely borrowed from his reading of Christian Science. He called it “spiritual unfoldment.” As the drawings embody it, his interest is less in doctrine than in the cosmic forces that animate the natural world and give it form. At a time when the divorce of human consciousness from nature presents the greatest threat to being, Yoakum’s images, no less than the Daoist meditations of ancient literati artists, embody a profound alternative.

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