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The Brooklyn Rail

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw

February 9, 2022

Joseph E. Yoakum, Big Hole Pass Jackson Montana, n.d

Joseph E. Yoakum, Big Hole Pass Jackson Montana, n.d.. Graphite pencil and black and blue ballpoint pen on paper, 8 x 10 inches. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

By George Kan

In Joseph Yoakum’s landscapes, the rocky mountain ranges ripple and undulate across the paper. Their swollen and multiplying forms give them both a soft, molten liquidity and an animated aliveness. Their rippling surfaces are at odds with the solidity of a mountain.

Across this exhibition’s unprecedented gathering of works, Yoakum’s unique visual language becomes apparent. A vocabulary of parallel lines, doubled lines and tessellated organic shapes dovetail, merge and proliferate below skies of blue and faded peach. These lines, often drawn in ballpoint pen and colored in pencil and pastel, constrict and expand, creating the sensation that the landscape is moving. As forms gather and slide past each other, our eye wrestles to make sense of them, to grasp their slippery surfaces. To read these dreamlike landscapes recalls Sigmund Freud’s reading of dreams, where he describes the dream as a “geological conglomerate in which each fragment of rock required a separate assessment.”

Interest in Joseph Elmer Yoakum has often fixated on his biographical details: his extensive travelling both with the circus and when conscripted in a noncombat unit during the First World War, his performative relationship to racial identity, and the fact that he only began producing drawings in the last decade of his life in the 1960’s at age 71. Delicately, this exhibition presents the idiosyncrasies of his life, while refusing the tendency to sensationalize them, instead remaining both critical and generous in handling his unique story. The result is a real breakthrough in scholarship around Yoakum’s work, his influences, biography, and techniques. Furthermore, the curatorial approach has allowed the work itself to take center stage. The nuances of his aesthetic innovations can be appreciated here without the risk of being eclipsed by the very biographical details which originally confined him to the position of “outsider artist” within the categories of art history. It is a startling feat and demonstrates a curatorial sensitivity and admirable intent to reinstate Yoakum’s unique explorations in technique and formal interventions within the landscape genre.  

As MoMA was the first New York institution to exhibit his work, in May 1971, it’s fitting that this show (the first major museum exhibition in 25 years) should arrive here, having first opened earlier last year at the The Art Institute of Chicago (the show is co-organized with MoMA by the Menil Drawing Institute and The Art Institute of Chicago). Chicago was Yoakum’s home during the last period of his life when he began making drawings. At that time, his work began to be collected by a network of artists and curators in the city, who championed his work and encouraged him. The drawings in this exhibition are overwhelmingly drawn from the private collections of these initial collectors and represent some of the largest and most extraordinary pieces from his expansive body of work.

Inspired both by postcard imagery and his much-loved Encyclopedia Britannica, Yoakum’s landscapes claim to represent the many places visited during his life. Often he would carefully label each drawing in cursive script, sometimes mimicking in text the rocky forms depicted. For Yoakum, such a title added formality to the work, authority to which landscape was being portrayed, and most importantly a marking of prestige that this was a completed, original work for sale—as he was often at pains to guard against forgeries as well as make copies of his works for safe-keeping. Sometimes he accompanies the caption with the date the drawing was made. This exhibition traces Yoakum’s impulse to self-archive and collects drawings that share traced elements, demonstrating his unusual methods of redrafting and copying his own landscapes. Some drawings are labeled “Model Don’t Paint” to indicate models not intended for color finishing.

One drawing is labelled Mt Grazian in Maritime Alps near Emonaco Tunnel France and Italy by Tunnel (1958). Drawn in blue felt tip, the eddies and knots of rock, forest and winding road are characteristic of Yoakum’s approach to the landscape form. The trees arrive in neat rows, in planes that recede in little peaks back towards infinity and are a similarly familiar trope in the artist’s scenery. Across the composition, these planes of trees emerge in pockets that open among the planes of rocky surface. In the arch of stone that forms the tunnel in the composition’s center, miniature fields of forest are glimpsed through slits in the rock. Yet, these trees are smaller than the large trees in the background beyond the tunnel, contradicting the normative rules of scale and perspective. Each plane of rock and field of tree contradict each other in a dance of near and far that unravels in a disorderly rhythm as we move our eyes across the landscape. 

The Victorian landscape theorist, John Ruskin warned that “if you desire to perceive the great harmonies of the form of a rocky mountain, you must not ascend upon its sides. All there is disorder and accident.” He feared, that without the safe distance of perspective, the entanglements of bracken, the wet and the damp, the crumbing rocks and sodden clouds could not be read as harmonious beauty. He explained, “that kind of beauty is lost, and another succeeds, to be disorganized and reduced to strange and incomprehensible means and appliances in its turn.” In traditional terms, a landscape painting must be immediately comprehendible, with “comprehend” deriving from the latin “prehendere,” to “take,” “grasp” or “seize.”


Yet, here is a landscape which though read from afar appears to retain the “disorder and accident,” the incomprehensibility, Ruskin so feared. Yoakum’s disorderly distortion of perspective, then, produces a unique play with the landscape genre: one that refuses graspable immediacy. In so doing, he asks of his viewer something else, a little longer looking, more attention, and more care. Unlike in conventional landscape, the presumed eyes of the viewer are no longer fixed in one place but in multiple, rendered interchangeably near and far. Yoakum’s landscapes, in their incomprehensibility, might instead rehearse something like Édouard Glissant’s reversal of “comprehend,” his formulation in French: “donner-avec” (to “give-with”). In this way, Yoakum formulates a landscape, a view of the world, that asks our eyes to enact generosity, to “give” rather than to “take.”

The exhibition references Yoakum’s own much cited comment saying, “the drawings are unfolded to me, a spiritual unfoldment.” The implications of the artists statement here suggest a mode of drawing that doesn’t begin from a comprehensible plan, from a singular and immediate overview, but one that emerges slowly in a kind of conversation, as a somehow passive Yoakum responds to the image as it appears to him. Following the forms, the parallel lines that condense towards the edge of the paper, or expand as Yoakum makes his way into undrawn space, the artist not only draws from memory but responds to the unraveling, unfolding patterns. Sometimes the forms may contract, tighten in knotty clusters, and at others they may grow in spacious rhythm. Brilliantly, this exhibition also presents his sketchbooks from the end of his life, laid out on a central table. Unfinished and significantly more abstract than his other work, these pages offer a new glimpse into this approach. Networks of lines branch out across the empty page in vivid colors, partitioning the space into pockets and windows, which may perhaps be prototypes for the planes of rock and forest that abound in his finished landscapes that hang on the surrounding walls.

In 1969, Yoakum explained his rejection of using rulers due to their limiting effect, exclaiming how a ruler slows him down. Looking now at Yoakum’s landscapes, a ruler would be so fundamentally at odds with every aspect of his approach. The ruler, the necessary tool for the isometric lines of linear perspective, the mascot of clarity and governed, regimented space, and the etymological sibling of rules and regulations, would hinder in every measure Yoakum’s project, his deviancy and distinctiveness, his collapsing and contracting of space, his refusal of comprehensible immediacy.

Though Yoakum’s undulating landscapes are arguably his more famous work, Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw also presents a compelling collection of more unusual subject matter. The show groups together works that involve trains, boats, tornados, and even UFOs. The final room also collects some of Yoakum’s portraits, often of celebrities. The exhibition demonstrates how he would use methods of copying here also, tracing an image from a shampoo magazine advert, for instance, to form two different portraits, including one of Ella Fitzgerald. 

Yoakum’s landscapes are almost always devoid of people or figures, and yet they remain overwhelming sensate, emotive, and communicative. The exhibition, as if to underscore this, points out the recurring rock faces that strikingly resemble human facial and anatomical features, despite no record of Yoakum stating this intent. The show elegantly opens with a work depicting his place of birth. It is a quiet image. To the left, under an edifice of softly crinkled rock, stands a house rendered in simple lines. To the right, stand two huge neighboring trees and two mountains that gently rise behind, the jagged surface of which form an inverted mirror of the trees’ bare branches. Yoakum would sometimes varnish his drawings, and here the varnish has deeply yellowed over time and weakened the paper, resulting in an object whose colors have faded with history. The inscription reads Back Where I Were Born 2/20-1888 AD (1965), the “AD” adding a note of seriousness and historical significance, while the exhibition text reminds us that research suggests Yoakum wasn’t in fact born until later, in 1891. Through Yoakum’s work, things usually as stable and unyielding as rocks and time, are revealed to instead be slippery, ever-shifting, and often ungraspable. 

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