Joseph E. Yoakum, A Rock in the Baltic Sea near Stockholm Sweden E. Europe, n.d. (Photo by Robert Gerhardt / Courtesy of MoMA and the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation)
By Barry Schwabsky
“What I Saw,” an exhibition of drawings by Joseph E. Yoakum at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a homecoming of sorts. His work’s first appearance in the city was in a small group show at the same museum in 1971. That show, mounted in a members-only area of the museum, featured mostly works on paper by, among others, then-up-and-coming conceptual artists such as Iain Baxter, Mel Bochner, and Dan Graham, as well as a print portfolio by the renowned draftsman Saul Steinberg (best known for his New Yorker cartoons), and drawings by the abstract painters Michael Venezia and Jack Whitten. And then there was, as the MoMA press release of that day called him, “Joseph Yoakum, an 80-year-old American Indian,” who “shows drawings of landscapes based on the memories of his trip around the world.” Yoakum was the only one among the show’s 13 artists whose age or ethnicity was mentioned, and the description of him as Native came from his own unverifiable self-description, according to which he was a Navajo (pronounced, by him, “Nava-Joe”).
In retrospect, it is surprising that an artist whose subject matter mostly came from landscape and who was usually categorized (one might even say, sidelined) as an outsider, and who was just then becoming known to the broader art world after having been adopted as a sort of eccentric uncle figure by the so-called Chicago Imagists, would have appeared in New York among abstractionists and conceptualists. But looking back, it’s appropriate. He wasn’t, in any usual sense, a representational artist. Although most of Yoakum’s drawings bear inscriptions claiming them to be depictions of specific places, from the Columbia River to Pearl Harbor, Jerusalem to the Alps, they are creations of the mind rather than of perception. As one of his first and most passionate critical proponents, the art historian Whitney Halstead, put it, Yoakum’s is “a world of formalized complexity and abstract richness, seemingly wrinkled, creased and feathered like the convolutions of the brain itself.”
How many of the places Yoakum drew had he really seen? Hard to know. But he’d probably seen more than you’d think plausible, for he’d led a remarkably peripatetic existence. Born in Missouri in 1891 to a Black father who claimed Cherokee descent and a mother who’d been born into slavery, he attended school for only four months, and was all of 9 years old when he ran away to, yes, join the circus, traveling around the country and even to China. Drafted into the US Army toward the end of World War I, he served in an all-Black regiment in France. After the war he knocked around the country doing all kinds of work, living in Iowa, Missouri, and Florida before settling down in Chicago in 1942. Twenty years later, at age 72, a dream told him to make art. A late starter, he made up for lost time. He began to draw every day, using all sorts of instruments: pens, pencils, colored pencils, watercolors, and pastels on mostly modest size sheets of cheap paper. He continued to do so until illness began to slow him down in 1971; he passed away the following year, just after an exhibition of his work at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Until his final stay in a convalescent home, Yoakum had an apartment/studio in a storefront on the city’s South Side, where he would hang his drawings in the window with clothespins. In 1967, an anthropology professor passing by noticed them and, because they reminded him of Aztec art, took an interest, arranging for an exhibition at a church coffee house. The show was covered in the Chicago Daily News, which quoted Yoakum as saying that “the drawings are unfolded to me, a spiritual unfoldment. After I draw them, I have a spiritual remembrance and know what is pictured.” Still, this spiritual unfoldment did not prevent him from copying some of his imagery from postcards and promotional brochures. His mental traveling, even more extensive than his past physical journeys, was fed by far more than memory.
The exhibition in the church led to one at a local gallery, which is how Yoakum first came to the attention of other artists. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about the MoMA exhibition—curated by Mark Pascale of the Art Institute of Chicago, it was previously shown there, and will travel in April to the Menil Collection in Houston—is how many of the works have been lent by artists or their estates. From the collection of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt alone come 25 of them, but many others were owned by Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg and Philip Hanson, Karl Wirsum and Lorri Gunn—all artists associated with the so-called Chicago Imagists, one of those irritating labels that communicate a stylistic canon hard to define but easily recognizable once you’ve become familiar with a few salient examples. (I’ll defer to Pascale in the exhibition catalog: “Today the term…evokes an irreverent attitude and various, largely figurative styles incorporating the vernacular, the comedic, and the grotesque.” I would add only that these artists were fascinated by forms of expression that are idiosyncratic, personal, and divorced from the Apollonian aspirations of high culture, and that their works are consistently linear in style, which is to say, roughly, based on drawing.) In any event, they beat a path to Yoakum’s door. Another fan of his work was Cynthia Carlson, who shared some of the same influences as the Imagists but developed them in a more abstract direction that found a home, in New York rather than Chicago, in the pattern and decoration movement of the 1970s. About half the works in the exhibition come from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, and almost all of these were gifts from the artist Ray Yoshida or Halstead, who at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had taught most of the artists I’ve mentioned and who would become a primary advocate for Yoakum.
It's easy to see why artists loved Yoakum’s work. His drawings pulsate with energy. As minutely detailed as they are fantastical, they exemplify the modernist dream of an art in which every form is equally present, embodying a reality that comes right up and meets you in perception rather than escaping into the distance. Some of the drawings are portraits, but the majority—and all the great ones—depict places. Yoakum’s landscapes are not sublime in the Romantic sense; that is, they do not thrill the viewer with a sense of implicit danger. But neither are they endowed with an inviting sweetness. You can’t really enter into them (and in fact there is hardly any human or even animal presence in them), but they compel admiration. They are austere, powerful, and a little alien. More than anything, Yoakum loved painting rocky mountains, and while Halstead, in a long and previously unpublished essay from the 1970s that’s included in the exhibition catalog, rightly describes them as “large and generous in spirit like those of some of the great Chinese painters of landscape,” in form they resemble no mountains I’ve seen in any art from around the world. Other artists’ mountains sit, stolidly weighing down upon the earth while at their peak saluting the sky. But Yoakum’s have no stillness in them. Instead, they roll and swell like great ocean waves. It’s as if one could observe according to a greater-than-human temporality in which immeasurably slow geological processes reveal themselves as perceptible movement—although, it must be admitted, those geological forces must be unlike those that have ever exerted themselves on this earth.
The question that still hovers around Yoakum’s oeuvre today is the one that Roger Brown asked himself on discovering Yoakum’s work: “How could someone with no training just start making art that was so superior to most of the art of the day done by trained artists?” Maybe art is its own worst enemy. It used to be said that ars est celare artem (art means concealing art); but what if, rather, art means bypassing art?
Another late starter, though of a very different sort, was Etel Adnan, whose work was recently exhibited at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She, like Yoakum, was a painter of place who knew many places. Born in Beirut in 1925, she spent most of her life in California, where she taught philosophy, though her later years were lived mostly in Paris, where she died last November at the age of 96, not long after the opening of the Guggenheim show, which was titled “Light’s New Measure.”
It might seem strange to speak of a late start in the case of an artist who practiced painting for some 60 years. But in fact, to begin painting in one’s 30s, as Adnan did—in the early 1960s, around the time that Yoakum got going, as it happens—is late by most standards; and besides, it’s one thing to paint on the side, as it were, and another thing to make it the focus of one’s life and public identity. Twenty years ago, if Adnan’s name aroused any notice, it was as a poet and writer. Most of her books were published by the Post-Apollo Press, a California-based publisher of experimental writing by such luminaries of the avant-garde as Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and Anne Waldman. (The press is run by Adnan’s life partner, the sculptor Simon Fattal; in recent years Adnan’s main publisher has been another outstanding small press, Nightboat Books.) Her best-known work was probably Sitt Marie Rose, a searing, anguished short novel, at once rigorously formal and violently expressionistic, set in the early days of the Lebanese Civil War, which was published in French in 1977 and in English in 1982. Subsequent books, however, were mostly written in English. It was only in 2010, when Adnan was taken up by the Sfeier-Stemler Gallery in Hamburg, Germany, and Beirut, that the art world began to get wind of her. Her reputation was secured by an in-depth presentation of her work at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, in 2012. I’ll admit that I didn’t, at first, see what the fuss was about. I found Adnan’s paintings attractive but rather old-fashioned and unassuming. Only gradually, as they kept popping up in different contexts, did it begin to dawn on me that I’d underestimated these powerful, quietly obdurate works.
Reflecting the artist’s late-blooming reputation, a little more than half the works in “Light’s New Measure” were made between 2010 and 2020. Presumably that means she’d begun producing her work in greater quantity once there was more demand for it—once she had become, you might say, a professional artist. But right up until the end, the strength of Adnan’s art lay in a certain almost naive directness she somehow never lost. The paintings can look deceptively unambitious. They are, as the critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie has said, “small, intimate, on the scale of a book.” Nor are they the fruit of long, intense labor; on the contrary, as Wilson-Goldie continues, “She usually completes them in a single sitting, working fast on a flat table…. Her colors come straight from the tube and are rarely mixed. She applies her pigments in quick, decisive strokes with a palette knife, never a brush.” And the lack of art-school training shows—to the works’ benefit. The impetus behind them rarely seems far removed from that of the novice intoxicated with the sudden discovery of how pleasurable it can be to just push paint around with no further end in view. And once you notice this, it might make you feel rather sorry for other painters who so quickly became jaded with this elemental indulgence that they had to invent other reasons for themselves to continue.
Some of Adnan’s paintings are, roughly speaking, landscapes, others abstract, but she hardly seems to make a distinction between the two modes. There is a childlike simplicity to the way she uses basic signs: The sun is a circle, no matter what color; a horizontal line divides the sky from sea or land, and when a silhouette turns circumflex, it’s a mountain—usually meaning Mount Tamalpais, which she could see from her home in Sausalito. But that seemingly ingenuous directness encompassed a pursuit that was anything but childish. “There is a non-worldly world that is ours,” Adnan once said, and we encounter it in her paintings. Yes, they are colorful, and for that reason may seem cheerful, decorative—but look how fierce the intensity of her plangently juxtaposed hues can be. These colors burn. Even the darkest hues are hot lights, not cool shadows. They’re unrelenting. In her last book, Shifting the Silence (2020), Adnan wrote that “sunsets are violently beautiful,” with lights “that make us stop, then lose balance, make us open our arms not knowing what else to do, arrest us as if struck by lightning, a soft lightning, a welcome one.” Although her paintings’ chromatic range more often approximates midday than sunset, I think it’s that kind of violent beauty she sought in her paintings, a beauty that can bewilder before it beguiles.
When, after a couple of years, I caught on to how much stronger Adnan’s paintings were than I’d realized at first, I began to wonder about the dichotomy between her writing, which can be so political, and above all so cognizant of the horrors of war, and her art, which seems to inhabit an elemental realm beyond the social. “I write what I see, paint what I am,” she once wrote. Now that I better perceive the relentless knife of her color, I find a different dichotomy coming to the fore: The razor-sharp clarity of vision in the paintings, which reflects a dry atmosphere (such as, I imagine, that of Lebanon, no matter how long the artist lived in California), is one aspect; whereas (as one might expect of a Northern California artist) her writings return again and again to the idea of fog, not only in her 2012 book Sea and Fog but really throughout her poetry and prose. In Shifting the Silence she writes, “Fog brings me closer to what I call my soul. There’s an affinity between those darkening mists and my state of mind, a movement from one to the other.” This must refer to a part of the soul that rarely makes its mark on her paintings.
The paintings’ chromatic intensity is probably why they had to be small—only a few are more than a foot and a half wide or high. Nothing can be both large and piercing. It’s just happenstance that the scale helped make them relatively immune to the perennial vexations of trying to look at paintings in the Guggenheim’s rotunda—the fact that paintings always feel slightly off-balance there because of the lack of a horizontal ground plane; there’s always a nagging sense that the painting isn’t hanging straight, that the left corner needs to come up a little bit. (The shows that work best at the Guggenheim tend be sculptural: I always think of the great Mario Merz retrospective back in 1989, or more recently of Gutai: Splendid Playground in 2013, or Maurizio Cattelan in 2012.) Although, thanks to their intense color and simple forms, Adnan’s paintings “carry” at a distance—it was easy for almost any of them to catch your eye from across the rotunda—their effect is always to draw you in, draw you close; and when you’re close enough for the painting to command your visual field, the architectural context becomes less impactful. As the colors of the painting burn into you, you become engulfed in the color world of the painting; the empirical world in which you’re viewing it fades from view.
That’s a long way around, I suppose, to saying that Adnan’s paintings are fundamentally meditative in character. “The actual space of painting—its very dimensions—is the space of memory,” Adnan wrote in her crucial 1986 book Journey to Mount Tamalpais, and therefore, “When our eyes are closed, the widest fields occupy a screen of a few inches. We paint that screen on a canvas which, in turn, refers our memory back to the world at large.” It’s as if she wished her colors could have been painted or rather conjured onto the insides of one’s eyelids, or perhaps projected through them, like the colors one might see facing the sun with closed eyes: a translucency of the body as it registers the world.
Along with paintings (and a few drawings), the Guggenheim exhibition also encompassed two other significant parts of Adnan’s oeuvre. Adnan began making designs for tapestries—executed by professional weavers—in the 1960s. If only thanks to their scale (the three shown at the Guggenheim were all more than six feet wide), their effect is very different from that of Adnan’s paintings, which are dense and compact. In fact, the expansiveness of the tapestries is much more typical of contemporary painting. They present fragmented worlds, full of space, sometimes full of complications, and they offer many paths into and through. But despite their scale, they are less imposing than the paintings, and cooler. As for the handmade accordion-fold books, or “leporellos,” of which Adnan produced many over the years, working in ink and watercolor, it’s a shame that no exhibition can really permit them to be appreciated as they should be. One would really want to hold them, unfold them little by little at one’s own pace—for like Chinese and Japanese scrolls, which also synthesize word and image, they are meant to reveal themselves in time, like music. I’m always aware, in contemplating her work, of the differences between Adnan the poet or writer and Adnan the artist; but it’s probably in these works that the two Adnans got to collaborate.