Joseph E. Yoakum, ‘The Open Gate to the West in Rockey Mtn Range near Pueblo Colorado’ (1966)
Joseph E. Yoakum, ‘Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India’ (1969)
By Susan Delson
June 4, 2021
In the early 1960s, Joseph E. Yoakum was an elderly pensioner living in a storefront on Chicago’s South Side, making drawings that he displayed on a clothesline in his window. By 1971, his work was hanging in the Museum of Modern Art—and in the homes of Chicago artists who, delighting in his densely layered landscapes, had helped bring him into the public eye.
Created from modest materials—mainly ballpoint pen and colored pencils or pastels on inexpensive paper—Yoakum’s artworks depict specific locations he visited in a well-traveled and richly imagined life. But his visions of earthly terrains pulse with energy, pattern and movement, portraying a reality unlike any other.
Opening June 12 at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” gathers more than 100 works spanning Yoakum’s 10-year career, which ended with his death in 1972 at the age of 81. Co-organized by the Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art and the Menil Collection in Houston, the show will appear at all three institutions, traveling to MoMA in November and the Menil next April.
Yoakum’s compositions “defy our rational concept of space,” said Art Institute curator Mark Pascale, who organized the exhibition with curators Esther Adler of MoMA and Édouard Kopp of the Menil. “Everything about it is wrong,” Mr. Pascale said, “and everything about it is absolutely right.”
Born into a Black farming family in Missouri around 1890, Yoakum was not yet a teenager when he ran off to join the circus. He worked for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and other troupes, accompanying one on its tour of China in 1902. In World War I, he served in Europe in a Black noncombat unit. Twice married and with five children, by the early 1960s he was a retired widower living in Chicago.
A religious experience led him to start making art. In 1962, Yoakum prayed for and received the healing of an aching shoulder. That night, he awoke and wrote down the name “Mount Lebanon.” According to another artist who heard the story from Yoakum, “The next day, in thanks to the Lord, he drew a picture” of the Biblical mountain, though it’s not clear he had ever seen it. From then on, artmaking became part of Yoakum’s daily life. “The drawings are unfolded to me, a spiritual unfoldment,” he once explained, using a term associated with Christian Science. “After I draw them, I have a spiritual remembrance and I know what is pictured.”
In works like “High Way #281 in Eastern Portion of California through Mojave Desert,” Yoakum uses sinuous forms that could be roads, rivers or mountain ridges, unfurling like the leaves of a tropical plant. In others, like “Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India,” it’s unclear if the landscape is seen from above, in a cutaway view or both simultaneously. Drawings like “The Open Gate to the West in Rockey Mtn Range near Pueblo Colorado” fairly vibrate with bright yellows and pinks not usually found in landscape art.
In 1967, a professor at Chicago State College saw the drawings in Yoakum’s window and arranged for a show in a local church-basement cafe. Elsewhere on the South Side, young Black artists were forming dynamic creative movements, but Yoakum’s art soon drew a different crowd, including teachers and students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Several of them became his enthusiastic advocates. More than half of the works in “What I Saw” have been lent by artists who knew Yoakum and acquired drawings from him directly.
The exhibition presents the works thematically, grouped by subject and formal similarities. The idea, said Ms. Adler, is to show Yoakum as a working artist, “watching him do the same forms four or five times and seeing how they develop, what the shifts are.” The show explores Yoakum’s method of replicating his works using master drawings that he called “patrons,” or patterns, which he copied using carbon paper.
A selection of Yoakum’s less well-known portrait drawings is also on view, primarily figures from Black history and culture but also Native Americans. Yoakum’s father had claimed Cherokee descent, but the artist created an entirely new identity for himself as a Navajo—pronounced “Nava-joe,” a play on his first name. As an African-American who had lived through the Jim Crow era, “‘Nava-joe’ must have seemed a less limiting label in the 1960s and 1970s than ‘old Black man,’” Ms. Adler writes in the exhibition catalog. It was a way of controlling his image as an artist and how his work was perceived.
Despite the contradictions of his self-constructed life story, “when we see one of Yoakum’s landscapes, we’re seeing Yoakum,” said Mr. Pascale. “Every one of those drawings is a self-portrait.” Widely traveled in his youth, Yoakum’s “tremendous yearning and love for those places came back to him late in his life,” Mr. Pascale noted. “He is a visual writer, and his drawings are a picaresque novel.”