Installation view of ‘Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw’ at the Museum of Modern Art.
Photo: Denis Doorly/ MoMA, N.Y.
By Karen Wilkin
Early on, the Museum of Modern Art championed the work of what we now call self-taught artists, seeing their independence from convention as paralleling the aims of modernism. When the fledgling museum was barely a year old, “Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans” included, along with such now-canonical figures as Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Charles Sheeler, the Scottish-born, Pittsburgh-resident house painter John Kane. The following year “American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man 1750-1900” showcased ships’ figureheads, weathervanes and anonymous works, plus Edward Hicks’s vision of a “peaceable kingdom” and Joseph Pickett’s stylized townscape. William Edmonson, the inventive Black tombstone carver from Tennessee, had a solo exhibition in 1937. The catalog of “Art in Our Time,” celebrating MoMA’s 10th anniversary, begins with “American Popular Art,” featuring Kane, Hicks and Pickett. In a later section, “Modern ‘Primitives,’” Kane is called the best American of this persuasion and Henri Rousseau, grouped elsewhere with Renoir, Cézanne and Van Gogh, the leading French exponent. And more. In 1943, Morris Hirshfield had a solo show of his enchanting animals and agile figures. Works by these artists were also acquired sporadically, through donations and purchases.
Today, Rousseau—the only self-taught artist fully embraced by the modernist canon—stars with his French contemporaries in the latest, still incoherent installation of MoMA’s permanent collection, while a new gallery, “Masters of Popular Painting” (a title echoing a MoMA show from the 1930s), features (but segregates) Edmonson, Hirshfield, Kane, Pickett and Horace Pippin, among others.
More conspicuously, a special exhibition, “ Joseph E. Yoakum : What I Saw,” the artist’s first major museum show in over 25 years, honors the self-taught, Chicago-based African-American creator of rhythmic, obsessive drawings of fantastic landscapes. Yoakum (1891-1972), like many “outsider” artists—the term is now little used—was a late starter, beginning to make his quirky images in 1962, at age 71, supposedly inspired by a dream. Spurred by his devotion to Christian Science, he mined his imagination and his recollections of a peripatetic earlier life. Although he embellished the story, claiming Navajo ancestry and adding three years to his age, he really did travel widely. According to official information, he was born in Missouri, worked from childhood with traveling circuses that traversed the U.S., and later served in an African-American noncombat unit in Europe.
Yoakum’s earliest drawings were in ballpoint, but he soon discovered colored pencils, which allowed him to give free rein to a near-Rococo palette of tender blues and greens, pink and mauve, with flashes of yellow, tempered by zones of browns and grays. His landscapes, labeled as specific, often extraordinarily exotic places and sometimes stamped with a date, are animated and ecstatic. Views are vertiginous. Space expands, tips and contracts. Hills roil. Rivers and roadways snake between surging mountains. Cliffs become human profiles. Trees huddle into tidy clusters. Yoakum had an astonishing ability to orchestrate expressive shapes in a range of sizes, tying everything together and modulating color with repetitive overdrawing. The otherworldly geography is strengthened by repeated outlines and everywhere enlivened by urgent, insistent hatchings, flotillas of supple, ribbony shapes, swoops, loops, squiggles and swirls, all subtly varied and at different scales. There’s a lot to look at.
Titles written on the drawings (all spellings are Yoakum’s) range from “Coulee Dam on Columbia River Near Olympia Wash” (no date) to “Mt Baykal of Yablonvy Mtn Range Near Ulan-Ude Near Lake Baykal of Lower Siberia Russia E Asia” (1969), from “Tampa Bay at Tampa Florida” (1964) to “Straits of Messina Between Italy and Sicily Between Tynhenian and Mediterranean Seas” (1968), suggesting that while some places are clearly invented, Yoakum used postcards or illustrations as sources for imagery. A brochure for a California subdivision is exhibited as a source for drawings of Morro Bay, while the repeated details of his locomotives suggest a common model.
Yoakum sometimes repeated drawings using carbon paper, but he also often composed unique landscapes with similar geography. The deep blue valley of “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont” (no date) is remarkably like the monochrome expanse of “High Way #281 in Eastern Portion of California Through Mojave Desert” (1968), with whiplash elements cutting through stacked hills. Fierce cliffs frame the improbable triple peaks of “Mt Sinai at Sea Port on Gulf of Aquba Near Dhant al Haii of Saudi Arabia in Asia” (1968), as they do the equally fanciful “Moon Valley Mtn in Pugget Sounds Near Columbia Sounds Washington” (1967).
Some schematic heads and occasional figures, sometimes honoring people Yoakum admired, are less arresting. Buildings were also problematic, although a shattered house is effective counterpoint to the ferocious curves and ominous darks of a terrific drawing of “The Cyclone That Struck Susanville California in Year of 1903” (1970). Works like this explain why a generation of oddball artists, the Chicago Imagists, were influenced by and collected Yoakum’s work. If we could only escape the cacophony from the atrium installation next door.
—Ms. Wilkin is an independent curator and critic.
Appeared in the January 24, 2022, print edition as 'Valedictory Work From a Self-Taught Artist.'