Joseph E. Yoakum is not who you think

Born circa 1891, self-taught artist Joseph E. Yoakum spent most of his youth as a runaway working for traveling circuses. Before a drea...


Born circa 1891, self-taught artist Joseph E. Yoakum spent most of his youth as a runaway working for traveling circuses. Before a dream inspired him to start drawing pictures of strange landscapes at the age of 71, he had already served in World War I, had moved away from an early marriage and five children, had again crisscrossed the country as a salesperson, remarried and become widowed, and retired to a storefront apartment in Chicago.

When he displayed the first drawings in the windows of his apartment, they quickly caught the attention of a visiting anthropology professor who put him on a show at a nearby cafe. This show was covered by the Chicago Daily News, with a headline quoting the eccentric but deeply religious artist: “My designs are a spiritual development. By the time of his death in 1972, at the age of 81, Yoakum had been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Whitney.

I have already seen his drawings, and you may have also seen him in group exhibitions, art fairs or in reproduction. Crafted in ballpoint pen and colored pencil, they have an otherworldly palette and unforgettable wavy lines. But “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw”, a substantial new investigation organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art and the Menil Drawing Institute, is Yoakum’s first major museum exhibit in 25 years. And it wasn’t until I immersed myself in his more than 100 works that I began to appreciate how beautifully weird they are. Seen one or two at a time, they were weird but had a winning grace about them. In quantity, they were both absorbing and disturbing. In the gallery I was mesmerized – but by the time I left I felt completely weird.

Yoakum’s biography can also be tricky. It is poorly documented, and the artist himself was not a reliable narrator; he was also a color artist with – like Fahim majeed, an artist who previously ran Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, points out in the exhibition’s beautiful catalog – no obvious connection to the black artistic ferment unfolding all around him on the South Side of the 1960s (Majeed). is baffled by Yoakum and says so; others advance more cautiously.) Instead, he’s been picked up and defended – or, depending on who you ask, fictionalized and exploited – by a group of younger, mostly white artists. , later known as the Chicago Imagists. . Yoakum always told them he wasn’t black, but Navajo, which seemed to have either been an illusion or a joke – he insisted on pronouncing it “Nava-Joe”. He may have had Cherokee or Cherokee Freedman ancestry, but that is not certain, and at this point his childhood circus experiences also cannot be fully substantiated.

It’s hard to know exactly where to put it, and at a time when racial and ethnic identity is on everyone’s mind – and the art world struggles to pay too much attention to artists of color – it It’s a bit baffling to read about a black artist who used pop culture stereotypes of Native Americans in his drawings, and who once traced the white model in a shampoo commercial to do a portrait of Ella Fitzgerald. But it is also invigorating, for it repels the temptation, which so often lurks behind efforts to diversify museums, to make any artist of color a one-dimensional hero. It’s important to remember that artists like Joseph Yoakum aren’t necessarily who we want them to be.

His designs are also not what we would expect. Are they, in fact, even landscapes? They depict mountains, rivers, harbors, and other natural landscapes, sometimes with a harsh heraldic sun sitting on the horizon. But often these mountains and rocks are depicted with a twisting double line that conjures up topographic maps, and without the horizon cue, you wouldn’t know if you are looking at a scene from the side or from above.

Yoakum inscribed his designs with very specific titles – “Great Falls Montana Falls Are in Mission River” is one example – and always insisted that they remember the sights he saw while traveling with the circus, the armed or alone. And a lot of them match. But in at least one case, documented in the exhibit, he appears to have copied his sight from a postcard, and many of the scenes – most notably the pair which include a low-tech but impossible pink UFO – are completely fantastic. .

Tight ball-point hatching on lightly applied blue pencil in “Monongahelia River Falls near Riverside West Virginia” vividly produces the effect of a stream of water. But rows of tiny, identical trees, in the same design, recede under inexplicable tan curls, exploding any sense of naturalism. With greenish skies and hills of yellow or dark lavender, her color choices, too, seem taken from a real planet but not necessarily this one.

Incredibly smooth mountains branch out on paper like blood vessels, and the low, nocturnal hills of Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont, the superlative design reproduced on the catalog cover, look more like heaps of leeches than of stone. A large rock formation in “Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands” is undoubtedly a face, and, in a 1963 drawing, “Grand Coulee Dam in Columbia River near Olympia Washington”, the ground near Olympia pinches the mouth of the Columbia River like a finger and a thumb.

But if you look at an undated Nat King Cole drawing, there’s something cold about the curve of his jaw – it’s as polished as a statue. There is also something revealing about these designs that Yoakum made while tracing the Breck shampoo pattern. Even when not working directly from an advertisement or photograph, Yoakum, as an artist, just doesn’t seem comfortable with the human body. He follows its contours from the outside, like a sailor mapping a strange new island.

Under a moving train, the lines of Yoakum twist as in violent earthquakes; at the peaks of “Mt Suliwulai in Kunlun Mtn Era near Chiuchuan, in east-central China, East Asia” they sparkle like flames. Sometimes, noticing how Yoakum’s colors sag under their own weight, I almost thought I was looking at a sand painting spilled on the side. In all this strange variety, the only constant is instability. But Yoakum’s colors are so vivid, his landscapes so vibrant, that the feeling of instability is almost subliminal. Standing in front of “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont,” you can’t quite imagine yourself in Grizzly Gulch, because the evolution of the design on the page is so special that no one other than Joseph Yoakum was able to keep it going. But you can feel the ground moving.


“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw”

Until March 19, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, (212) 708-9400; moma.org.

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