Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw is the first major museum retrospective in more than twenty-five years to focus on the dream-like landscape drawings of Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1891–1972), a self-taught, visionary American artist. The show illuminates his vivid creativity, imaginative vision of the land, and deep spirituality and also explores his complex biography as an African American man who claimed Navajo heritage.
Much of what we know of Yoakum’s extraordinary life story comes from the artist himself. Born in Missouri just twenty-five years after the end of the Civil War, Yoakum had little schooling before he left home to work for several circuses, traveling across the United States as well as abroad. He later served in a segregated noncombat regiment during World War I before settling in Chicago’s South Side. Inspired by a dream, he began his artistic career at age seventy-one, ultimately producing some two thousand drawings before his death in 1972.
As the exhibition title intimates, Yoakum’s drawings reflect his travels to every continent except Antarctica. As he put it, “I had it in my mind that I wanted to go to different places at different times. Wherever my mind led me, I would go. I’ve been all over this world four times.” Awareness of his biography is critical to a contemporary examination of Yoakum’s body of work—marked by a distinctive, linear style of draftsmanship—but so, too, is recognizing his agency in transforming his visual memories into works of art. His idiosyncratic drawings, predominantly landscapes in ballpoint pen, colored pencil, pastel, and watercolor, convey his poetic view of nature. Simultaneously, Yoakum also made many portraits of African American icons.
The exhibition at the Menil Drawing Institute will feature more than 80 drawings by Yoakum, most from the collections of Chicago-based artists affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who deeply admired the singularity of Yoakum’s creativity. His collectors, supporters, and friends include Roger Brown, Cynthia Carlson, Whitney Halstead, Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg and Philip Hanson, Karl Wirsum and Lorri Gunn, and Ray Yoshida, all of who helped promote the artist’s work during and after his lifetime.