Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw

Apr 22 – Aug 7, 2022
Menil Drawing Institute

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 Native American 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.

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw is coorganized by Edouard Kopp, John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation Chief Curator, Menil Drawing Institute; Mark Pascale, Janet and Craig Duchossois Curator of Prints and Drawings, The Art Institute of Chicago; and Esther Adler, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, MoMA.

The exhibition will show at the Art Institute of Chicago (June 12–October 18, 2021) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (on view November 28, 2021–March 19, 2022).

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw is generously supported by Leah Bennett; Diane and Michael Cannon; Hilda Curran; Cindy and David Fitch; Barbara and Michael Gamson; Janet and Paul Hobby; Caroline Huber; Mary Hale Lovett McLean; John and Stephanie Smither Visionary Art Fund; James William Stewart, Jr.; Nina and Michael Zilkha; Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation; and the City of Houston through Houston Art Alliance.

An extensive, richly illustrated exhibition catalogue provides new scholarship on the artist and expands upon key themes of the show. It highlights friendships that Yoakum forged with the Chicago-based artists who cemented his place in art history; it explores how religion may have helped him cope with a racially fractured city; and it examines his complicated relationship to African American and Native American identities, while also situating Yoakum’s contribution in the wider context of American art.