“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Joseph E. Yoakum Big Hole Pass Jackson Montana (n.d.), graphite pencil and black and blue ballpoint pen on paper 8 x 10″.
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1173.2011. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Television isn’t a mainstay of these pages, but let me put in a word for reality TV. Or, rather, reality when it enters into this most manufactured of entertainments. A few years back, I regularly tuned into Project Runway, a hugely popular program in which contestants vie to become “America’s next top designer.” Aspiring fashionistas are put through a series of challenges—in budget, materials, and style—and the resulting finery is then judged by a panel of industry insiders. During the course of the season I watched, each contender had been supplied with a willowy model on which to hang their outfits. One memorable exception was the episode in which designers were assigned models who look like you and me—that is to say, moderately attractive people for whom adjectives like “svelte” and “leggy” aren’t quite the mots justes. The designers were aghast. Foreheads were slapped, teeth gnashed. A worldview defined by attenuation and abstraction had been upended by that most complex and contradictory of things: real life.

I was reminded of Project Runway upon reading the essays in the catalogue accompanying “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw.” Curators, conservators, historians, academics, and artists ought to shed light on the topic under discussion, to employ their expertise in a way that elaborates on the work and details its parameters. The folks writing about Joseph E. Yoakum (1891–1972)—well, they did fine. Much of the writing is informative, some of it exhaustive, but, oh!, the hand-wringing. The directors of the host institutions—James Rondeau from the Art Institute of Chicago, Glenn D. Lowry at moma, and The Menil Collection’s Rebecca Rabinow—fret about “the power dynamics” surrounding Yoakum’s initial discovery and subsequent reputation. The artist Faheem Majeed can’t get around Yoakum’s absence of political motivation and lack of community involvement: “I want to believe that Yoakum was aware of the explosion of black art happening all around him.” As for Yoakum’s insistence that friends refer to him as “Nava-joe”: it only furthered “the othering and romanticizing of him as a naive so-called outsider artist.” A wall label at MOMA chides Yoakum for “a lack of understanding of a culture with which he purportedly shared a connection.”

Joseph E. Yoakum, Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont (n.d.), black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper, 7-7/8 × 9-7/8″;Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1793.2012.
Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

To which one can only respond: Mr. Yoakum, rest in peace. Not because he insisted upon a connection with a Native American heritage that may have been specious or, for that matter, his conviction that the king of England was responsible for the cultural foment of the 1960s. Rather, because Yoakum was a man whose opinions, pursuits, and peccadilloes mark him not as a cardboard cut-out mandated to represent this, that, or the other thing, but as an individual. This is, of course, true for the rest of us, and pray that our lives aren’t subjected to the puritanical dissections that are the modus operandi of our professional classes. And that is, in a roundabout way, the pull of Yoakum’s appeal: his unprofessionalism. Creativity wasn’t fostered by art school or a knowledge of history, but, instead, by a sore shoulder. After praying for the pain to subside, Yoakum settled in for the night. Upon waking, the pain was gone. A debt needed to be honored. At the age of seventy-one, Yoakum began drawing as a form of spiritual recompense. “I’m one of those that don’t figure they know everything,” Yoakum told The Chicago Daily News, “and what I do know, I don’t let it make a fool of me.”

Joseph Elmer Yocum—the change in spelling came later—was born around 1890 in Ash Grove, Missouri. Yoakum’s father claimed Cherokee descent; his mother was born a slave. Yoakum worked on his parents’ farm until he ran away to join the circus at age ten. A stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Sells Floto Circus had him traveling to a variety of destinations, including China. Yoakum was drafted in 1917 and became a member of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, a black regiment sent to Europe during World War I. His return stateside saw him through two marriages, familial estrangements, and a host of jobs, including in sales, cement, and mining. Yoakum ended up in Chicago, moving into a storefront apartment on the South Side. It was there that he began drawing and exhibiting the resulting pieces in his front window. Passersby noticed them, not least a group of young painters affiliated with the School of the Art Institute. The Hairy Who, as these artists became known, saw a link between their own Pop-fueled grotesqueries and Yoakum’s sloping, upended landscapes. They collected the work, found commercial outlets for Yoakum’s art, and did right by the old man. The drawings were exhibited at a variety of venues, including MOMA. Yoakum died at the age of eighty-one—a month after the Whitney Museum opened a retrospective of his work.

Yoakum in front of his drawings at the Whole Coffee Shop in Chicago, 1967. Jeffrey Goldstein Chicago Art Scene Photo Archive; photograph by Edward de Luga, © Chicago Sun-Times, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Yoakum worked with modest materials on modest surfaces at a modest scale: ball- and felt-tip pens of varying hues on cheap paper with oddments of colored pencil and watercolor. His landscapes, flat and frontal, are never truly specific, and they often border on the psychedelic. Surfaces were employed as repositories for a clarified set of marks. The inventiveness with which he rendered natural formations is odd and involving. Whether they be the Twin Crater Mts near Lima Peru (undated) or Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India (1969), Yoakum’s mountains contort, snuggle, and sometimes roil, their details set out in patterns that are bodily, rather than geological, in character. Trees are stylized in predictable terms, but what they lack in distinctiveness they gain in multiplicity—this is the case, at least, in the best drawings. Yoakum’s imaginative powers left him when drawing houses or people. Would that his undated portrait of Nat King Cole or Beulah Dudley 1st Negro Woman to Win Golff Record in Year 1927 (1970) were imbued with the flair of the pagoda-like UFOs seen in a pair of undated drawings. As with most folk art, Yoakum’s vision is narrow, favoring eccentricity and intensity over scope and depth. As such, one’s interest stifles before reaching the end of “What I Saw.” Still, Yoakum withstands the contemporary spotlight. His spiritual “unfoldings” will survive the machinations of our contentious cultural moment.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the February 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

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