Joseph E. Yoakum

What I Saw

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
11 W 53rd Street
Floor 2, 2 South
New York
Nov 22nd 2021 — Mar 19th 2022

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When Joseph E. Yoakum first picked up a pencil at 71, he’d already traveled the world several times over, first with the circus as a billposter, then as a stowaway and later as an engineer in the First World War’s storied all-Black 805th Pioneer Infantry. In the early 1960s, settled in Chicago, Yoakum began making drawings at a rate of roughly one per day, depicting the lands he’d visited, from the Ozarks to Oahu, from Chile to Sweden. Rendered in pastel-hued colored pencil and ballpoint pen, these rapturous vistas depict unspoiled nature.

The artist was a devout Christian Scientist and he endowed his drawings with an Edenic character. “The drawings are unfolded to me, a spiritual unfoldment,” he once said, in a telling example of passive construction. Yoakum made his work mostly from memory, and it often circles back on itself: He redrew many of the same views and dated his artworks somewhat arbitrarily. He developed an idiosyncratic spatial iconography of sinuous outlines, dashes, exotopic shading, and parallel and converging lines in lieu of continuous space and traditional perspective. His landscapes sometimes take on humanoid features—see the tooth-like dam in Coulee Dam on Columbia River near Olympia Wash, or rocks resembling faces in each of two works titled The Flying Saucer in 1958 (all undated). Humans almost never appear. Any evidence of their presence—whether ships, trains, bridges or homesteads—make rare intrusions into an otherwise private, pristine vision.

Entirely self-taught, Yoakum is a mythologized figure. Literature on the artist rarely fails to mention his stay in a psychiatric hospital and his progression from outsider-folk art status to opening a solo show at the Whitney Museum just five years after his “discovery” in 1965. Critics single out, in condescending tones, the casual appearance of UFOs and extraterrestrials. Featuring more than 100 pieces created between 1958 and 1970, “What I Saw,” arriving at MoMA from the Art Institute of Chicago, blissfully lets Yoakum speak for himself—even when the artist does himself no favors. After viewing dozens of his mesmeric landscapes, it’s painfully clear that he had no knack for portraiture. One startling drawing reflecting on Yoakum’s apocryphal Navajo ancestry is laden with stereotypes and slurs, and I mistook a picture of an inexplicably whitewashed Ella Fitzgerald for Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Still, within the full scope of Yoakum’s practice, those works are atypical missteps from an otherwise enigmatic and distinctive artist. —Will Fenstermaker

Joseph E. Yoakum (American, 1891 – 1972). Mt Grazian in Maritime Alps near Emonaco Tunnel France and Italy by Tunnel, c. mid-1960s (stamped 1958). Black ballpoint pen, blue felt-tip pen, and colored pencil on paper. 12 x 19 inches. Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1174.2011. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.