THE POETIC LANDSCAPES of Joseph Yoakum (1891-1972) are transporting. Yoakum said he drew what he saw as he made his way in the world. He depicted meandering streams, mountainous vistas, and forested terrains, creating texture and dimension within the topographical scenes using dense hash marks made with ballpoint and felt-tip pens. He further added dream-like qualities to the pictures working with colored pencils and watercolors in a spectrum of desert hues—from coral and pink to sea blue and sea foam green.

Yoakum wrote descriptions of his subjects directly on his drawings. Titles such as “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont,” “Mt Popocatepel of Sra Madre Occidental Range near Mexico City C.M.,” and “A Rock in the Baltic Sea near Stockholm Sweden E. Europe” give a sense of the diverse locales he experienced and visualized.


JOSEPH E. YOAKUM (American, 1891-1972), “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont,” n.d. (black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper, 7 7/8 × 9 7/8 inches / 20 × 25.1 cm). | Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 1793.2012. Photo by Robert Gerhardt

 

A rare opportunity to see Yoakum’s landscapes, more than 100 drawings by the artist are on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” is the first museum presentation dedicated to Yoakum in more than 25 years. The exhibition features works dating from approximately 1963 to 1972. (Many of the drawings are undated.)

Born in Ash Grove, Mo., Yoakum said he was still a child when he left home to join the circus in 1902. He started with the Buffalo Bill Wild West show and then moved on to work with the Sells Floto Circus (which took him to China) and the Ringling Brothers Circus. Later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving during World War I with the 805th Pioneer Infantry, an all-Black, non-combat regiment that deployed to France and was active across Europe. Late in life, living in Chicago, Yoakum began drawing full time, making real and imagined landscapes inspired by memories of his international travels. He was 71.

“Joseph Yoakum: What I Saw” opened at the Art Institute of Chicago earlier this year and will travel to the Menil Collection after the MoMA showing, which is on view through March 19, 2022.

“I had 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.” — Joseph E. Yoakum

“Yoakum insisted that every one of his highly stylized landscapes was based on his firsthand experience of actual places, that he was driven by a self-declared wanderlust: ‘I had 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.'” Édouard Kopp, chief curator of the Menil Drawing Center in Houston, recounts in “When the Sun Neither Sheds Light nor Creates Shade,” his essay for the exhibition catalog.

“Most of his drawings represent North American locations but he claimed to have visited all the continents (except Antarctica, which he nonetheless represented), where he would have been exposed to some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. While his drawings may echo the outside world they neither take it at face value nor seek verisimilitude: ultimately they provide little evidence of being grounded in observed topographical realities.”

Kopp added: “Instead, they invite us to suspend disbelief, in that they seem to function largely—but not entirely—as dreamscapes, where his memories and visions of places merged. His is a world where different rules apply, where the sun neither sheds light no creates shade.” CT

 

“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, from Nov. 21, 2021-March 19, 2022

 


Installation view of “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Nov. 21, 2021-March 19, 2022). | Photo by Denis Doorly, Courtesy MoMA

 


JOSEPH E. YOAKUM (American, 1891-1972), “Mt Grazian in Maritime Alps near Emonaco Tunnel France and Italy by Tunnel,” circa mid-1960s, stamped 1958, (black ballpoint pen, blue felt‑tip pen, and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 19 inches / 30.5 x 48.3 cm). | Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1174.2011. Photo by Robert Gerhardt

 


Installation view of “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Nov. 21, 2021-March 19, 2022). | Photo by Denis Doorly, Courtesy MoMA

 


JOSEPH E. YOAKUM (American, 1891-1972), “Big Hole Pass Jackson Montana,” n.d. (graphite pencil and black and blue ballpoint pen on paper, 8 x 10 inches / 20.3 x 25.4 cm). | Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1173.2011. Photo by Robert Gerhardt

 


Installation view of “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Nov. 21, 2021-March 19, 2022). | Photo by Denis Doorly, Courtesy MoMA

 


JOSEPH E. YOAKUM (American, 1891-1972), “Mt Popocatepel of Sra Madre Occidental Range near Mexico City C.M.,” 1967 (blue and brown ballpoint pen and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 19 inches / 30.5 x 48.3 cm). | Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1175.2011. Photo by Robert Gerhardt

 


Installation view of “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Nov. 21, 2021-March 19, 2022). | Photo by Denis Doorly, Courtesy MoMA

 


JOSEPH E. YOAKUM (American, 1891-1972), “A Rock in the Baltic Sea near Stockholm Sweden E. Europe,” n.d. (carbon transfer, black ballpoint pen, and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 19 inches / 30.5 x 48.3 cm). | Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc.1172.2011. Photo by Robert Gerhardt

 


Installation view of “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Nov. 21, 2021-March 19, 2022). Shown at left, “Mt Makkah near Village Mecca of Sudi Arabia SE Asia,” stamped 1968. | Photo by Denis Doorly, Courtesy MoMA

 

BOOKSHELF
“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” accompanies the traveling exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Published in 2000, “Traveling the Rainbow: The Life and Art of Joseph E. Yoakum” documents the first major survey of the artist.

 

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