Joseph Elmer Yoakum
A Long Continentle Divide, n.d.
Colored Pencil on Paper
11 7/8 x 17 7/8 inches
Collection of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, gift of Martha Griffin, Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan, New York
By Deven Golden
Thirty-five years ago I reviewed an exhibition that attempted to show Joseph Yoakum’s influence on a wide range of artists working in Chicago. I was critical of the exhibition, not because its premise was without merit, but because the works presented did not adequately illuminate the depth of Yoakum’s effect. Now, occasioned by a gobsmacking great exhibition of works by Joseph Yoakum that recently closed at Venus Over Manhattan, I find myself thinking intensely about the artist and his place in the history of Chicago art once more. The gallery, which often displays a curatorial vision more akin to a
Kunsthalle than a commercial gallery, put together a show of sixty-two of the artist’s works, an especially impressive number given how rarely his work is seen outside of Chicago. This, along with an outstanding catalogue, was more than enough for anyone unfamiliar with the artist to gain an appreciation of Yoakum’s formal inventiveness and exquisite vision.
Walking out of the show, my intention was to write a piece focusing primarily on Yoakum’s unique aesthetic. It is certainly a worthy subject, for using the simplest of materials – colored pencils, ball-point pens, graphite, and (occasionally) watercolors – Yoakum’s approach to image making is beguilingly direct, yet positively uncanny in effect. Completely eschewing linear perspective and verisimilitude, straddling an undulating middle ground between representation and abstraction, each work presents a recognizable style and, critically, an undeniably cohesive vision. Rather than making the landscape appear smaller or less detailed to imply distance, the vistas in Yoakum’s drawings carry our eye back in space by moving from the bottom of the paper to the top, that is, the foreground is at the bottom, while a mountain is in the distance because it is higher up. The fact that this compositional approach is reminiscent of a child’s drawing can, at first blush, mislead a casual viewer to underestimate the sophistication of the artist. Dwell a moment, however, and it is apparent that his touch, the sensitivity of his line, the seductive softness of his color application, the obvious brilliance revealed in his ability to simultaneously abstract and distill the landscape, is the work of a master.
Indeed, although Yoakum started working at an advanced age, by 1969 his art was recognized and began to be heavily collected by art historians and artists in Chicago. Many a time visiting Ray Yoshida, I would leaf through the dozens of Yoakum drawings he kept on a small makeshift stand on one of his bookshelves. For Yoshida, like many of his peers – Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Ed Flood, Christina Ramberg, Phil Hanson, Karl Wirsum – had purchased the works for between $2 and $15 each. These artists were not just collectors of Yoakum’s work, but saw in his art an idea about image making that was visually in a close dialogue with their own. In spite of their very different backgrounds, to describe a Yoakum in formal terms echoes much in the work of these other 1960s Chicago artists, with their flattened, highly charged landscapes and their embrace of repetition and pattern to unify their compositions.
Admittedly, I thought little about the nature of these financial transactions at the time, other than being more than a little jealous that I had missed out, Yoakum having already passed away a few years earlier. Yoakum was, after all, considered a Naïf, or in today’s parlance, an Outsider artist, and so not considered in the same category as the art school degreed artists and historians who were collecting him. Years later, this categorization seems to me to be, at the very least, problematic, and not only for the questionable financial aspects. When you think about it, almost without exception, the labels or categories we assign to art tell us something rather basic about the style or concept of the work: Abstract Expressionist, Impressionist, Cubist, Conceptual, Surrealism, etc. In stark contrast, the terms Naïf or Outsider are making an assumption about the person who made the work. As if we can ever truly know what thoughts are going on in an artist’s mind, or anyone else’s for that matter. The only facts we ever have to work with are in the art itself. The story of the work’s origin, the life of the artist who made it, no matter how interesting it may play as a narrative, is always beside the point. Even in the most extreme cases – I’m thinking here of Martín Ramírez, Adolf Wölfli, Henry Darger, or the artists from the Prinzhorn Collection – the back-story, if there is one, is that these artists were able to make art in spite of their circumstances, not because of them. I’ll add that Yoakum was far from being out there in that way, having had a studio, gallery representation, and talking to (if not necessarily listening to) other important artists in Chicago.
What makes something art is how densely the artist has been able to compress a tremendous amount of information and pack it into a non-linear format from which viewers (including the artist) can then unpack in a seemingly infinite number of ways.
Really, something either fulfills the criteria for being art or it doesn’t. Whatever our assumptions might be about the artist’s history or inner thoughts are simply not relevant. In the Venus Over Manhattan catalogue’s forward and acknowledgements, Adam Lindemann and Anna Christina Furney, respectively, speak against this Outsider typecasting as a disservice to the work. I think we can and should go further.
Namely that it is time, as it was with the now rightfully discarded term primitive art (an oxymoron if ever there was one), for the label Outsider to be retired. As a formal term to describe the art it tells us nothing; stylistically there are more differences between the works of so-called Outsider artists Joseph Yoakum, Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, and Adolf Wölfli than there are similarities. To continue the historical pigeonholing of Yoakum’s, or any of the other artists tagged with this label, as Outsider is a form of “separate but equal” treatment which is, as we know, impossible to do in reality. I truly believe that this is such an bad practice that I will risk repeating myself: to call any work Outsider, a term with no formal implications, is to inevitably imply that it is somehow lesser, and to render a disservice to the art’s true nature and possible greatness. All of the various related adjectives that have been applied to the artist Joseph Yoakum over the decades – folk, naïf, untrained, and Outsider – are not in an effort to explain the artwork, but in an attempt to make the artist an other. As such, these terms are more than worthless, they are misleading. Worthless because as descriptive terms they speak to perceptions and assumptions about the mindset of the artist, which consciously or unconsciously carry negative associations, without addressing the formal concepts of his work. They are misleading because these labels would have us relegate his work to some imagined marginal or subset of art, with the implication that we accept it as art in spite of some missing attributes – training, knowledge of art history – that are in themselves ancillary to the art works themselves. Yes, this can be said about all of the artists and artworks that have, over the years, been improperly categorized in this way. But in positing that Yoakum’s work should be labeled in anyway lesser than is especially egregious when it can be plausibly argued that he was one of the most important artists of the Chicago School. Period.