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Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled American Zeppolin Flight from New York City to Paris France in Year 1939 from 1969

Joseph E. Yoakum, American Zeppolin Flight from New York City to Paris France in Year 1939, 1969. The Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Whitney Halstead. 

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands from 1968.

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands, stamped 1968.
Collection Christina Ramberg and Phil Hanson

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India from 1969

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India, stamped 1969.
Collection of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Mt Brock of Air Cave Pass Near Carson City Nevada from unknown year

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Mt Brock of Air Cave Pass Near Carson City Nevada, not dated.
Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bequest of Whitney Halstead

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Rain Bow Bridge in in Bryce Canyon National Park near Henriville Utah, from 1968

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Rain Bow Bridge in in Bryce Canyon National Park near Henriville Utah, 1968.
Collection of the Roger Brown Study Collection

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Wilks Land in East Sector of Antartica Continents on Rose Sea and Ice Shellf Cliffe of the Two Sectors Discovery Since Australia and New Zealand, from 1969

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Wilks Land in East Sector of Antartica Continents on Rose Sea and Ice Shellf Cliffe of the Two Sectors Discovery Since Australia and New Zealand, stamped 1969
Collection of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Mt Baykal of Yablonvy Mtn Range near Ulan-Ude near Lake Baykal of Lower Siberia Russia E Asia from 1969

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, Mt Baykal of Yablonvy Mtn Range near Ulan-Ude near Lake Baykal of Lower Siberia Russia E Asia, 1969.
Collection of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

Drawing by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Workbook B from 1972

Joseph E. Yoakum, Workbook B, 1972. The Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Whitney Halstead. 

Press Release

Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw
June 12 - October 18, 2021
The Art Institute of Chicago

In 1962 at the age of 71, Joseph E. Yoakum (1891–1972) reported having a dream that inspired him to draw. Thereafter the retired veteran began a daily practice and over the next 10 years produced some 2,000 works.

Yoakum was born into poverty, had very little schooling, and at an early age left home to join a circus. He wound up working with several circuses, traveling across the United States as well as abroad and becoming intimately familiar with the world’s various landscapes. These experiences would provide the foundational memories that fueled his deeply spiritual vision decades later.

When he began to put that vision to paper in his apartment on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1960s, Yoakum quickly developed a unique visual language, independent and distinct from other artists in the city, such as those involved in the flourishing Black Arts Movement or the up-and-coming Chicago Imagist group. His drawings—predominantly landscapes in ballpoint pen, colored pencil, pastel, and watercolor and inscribed with locations from all seven continents—reflect the scope of his national and international travels as well as his idiosyncratic and poetic vision of the natural world.

After Yoakum’s first exhibition in 1968, word spread through the local artist community. School of the Art Institute (SAIC) professor Whitney Halsted took a serious interest in his work, an interest that would lead to Halsted writing a foundational text about Yoakum’s drawings, and artists such as Karl Wirsum, Ray Yoshida, Jim Nutt, and Roger Brown—all SAIC graduates—began to collect Yoakum’s work, marveling at his instincts and creativity despite having no formal art training. His designs, forms, lines, and colors defied landscape traditions, yet they each possessed a power derived from the artist’s uncanny use of his distinctive graphic style.

This exhibition follows a shifting progression of Yoakum’s mountainous terrain, arid deserts, and majestic waterways, as well as a selection of his portraits of African American icons, testifying to the rich imagination of an exceptional American artist as well as to the remarkable circumstances that led to his lasting legacy.


The exhibition is co-organized with The Museum of Modern Art and the Menil Collection

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