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Brut Journal

Guided By Memories, This Is What Joseph E. Yoakum Saw

September 16, 2021

Joseph Yoakum drawing

Joseph E. Yoakum, “Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont” (no date); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kholer Foundation, Inc. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

By Sarah Fensom

In 1962, Joseph E. Yoakum (1891-1972), a 71-year-old U.S. Army veteran with no formal art training, had a dream in which he was encouraged to draw. In the decade following that vision, until his death, Yoakum created some 2000 works of art, mostly landscapes inspired by his memories of his youthful travels.

After creating art for about six years in his storefront apartment on Chicago’s South Side, Yoakum presented his first exhibition at Edward Sherbeyn Gallery in that city in 1968. He developed a close relationship with Whitney Halstead, an art professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), who helped Yoakum organize exhibitions and sell his work. Some of Halstead’s students and friends, many of whom would become known as important modern artists, became ardent collectors of Yoakum’s art. Among them: Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Ray Yoshida, Roger Brown, Lori Gunn, Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson, Karl Wirsum, and other figures in the Chicago art world of the 1960s and 1970s.

Yoakum, who was Black and claimed Native American heritage, was born into poverty in Missouri. Around the age of 10, he ran away from home and joined the circus. His travels around the world with various circuses and, later, as a U.S. Army soldier during World War I, provided inspiration for his ballpoint-pen, pastel, and colored-pencil drawings. He was itinerant for much of his adult life until he settled in Chicago at the age of 51. During the last years of his life, it was his artwork that traveled to — and reached wide audiences at — such high-profile venues as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.

In June of this year, the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), which holds the largest collection of Yoakum’s work anywhere, including some 225 drawings and four of the artist’s workbooks, opened Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw. Co-organized with the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and the Menil Collection, in Houston, this exhibition, which will remain on view at the AIC through October 18, features more than 100 works by one of the most original American artists whose oeuvre is often labeled “outsider art” or “self-taught art.”

Via video call, brutjournal’s Los Angeles-based U.S.A. West Coast bureau chief, Sarah Fensom, spoke with Mark Pascale, one of the exhibition’s co-curators. The curator of prints and drawings at the AIC and a senior lecturer at the SAIC, Pascale discussed his long-held desire to organize and present a sweeping Yoakum exhibition.

Sarah Fensom for brutjournal: Tell me about your discovery of Yoakum’s art and your experience with his work.

[Pascale recalled when he first became professionally associated with the Art Institute of Chicago and its related art school. At that time, he spent a lot of time examining material in the museum’s prints-and-drawings study room.]

Mark Pascale: One day, the man whom I eventually [succeeded], Sam Green, had a box of Yoakum’s works, and I was fascinated. He told me how the museum had all these Yoakums. By that time, in the early 1980s, they were just in boxes, loose. Just thrown in the boxes. People would rifle through them, and many [of the] corners [of the drawings] were broken.

I learned a little bit about [Yoakum’s] story, and that there had been an art historian [Whitney Halstead] at the school, who had died in 1979 and who had befriended Yoakum and written a text about him. The museum owned it. It was in the archives but [it had] never [been] published.

Whitney was the person who distributed [Yoakum’s] work at the end of [the artist’s] life. Whitney bought a lot of work for himself at the end and throughout his relationship [with the artist]. But he bought a lot at the end [of Yoakum’s life], in large chunks. They were very close.

SF: When did you begin working with the Art Institute of Chicago’s Yoakum collection?

MP: In the mid-1990s, [at the Art Institute of Chicago,] the main focus of my exhibitions was on the [museum’s] collection. I mounted a Yoakum exhibition, because we had so many of his works, and our galleries could accommodate about 100 of them.

I went to my boss and I said, “Over the next year, the museum is going to have two major, French, 19th-century-artist shows — Gustav Caillebotte and then Monet. Let me mount a Yoakum show during the intersection of these two exhibitions. [Our Yoakum holdings are] a huge asset that the museum has owned since the late 1970s, but it has never done anything with them.” He gave the permission. That show was so popular, it stayed up for almost a year. Its title was “Force of a Dream: The Drawings of Joseph Yoakum.” Just like “What I Saw,” it came from something inscribed on one of the drawings. I always try to use [Yoakum’s own] words when choosing titles, because titles were important to him.

SF: Force of a Dream was presented in 1995. Did that exhibition lead to you making connections with the Chicago artists and art-world figures who had known Yoakum and collected his work?

MP: Because that show was up for so long, [the] word [about it] spread. I got to meet Roger Brown, and he invited me to his studio-residence to see his Yoakum room, because he had a room devoted to the artist’s drawings, and I interviewed him there.

[Brown, who was born in 1941 and died in 1997, was a Chicago-based artist who became associated with the Chicago Imagists. He was a leading collector of outsider and vernacular art. After his death, his art-filled home became the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Brown earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the SAIC. ]

I also met Jim [Nutt] and then Gladys [Nilsson] through that show.

SF: How did you connect with Ray Yoshida, the Chicago-based artist and longtime art professor at the SAIC who had a big influence on such artists as Brown, Nutt, Nilsson, who had been his students?

MP: I got to know Yoshida after he left Chicago to go back to Hawaii, where he eventually died. He let me go through his [Yoakum] material, because I mounted a show for Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in Chicago, The Picture Tells The Story [in 2009]. [For that exhibition,] I borrowed heavily from Ray. After he died, his relatives donated his estate to the Kohler Foundation [in Wisconsin; that gift consisted of some 2600 objects]. Kohler made many works from Ray’s collection available to museums.



SF: After that Intuit show in 2009, did you have a lingering desire to organize a larger Yoakum exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago?

MP: A bigger show with an accompanying catalog. A key focus was to publish Whitney Halstead’s essay about Yoakum. But my main priority was to [try to] cancel the chatter about race [that had often figured in discussions of Yaokum’s art] and focus [instead] on his artistic achievement so that people [would be] forced to look at the work for its aesthetic value and not [primarily because of] the color of [its creator’s] skin.

SF: You could have organized the current exhibition by culling works entirely from the AIC’s own collection, as you did in the past. However, this time, how important was it for you to include in an exhibition about Yoakum works borrowed from the artists and scholars who had gone to his storefront apartment, sat with him and talked with him, and who personally knew him?

MP: I wanted to show a selection of work by the artists who also knew him besides Whitney Halstead — some of Whitney’s students who also bought [works] directly from Yoakum and [were able] to see what his work looked like when it came out of the studio.

[The artists] Phil Hanson and Christina Ramberg had [some] incredible drawings. [Hanson and Ramberg were husband and wife; Ramberg died in 1995.] Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson loaned quite a few. We took some from Roger Brown’s study collection [and] from Richard Fraenkel, who was kind of a late entry into this; he was very important to Yoakum’s career, because he mounted one of the most important early exhibitions of his work at Pennsylvania State University, in 1970. [At that time, Fraenkel was the director of exhibitions at the Pennsylvania State University Art Museum.]

Fraenkel had a hard time convincing Yoakum to accept an honorarium for showing his work [at his university’s museum]. Richard literally came to Chicago to hand him the check, with Whitney present, and said, “For the honor of showing your work, we want to give you this.” There were a lot of things about the art world [Yoakum] didn’t understand, so the artists he developed relationships with took care of these things for him.

SF: The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and the Menil Collection, in Houston, co-organized Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw along with the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition will open at MoMA on November 28, and next year, at the Menil Collection, on April 22. How did that come about?

MP: Before Ray Yoshida died, he said, “I know you say you’re going to do this Yoakum exhibition, and if you ever do it in my lifetime, I have one request.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Try to make sure the show is seen at MoMA.” He was thinking, “Yoakum deserves MoMA.”

I said, “That would be very hard, because MoMA doesn’t have any.” At that time, I think it had one drawing by Yoakum in its collection.

Later, the Kohler Foundation asked me if I could recommend some museums I thought some Yoakum works should go to and I said, “the Museum of Modern Art, New York.”

A few years ago, I was working on a Charles White exhibition. We partnered with Esther Adler [an associate curator in MoMA’s department of drawings and prints]. Esther asked me, “What are you working on next?” I said, “I want to do this Yoakum show.” She said, “I want that. If you are doing that, I want to be involved but I’d want to co-curate it with you.” And so we agreed. I said it would be great if we had a third venue. Esther said, “What about the Menil Drawing Institute?”

So she wrote to Édouard Kopp, the chief curator at the Menil, and the three of us had a phone conversation. Édouard was very excited to do it, and we forced him to be listed as a co-organizer. Even though he said, “But I am just taking the show in writing,” I said, “That’s alright. You’re part of it. Now do it!” So that’s how it came around, finally. 

SF: Looking through the current Yoakum exhibition’s catalog and seeing how Yoakum put his work together, one gets that sense that his art just flowed from his deeply personal artistic vision.

MP: He might have had a pictorial reference for it. Think of how young he was when he went on the road, by his own admission. He was forming lasting memories. Sixty or 70 years later, [in his art,] he is remembering his life, perhaps partially as it was and partially as he wished it had been. The more I thought about it, the more I believed [he was] drawing his self-portrait. [His art is] his autobiography in pictures.

I’ve been reading Christina Ramberg’s diaries in preparation for a retrospective I’m working on of her work. [In them, she writes about asking Yoakum,] point blank, “Did you see all these places?” He said something along the lines of, “Girl, I traveled far and wide to see what I saw.” It was [as though he were saying,] “Don’t question me and my authority. Don’t question the veracity of my vision.”

SF: In an essay from the 1930s, Holger Cahill, who oversaw the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, discusses modern artists in the period following the historic 1913 Armory Show in New York — their fervor for what was then being called “American primitivism.” Cahill wrote about the pictorial continuity he found between the modernists’ creations and those of self-taught, so-called primitive artists — a similar use of simplified forms, perspective, and so on. With regard to the Chicago Imagists, do you believe they felt some sort of stylistic kinship with Yoakum?

MP: No. Even though people like Roger, Phil, and Christina were very young — they had just earned their BFA degrees in 1968 — they were already very formed as artists. They were already doing mature work. I think what they felt was [similar to] what Picasso and Braque saw in Rousseau — a figure who just emerged in their field, with no training or background in art, who was making things that were unique.

Jim Nutt said, “We were all trying to find our inner image, and here comes Yoakum and he’s got it. It’s there. He had this inner image.” [Those young, schooled artists all] worked very hard to find that. And Yoakum was like, “Here it is.”

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