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Chicago Tribune

‘Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw’ is an eye-opening new exhibit at the Art Institute: Many sides to a Chicago artist from the South Side

September 21, 2021

Joseph Yoakum drawing

Artwork in the exhibit "Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw" at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

By Christopher Borrelli

Not far off the Michigan Avenue entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago, a brief jog from the information desk, tucked into a corner gallery, there is an exhibition of drawings that are obsessive and elegant, unsettling and whimsical, all at once. They look as though they were fever-dreamed into existence, and depending on how you regard the uneasy life of their creator, perhaps they were. These drawings, ballpoint pen on manilla paper, shown through Oct. 18, move to MoMA in November, where it’s not hard to imagine New York swooning at a new diamond in the rough, recognizing Joseph Yoakum at last.

“Will Joseph Yoakum shine brighter after these exhibitions?” asked curator Mark Pascale. “The art world is fickle — I have no idea. But it already takes the wealthy to collect him. You can’t buy an original Yoakum for $25 on the South Side anymore.”

That said, he was never even much of a name in Chicago, where he lived 30 years. There was a brief run on his work in the early 1970s, but likely, you never heard of him. He made landscapes. He was an artist’s artist, Pascale said. “Chicago artists were first to respond, and frankly, it was hard for the public to get him.” So, Yoakum, who died in a local nursing home 49 years ago, was a mystery in life and stayed a mystery in death.

He was that quintessential unreliable narrator, with a background so questionable the biographical timeline at the Art Institute is labeled: “The Fantastical Reality of Joseph Yoakum.” Indeed, his life was so packed with incident and adventure, both real and fabricated, that Yoakum actually ran away from home at 12 and joined the circus. You’ve threatened it from time to time but Yoakum did it. Moreover, it worked out. He saw the world traveling with the circus. He saw the world through military service. But he also saw the world through his imagination. When Whitney Halstead, a School of the Art Institute instructor, saw Yoakum’s landscape of Iowa, he told the artist that he grew up in Iowa — he didn’t recall any mountains. Yoakum said: “That’s because you never looked.”

There are two drawings in the exhibition of a UFO that Yoakum claimed he saw from an airplane window in 1958. It carries an unmistakable resemblance to a Japanese temple.

There are landscapes of Vermont and Olympia, Washington; Syria and Route 66; Peru and Guantanamo Bay; Arizona and Siberia and Australia, but if you just squint a little, it all looks sort of alien. You could have put any of Yoakum’s landscapes on the cover of a sci-fi paperback in the ‘60s or ‘70s and no one would have asked if was another world.

Of course, it was another world.

It was his world. His artist friends — among them, Jim Nutt, Ray Yoshida and the Chicago Imagists — took his stories with a dose of salt. “Even now people often don’t think that he could have traveled to all the places he drew in these works,” Pascale said, “and though I believe that he did see a lot of these places, to me the bigger problem seems to be that audiences have a hard time separating fact from imagination. Here was a man who showed a tremendous feeling for the visceral experience of the world.”

For a while, Yoakum drew one world a day — day after day. For a decade, from his storefront apartment on East 82nd Street, he drew mountains, oceans, streams, forest expanses. Halstead, who began a book on Yoakum (but died himself in 1979, before finishing), figured that Yoakum drew at least 2,000 works during his short 10-year run as an artist. There’s evidence he made art before the 1960s, but every one of the drawings in the Art Institute exhibit were made after he was 71 years old. He died at 81.

Those landscapes, at a glance, look of a piece with the ‘60s, vaguely reminiscent of the animated “Yellow Submarine” film, or Peter Max’s iconic Dylan poster. Clean flowing lines puff into balloons of terrain. Which is a pretty unsatisfying description. It gets nothing of the etherealness, the same off-handed menace in many children’s books. Mountains, steamships, rivers — everything looks compacted, the geography flattened, every country scene reduced to ant farms, every set of rolling hills closer to rolling tides.

Everything looks fragile and fluid, unstable. His drawing of a cyclone has the twister sucking the land upward, as if someone were tugging violently at a tightly-made bed.

At a glance, Yoakum can even seem hip for his day, somewhat zeitgeisty.

Certainly, he rambled: He was a janitor, sailor, railroad porter, fireman, farmer; before retiring and collecting pensions, he operated an ice cream parlor on the South Side.

But Joseph Yoakum was also, in retrospect, what we now call “problematic.” Upon serving in World War I, he returned home and left his wife and five children. He remarried and later moved to Chicago. Though he was a Black artist at the peak of the Black Arts Movement, he sought no relationship with the Black Arts Movement, the civil rights movement or other Black artists. Yet his mother was born into slavery. Many of his eight siblings died young. His father, though, claimed Cherokee ancestry. In fact, Yoakum nicknamed himself “Nava-Joe” and insisted he was Native American himself. He told friends he could get higher prices for his art if he identified as Native American.

Also, of his handful of portraits included in the Art Institute exhibit, there’s a drawing of a white woman, likely traced from a Breck Girl shampoo ad. He titled it “Ella Fitzgerald.”

“Yeah, I have a problem with Joe,” said Faheem Majeed, the acclaimed Chicago artist and curator who included Yoakum in “Post Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980-2016,” a 2016 exhibition at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in River West. “Joe was a cranky old man. Joe didn’t sound too pleasant. To be honest, he was my least favorite artist in that show. And the more I read about him, the more I had that reaction. He was a self-hating Black man — how do you not engage with the South Side at all? Putting black names on white portraits — maybe, if his standard of beauty is white, that’s someone thinking he’s honoring a subject, or it’s just ‘You’re ugly, white is beautiful.’”

In the next breath, Majeed adds:

“But I also think Joseph Yoakum was a genius, and I think my initial reaction was more about myself. Think of what he had to deal with, coming up out of the South at the turn of the century. His story, I think, is as important as his art. Everyone who says differently, I’d disagree. On the other hand, I did step back, I looked at the work again. Here was a man who was able to create a control a universe of his own, when he had no control.”

Partly because Yoakum came out of a marginalized community in a poor neighborhood, the work can be shuffled into that self-taught strain of homegrown art crudely called outsider art. Certainly, he checks a few stereotypical qualifications. He was religious. He created a lot of similar pieces at a feverish pace. He trained himself. He was thought to have been exploited and therefore helpless — a skeptical Chicago Tribune story in 1972, run just before he died of cancer, was headlined “Portrait of the Artist as a Luckless Old Man.” Yoakum can seem naive, Majeed said, “but there’s a confidence to set him apart.”

Unlike a lot of so-called outsider artists, Yoakum actively sought to sell his art. He worked fast but he also made preliminary pieces before committing to final drawings.

He did not operate in a vacuum.

“Joe really had been exploited by a gallery,” Pascale said, “but there was also a tremendous interest in technical finesse and a consistency to his lines that’s poetic. Depending how woke you want to be, ‘outsider’ is considered pejorative to works like this.” He first encountered Yoakum’s drawings as a professor at School of the Art Institute; as a curator at the museum, he had been advocating for a large-scale exhibition for 25 years. He has even helped some of Yoakum’s drawings find a home. So now, the Art Institute owns at least 225 drawings by Joseph Yoakum, and MoMa owns around 10.

“I think Joe had a sense of his own work being autobiography, and so as far as I’m concerned, he wrote a novel — a picture novel — and he played the main character.”

“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” runs through Oct. 18 at Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-443-3600 and

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