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Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw



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.

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Waianae Mtn Range Entrance to Pearl Harbor and Honolulu Oahu of Hawaiian Islands, stamped 1968

Joseph E. Yoakum. Collection of Christina Ramberg and Philip Hanson

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.

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Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India, stamped 1969

Joseph E. Yoakum. Collection of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

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.

Installation Photo


Major funding for Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw is provided by an anonymous donor.

Additional funding is contributed by Mary H. and David Q. Bell and Fred and Susan Novy.

Support for the publication, Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw, is provided by Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan.


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