In Art on Paper James Yood writes that if Joseph E. Yoakum (1890–1972) had never existed, aficionados of self-taught, nonacademic, and intuitive art might have had to invent him. “His life and art fulfill so many attributes that devotees of the amateur visionary covet, supporting their credo that a professional careerist journey not only is unnecessary for artistic accomplishment but might possibly be antithetical to it. Yoakum, who claimed to be of African American and Native American descent, didn’t begin making the approximately two thousand drawings for which he is best known until 1962, when he was in his seventies. Having left home at the age of nine, he spent his lifetime traveling with a series of circuses, working on railroads, serving in Europe in World War I, raising and losing a family, spending a year in a veterans’ hospital as a psychiatric patient, hoboing around America and Canada while pursuing a series of odd jobs, and eventually settling in Chicago. Yoakum lived long enough to see the beginnings of the appreciation for his work that continues today; in the late 1960s some young Chicago artists who would become known as the imagists—Roger Brown, Ray Yoshida, Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, etc.—began to exhibit with him and purchase his drawings. As Brown put it, it ‘was like finding [Henri] Rousseau in our back yard.’
“It doesn’t matter much which places Yoakum actually saw, as all sites get similarly treated by him, with his penchant for oozing striated landscapes made up of idiosyncratically braided hills and repetitively patterned and flowing rivulets of rocks, trees, water, etc. It all looks pretty much the same: intense and determined while also curiously detached, pictures of a memory turning in on itself, occasionally gripped by a concept, a snippet of memory or fantasy, but more regularly slipping into the groove of habitual stylistic mannerisms.” Read more.
“The Picture Tells the Story: The Drawings of Joseph E. Yoakum,”curated by Mark Pascale. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago, IL. Through January 2010.
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