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Joseph Yoakum

American, 20th century.
Born 1890, Missouri; died 1972, Rock Island County, Illinois.


Joseph Elmer Yoakum was an enigmatic American Outsider Artist greatly admired by Chicago artists in the 1960s, who first saw his drawings hanging in the window of the South Side storefront that was home. Yoakum was born in 1890 in Ash Grove, Missouri, although he claimed to have been born on a Navajo reservation. Of African-American, Cherokee Creek, and European ancestry, his only connection to Navajo people was through the family who had adopted his aunt. His life and legacy is marked by mystery, due to his love of travel and adventure, and scholars have faced the problem of discerning fact from fantasy when studying his haunting, exotic landscapes.

After traveling the world with several circuses, as a stowaway, and as a soldier in World War I, Yoakum settled down to married life. He started to draw intermittently in the 1950s. After he moved to Chicago in 1962, he started to paint using a process he called "spiritual unfoldment," through which images revealed themselves to him as he drew.

Yoakum drew with lead and color pencils and ink pens, and painted in watercolor, using common cotton swabs as a blending device. His mountainous landscapes are mesmerizing and appear alive with the faces of spirits. His fascination with Native American art--especially of Navajo and Northwest Coast peoples--informed his flattened, stylized compositions. He was also inspired by photographs he found in travel magazines. Despite these influences, his intuitive mode of working is quintessentially Outsider. Yoakum was recognized during his lifetime with an exhibition at the Ed Sherbyn in 1968. He passed away in 1972, and was honored the same year with a solo show at the Whitney Musuem of Art in New York City.

Jenifer P. Borum


Selected Exhibitions

2013, Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

2013, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

2006, Inner Worlds Outside, traveling exhibition, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundacíon "La Caixa," Madrid; WhiteChapel Gallery, London; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

1992, Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

1989, Animistic Landscapes: Joseph Yoakum Drawings, Janet Fleisher Gallery, Philadelphia

1988, Joseph Yoakum: A Survey of Drawings, University of California, Davis

1982, Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

1979, Outsiders: An Art Without Precedent Or Tradition, Hayward Gallery, London 

1972, Joseph Yoakum, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1968, The Picture Tells the Story: The Drawings of Joseph E. Yoakum, INTUIT: The Center For Intuitive And Outsider Art, Chicago

Selected Collections

Akron Art Museum, Akron
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art, Milwaukee
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Elmhurst College Art Museum, Elmhurst
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Selected Bibliography

Inner Worlds Outside
, exhibition catalogue, Fundacíon "La Caixa," WhiteChapel Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art & Ediciones El Viso, Madrid, 2006.

Carlano, Annie, Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003. 

DePasse, Derrel B, Travelling the Rainbow: The Life and Art of Joseph E. Yoakum, Museum of American Folk Art, New York, 2001.

Allison, Diane, "Joseph Yoakum at the Beginning," Raw Vision, #16, Fall 1996.

Tuchman, Maurice and Carol S. Eliel, eds., Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1992.

Morris, Randall and John Ollman, Animistic Landscapes: Joseph Yoakum Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Janet Fleisher Gallery, Philadelphia, 1989.

Joseph Yoakum: A Survey of Drawings
, exhibition catalogue, University of California, Davis, 1988.

Livingston, Jane, John Beardsley, and Regenia Perry, Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, published for the Corcoran Gallery of Art by the University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1982.

Outsiders: An Art Without Precedent or Tradition, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1979.

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