Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw
November 21, 2021 – March 19, 2022
This conversation for the Brooklyn Rail’s New Social Environment series brings together several people connected to the recent exhibition of drawings by the self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition represents a landmark in contemporary efforts to bring to a wider public the work of this remarkable American artist. Esther Adler is associate curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at MoMA. She co-organized the exhibition with Mark Pascale, the Janet and Craig Duchossois Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Randall Morris is a writer and co-owner of Cavin-Morris Gallery, with its long history of commitment to promoting the work of self-taught and outsider artists. Morris was an early commentator on Yoakum’s work. Lyle Rexer has written extensively on self-taught and outsider art in several books and numerous articles.
Lyle Rexer (Rail): I’ve been waiting for this show for decades, and I was especially interested to have Randall Morris as part of this discussion because he wrote a short piece for an exhibition catalog back in, I think 1989, with John Ollman for the Janet Fleisher Gallery, and that was the first piece I read about Yoakum’s work. It was called “Animistic Landscapes,” and I’ve been thinking about Yoakum ever since, trying to understand what it was I was seeing, and why this work is so important, so special.
I wanted to start on a personal note for all our guests. I’m interested in your individual reactions to the work. How did you come in contact with it? It’s not work that everybody knows. In fact, even people in the art world who are quite experienced, probably many of them will never have seen the work before. So can you recollect or generally talk a little bit about your initial experiences with the work? What struck you about it? Why was it worth committing to?
Randall Morris: I think there was sort of a perfect wave around the year 1980. We got Bert Hemphill’s folk art book; there was the show at the Corcoran of Black Folk Art, and also we had begun a friendship with John Ollman. And I actually got to handle the work for the first time. I realized that if I could understand and know what Joseph Yoakum’s work meant, then it would be a door to understanding a lot of other things about our field in general because on the surface he seemed back then to be the most cryptic. So I approach Yoakum’s work from two directions: as works of African American spirituality, and as masterful examples of American Art Brut. And it was really interesting to me to find out where his work fit in the crossroads of those two things. I mean, it began with a bang.
Rail: Yeah, me too! [Laughter] Mark, you’re in Chicago. There’s a lot of talk about Yoakum as a “Chicago artist.” I’m interested in your connection to his work and how that struck you, especially as a drawings curator.
Mark Pascale: My first experience of it was in 1979, as an artist visiting at the School of the Art Institute. I began using the Study Center for Prints and Drawings in the museum for personal enrichment, and was introduced to the work by Sam Carini, the legendary impresario for the collection (he was a curator). I returned to the boxes of undated Yoakum drawings throughout the 1980s, discovered more about the artist and Whitney Halstead, the professor who had given the majority of the drawings to the museum, coincidentally in 1979 (I didn’t study at the school, so I didn’t know about him). The freshness of Yoakum’s line and invention are what struck me. After becoming a curator in 1990, I made it one of my missions to celebrate these “assets” owned silently by the museum, and organized an exhibition of 100 drawings in 1995, but had to wait until now to restage an exhibition and publish a book with Halstead’s incomplete text, properly published.
Rail: Yoakum’s work is in MoMA’s collections, so of course you encountered it there, Esther.
Esther Adler: MoMA has a long—often problematic and sometimes lovely—history with self-taught artists and their work. So that part of the collection has always been interesting to me, and the drawings department is actually where a lot of that material lives. In some ways I was primed to be aware of this material, but I also just really love highly worked drawings.
So between Yoakum’s incredible mark-making ability and the fact that the work was not typical, it was very attractive to me.
Rail: You know, it raises a question for me: why Yoakum now? I mean, this work has been around since 1970, or since the ’60s. Why now? Does Yoakum have something to say to us that we need to pay attention to, particularly at this moment, sort of historically speaking? Do any of you have thoughts about that?
Adler: Well, from my perspective—and in terms of the thinking we’ve been doing about MoMA’s programming—Yoakum is someone who’s engaged with key issues that he didn’t necessarily speak forthrightly about during his own life, issues like the natural world and personal identity. Obviously, there was a whole lot of information about his working process, which is something we’re always looking at closely with our conservators. So there were a lot of things that felt extremely relevant to our moment, and hadn’t been considered with the full weight of an institution that’s set up to really stick all this stuff under the microscope. Mark’s amazing conservators at the Art Institute looked at probably every single drawing in this catalog to figure out what kind of paper, what kind of pastel—there was all this really specific information that helped shape the way we perceived how Yoakum was working, and the magnitude of his dedication to the work.
Rail: I want to come back to a lot of those things you’re talking about, ways of working in particular, materials we see in the show, things like the notebooks, which are absolutely essential to understanding who he was, how he worked, what he was thinking. But I want to go back to Randall for a minute. I’m just curious about your sense of the moment for Yoakum?
Morris: Well, I think it’s actually a golden moment in the field right now, in that there are people interested in this work who have never been interested in it before. It’s sort of a perfect wave of things going on again, and with a lot of it, we’re starting to realize that there is not a lot of scholarship in the United States that is up-to-date. There’s a lot more in Europe. We’re starting to see these things in perspective. There haven’t been a lot of amazing discoveries in the US in the last few years. So we’re starting to look at what’s already there and realize that it goes beyond what we’ve already known about it. In terms of the exposure that the work is getting, it’s natural that more people are going to be interested in it, and that it’s going to attract scholars. There’s also the fact that we don’t really know a lot about many of these artists. I mean, you can have a million formal and biographical things about Bill Traylor or Martín Ramírez, but ultimately there’s still mysteries remaining. And it’s those mysteries that make the whole thing interesting. It is a new language.
Rail: When we talked about Ramírez a couple of weeks ago, we alluded to some of the problems of interpretation in that regard, that it’s been too easy, especially with Yoakum, simply to say that he’s a sui generis artist, that there’s no one like him, that he exists in his own world. I think the catalog and the show have gone an enormous distance in beginning to overturn that. But I have another question specifically for Mark.
One of the things that the show tries to do is place Yoakum as a kind of Chicago artist, and there are a number of essays in the catalog that deal with different aspects of that—let’s call it his identity or part of his identity. Mark, I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about Chicago, and that environment, both how it might have shaped Yoakum at all, if it did, and about the ways in which his work began to circulate in that place.
Pascale: I can’t say that Chicago had any effect on Yoakum as an artist. He seems like he arrived fully formed. He moved here from other places, and resided here towards the end of his life. However, his reception was very much made possible by his presence in Chicago, in part because Chicagoans in general were highly sensitive to being receptive to what he had to offer as a unique vision. That goes all the way back to Jean Dubuffet delivering his Anticultural Positions lecture at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1951. There were artists present at that lecture. The so-called Hairy Who artists were not old enough yet, but their predecessors were, and Whitney Halstead, who was their professor, was there. And so I think that the kind of training that they got, which was very open-ended and didn’t rely entirely on the Art Institute’s collection, that is to say, largely Western art, was embedded in them. So when they saw the work, they were prepared.
I mean, they all were working on a kind of interior image that they tried to conjure, and they had a lot of training. When they saw Yoakum’s work they thought, “Here’s a guy who’s just doing it.” And so they were very attracted, and they encouraged it. And they encouraged other people to be interested in it. And I think it kind of blew out from there. So I wouldn’t call Yoakum a Chicago artist necessarily, but the story is very focused in Chicago, because that’s where people discovered him.
Adler: I’ve been fortunate to work with Mark, and a number of colleagues at the Art Institute, on projects focused on artists who came up in Chicago in the early part of the twentieth century. There are what appear to be clear lines drawn in Chicago that often stand as a perfect example of what’s going on across the US. It’s just easier to parse out communities and the way communities intersect or don’t intersect at various points through that lens. So for me that interest in Chicago as a microcosm of what’s going on elsewhere has been critical. Yoakum was essentially living and working in what’s now the part of the South Side that Theaster Gates is developing—in this really storied African American community where there’s so much creative energy at the exact moments that Yoakum is there, but that he’s seemingly unaware of. And yet the people closest to him are these incredible artists coming from other parts of Chicago, but these two communities have no intersection.
So that thought of seeing how you could have two incredibly driven creative groups of artists who had no idea what was going on, you know, in each other’s communities, even in the same city, was interesting, and to think about Yoakum as an additional layer too, as someone who’s in neither of those camps, but also kind of existing between them was really interesting.
Morris: You could see it also as Chicago was his home, but the South was his homeground (one word the way I use it). I think you have to make a differentiation there. And you know, I always wondered, what if there had been a Black imagist to speak to Yoakum and how might that have changed things? But I think also in this country—I mean, you see it in Columbus, you see it in Georgia—whenever you have universities and art programs in universities, you can almost draw circles around those universities, and see the artists that are sort of in the environs of those universities. It’s a natural phenomenon. And I think Chicago wasn’t too different. But I think Yoakum very much related to his African American homeground, more than he did to what was going on in Chicago, per se.
Rail: And that comes up as problematic in the catalog, but I wanted to make reference to something that you both mentioned, and that is this idea of the outsider, and within very specific communities. It seems to me, if we talk about Columbus, or Chicago, the educated artists working in those milieus, usually connected with universities, may have a sense of their own outsiderness, their distance from the centers of cultural production that, in a sense, encourages them to think a little bit more openly about who their artistic community is. But we’re in a different time now because the art world is so globalized. Students learn the same things whether they’re at the School of Visual Arts in New York or the Art Institute of Chicago, or in San Francisco. That idea of artists—especially trained artists—thinking about themselves in relation to these very unusual people like Yoakum and making a connection that I keep thinking otherwise might not have been made, that is a story that needs to be told.
We can talk about it being a very selective enfranchising done by, essentially, middle class, usually white artists who have in a sense brought into the fold artists who are usually artists of color, who were not being recognized, who were in some sense in different communities. Is that problematic now? Or can we begin to think about all these things in ways that are a little more productive?
Adler: What’s important for me is actually to take the judgment out of it and to look just very frankly and factually at what the relationships are. I was in a panel recently for the American Folk Art Museum, and I spoke about Yoakum and Valerie Cassel Oliver spoke about Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Jennifer Jane Marshall spoke on William Edmondson. That all of these artists of color were “discovered” by white patrons isn’t quite the right word. We had a discussion about the ways in which that affected both the artist and the reception of the work. For me, in Yoakum’s particular case, it’s not all about race; the key characteristic of Yoakum’s discoverers is that they were artists. They weren’t dealers. To me, that’s a critical difference, which is not to say that any kind of involvement of a market or money is wrong. Certainly it isn’t. Sister Gertrude Morgan’s work was promoted by a dealer whose efforts enabled her to make a living and essentially support herself through her work. So I think it’s important to lay out what the dynamics are, and then, if possible, to talk to either the artist or in the absence the artist, the person on the other side of that, which is also something we were really fortunate to be able to do in this case.
Pascale: Well, actually, Yoakum’s work was presented by a dealer after it had been in a coffee shop or a coffee house. But that arrangement soured because of his misunderstanding of the way that relationships with dealers and artists work. In this case, the dealer got Yoakum to sign an exclusive contract, which he didn’t realize he was doing, and then when he started selling out of his storefront there was a problem between Yoakum and the dealer. In the end, the only way Yoakum could get out of this contract was to forfeit what he said was about $15,000 worth of his drawings. So without that relationship, and of course with the kind of distrust that that generated, Yoakum relied heavily on the artists to help him get the work out of his studio and out of Chicago into other places. And that’s what they did. They benefited from it from the standpoint of discounts; he gave them discounts, he offered them a percentage. None of them wanted to be a dealer. So there is a kind of commercial part to the story, but it ends pretty quickly.
Rail: That misunderstanding of the relationship between art and commerce is probably not something that’s specific to Joseph Yoakum. How about all of us, in this case! [Laughter] But I’d like to shift topics and explore the kind of artist he was, or thought he was. The thing that struck me first about his work is that he gives us a kind of travelog of the world. He claimed to have visited all the places that he drew. If you look for photographic confirmation of these places, you may well be barking up the wrong tree. But I’m very interested in what he was thinking. What is the role of specific places in his work? As a matter of fact, I’m interested in your sense of this whole idea of travel and identifying specific locations, which is kind of what his work is all about. What was he really after in his mental traveling?
Morris: There’s two ways to look at this question. One is the infrastructure that the non-artists build around the artist, and then on the other hand, there’s the information that comes from and is about the actual artist. What has been left out with Yoakum up till now was the non-infrastructure aspects. If you go into the context of the culture that Yoakum grew up in, you get more of the answers to these drawings. Number one, in Halstead’s book he mentions that his mother was an herbalist and a doctor; she was also an ex-slave. Now, “doctor” in hoodoo is a word for someone who heals, works with herbs, and probably was a midwife. He grew up with that kind of consciousness and that consciousness has to do with a sense of place. What that became later on is what we call the “yard show” and what I call the “spirit yard,” where there’s a post-Emancipation sense of owned land, and land symbolically representing the culture. I don’t think Yoakum ever rejected his African American background; I think that deflection is different than rejection.
Rail: I agree with that one hundred percent.
Morris: He deflected as a way of dealing with it. It was easier to speak of himself as a Native American than it was as a Black person to white people. I have a question that leads into the rest of my answer on this: did he title the drawings after he drew them?
Pascale: That’s what all of the artists who I’ve spoken to who knew him said, and in fact, we have quite a few works from Whitney Halstead’s collection that do not have titles.
Morris: I find that really significant. That means that in a sense, these are visions, they are active visions, whether they’re dreams or visions—whatever words are used for them—they serve as almost mnemonic devices for these visions, and for these purposes, and then he names them. To continuously try to match them up with their titles, I think, is really irrelevant. He had maps, and all those guides. I think for him the titling was secondary, but the drawings themselves I think come from the context of this African Atlantic religion that was a major part of the South, and is now desacralized and known as hoodoo, but was a lot more important when he was growing up. It is about the fusion of land and self. The human as a part of and extension of Place. It was interrupted by slavery, and the spirit yards and art were part of the process of putting it back together again.
Adler: Randall’s comments are dead-on. Coming at these aspects from MoMA’s perspective has been a challenge because we have to recognize the spirituality and the faith that underlies these works, and that’s not typically something we bring to our galleries, which are historically, to a certain extent, seen as secular places. Finding a way to channel that in a way that allows our visitors to connect with it is really important.
For me, both that naming of place, and the insistence that he had been to these places is also caught up in the idea of legacy formation. This is the artist at the end of his life deciding how he wants to be perceived, the record he wants to leave about his life, and a way of almost claiming agency. And I always say, you have to go with him in order to really connect with the work, you have to believe what he’s telling you.
Pascale: Yeah, that’s why I like to say that the picture tells the story, and even without the title, you get it. I agree with Esther, and I think Randall’s dead on with his rationale for the relationship between picture and text. And I guess my entry point into these drawings is always to see them laid bare and there’s one work, an untitled drawing in blue ballpoint pen, that I’d like to discuss. It’s a free sheet. And it’s the kind of really beautiful, crappy stationery that he liked drawing on. It has a kind of fake linen texture. I’ve gone back to this drawing over and over and over again, because it really represents when people say, where did he start? How did he start? How did the drawing progress? I think this is how they started. And I think that’s the reason why Whitney Halstead kept it rather than throwing it out.
It gives us all the evidence we need to understand Yoakum’s feeling for the space of a piece of paper, the way that things came together and were embellished with pattern and other kinds of marks. This is the start of all of the projects right here. It has pockets; it has linearity; it has undulation; it has a movement. It’s just everything except for a title. And that is why I’ve always thought that the titles are important, but at the same time they’re misleading.
Rail: Yeah, I felt the same way about the notebooks. They were a total revelation of origins for the drawings. Now I want to complicate our discussion even a little more, if possible. Can we talk about The Cyclone that Struck Susanville California in 1903? Esther, you were talking in terms of location or geography and his taking ownership, which I think is intriguing. Randall, you were talking about a kind of spiritual realization of place. And these are, as you said, vision drawings, where it’s not about the places particularly but about a kind of evocation or experience that the artist is rendering.
Now, I don’t know if there was a cyclone in Susanville, California in 1903. I have no idea. But I know what this picture is about, and I wonder if you would comment on this drawing specifically, and its energy and about the fact that it appears to deal with an historical event.
Morris: What I learned from Robert Farris Thompson and later Grey Gundaker and Judith McWillie was this idea of the “yard show.” Freed slaves were given property, and then it was basically taken away by Jim Crow and for many other reasons, but place became extremely important. And the yards of these houses became abstract vessels of remembrance. Very symbolic things were placed in the yard, and they were mostly about remembrance. They were also about self-aggrandizement, about amuletic behavior and things given, so in a sense, these drawings are his vehicles of remembrance. I find it totally legitimate that there will be some real places that go through his mind as well as the visionary things. I mean, he’s not going to be on all the time—not every Jimi Hendrix solo was a killer—but I think it keeps coming back to remembrance and remembrance gaining its energy from the land and from place. I don’t think he ever lost that.
Adler: That’s beautifully said, Randall. Also, it’s interesting that where the cyclone appears to be hitting feels like it would be the yard of the structure being destroyed. For me, this is a perfect example of Yoakum’s disdain for mankind wrecking nature and the beauty of the natural world. You have this structure that’s being swept off to the side by incredible forces, which in theory are dark and destructive, but don’t necessarily feel that way in this drawing.
Rail: I agree with that. There’s something—I hate to say celebratory—but it’s a profound recognition that what’s happening in a picture like this, it’s actually no different from what’s happening in other landscapes, in other places. Let’s consider Grizzly Gulch Valley, Ohansburg Vemont. This work has those two energies that we’re talking about, a kind of energy of the line that epitomizes the landscape or embodies Yoakum’s sense of what places are all about, and then the natural forces that can be unleashed. It seems to me that those form a unity. Mark, what can you tell us about the spiritual dimension of the picture?
Pascale: You’re asking the wrong guy, Lyle, I’m an atheist. But what I would say about this picture is that there is an astonishing level of comparison between the liquid nature of water, and what he does with the landscape. He’s got it reversed, the landscape is liquid, and the liquid is stable. It’s just fabulous and bizarre in every way.
Morris: It’s also where the animism comes in. The basic tenet of animism is that a stone is alive. So with his energetic lines, what he’s doing is breathing life into what we see as inanimate objects, but that he doesn’t necessarily see as inanimate.
Adler: I think for Yoakum in particular, what is so interesting is that you get this kind of earthly animism and spirituality in the land. But then he used really specific language, which everyone recognized was tied to Christian Science. I have met more practicing Christian Scientists than ever before in my life in the course of research for this exhibition. It is not a religion I knew very much about; people still mix it up with Scientology on a regular basis. It is just fascinating to me that everyone knew there was this connection, but we’ve never really dug into what that was.
Rail: I’m really interested in that as well. I think that artists are always looking for languages that are appropriate to what they’re doing, and I’m not just talking about visual languages. The more I think about Christian Science in the work, the more I recognize that Yoakum has done what many great artists have done, which is to borrow a vocabulary that suited his imaginative outlook. In a way he found the right words to title his pictures, and to get a sense of how or why they made sense. To me, that’s remarkable, and it also says a lot about where the work was coming from.
Morris: Isn’t it just as likely, though, that he had a liturgical interpretation of the world? That, as you say, the Christian Science book gave him the words for, but he also came from the Black church, and Black Christian Science isn’t going to be like white Christian Science. I mean, other than the use of the word “enfoldment” and the presence of that book in his room, how do we actually know that he was a Christian Scientist? Or did he just use the language? Because that’s what I think, that it gave him a mode of expression.
Adler: I think you’re right Randall. In order to be a Christian Scientist, you have to join the church. You have to become a member. There’s no evidence Yoakum ever did that. Frankly, I wonder just how much he was actually reading and using these texts. But I think there was a lot of popular Christian Science theory on the radio, and he lived near a Christian Science church. Lyle’s sense that he was taking what was useful, and applying it to the work where he found it useful, is more likely than him being a registered service attending member.
Morris: It’s similar to Bill Traylor late in life turning to Catholicism. You know, nothing in his work really indicates Catholicism, except there’s a couple of crucifixions. Sometimes these are just in the veneer and not in the depth.
Rail: Right, but it’s never entirely just in the veneer. It’s not totally opportunistic, you pick the things that resonate, and sometimes those things are deep, and sometimes they’re not. I want to bring up one more thing that’s been on my mind. And that’s the relationship between Yoakum’s work and the traditional Chinese painting practice called shan shui. I’ve been thinking a lot about work like this, especially in the context of our relationship to the natural environment, and the discussion around how artists engage that relationship. The Chinese tradition has a very different way of rendering the natural world than typical Western traditions. And I was seeing things that Yoakum was concerned with very much reflected in a quite different tradition of representation. One that’s much more spiritualized; one that functions through a series of commitments by the artist to very personal experiences of the landscape, and to memory—all the things that we’ve been talking about—so that it renders a kind of landscape that’s been processed through a spiritual and cosmological understanding.
Pascale: I’ve never really considered those connections, Lyle, but I think that you’re right. I think that you said the word that brought up the idea of cosmology to me, and I think that Yoakum’s drawings are filled with it. And there’s also a hierarchy within a lot of pictures in this tradition that allude to some of the ideas that you expressed. And I think that Yoakum’s drawings do the same thing. For him, it was something that happened very quickly, and almost innately. I mean, one of the questions we haven’t talked about is the question of his development. I’ve had this discussion with several of the artists and they all felt like he developed very quickly. He developed his language very, very quickly.
Rail: Like Van Gogh. Both of these artists produced their work in only a bit more than a decade.
Pascale: There’s an impulsive, inherent property, and I think it goes back to many of the things that Randall has offered about Yoakum’s connection to his life early on in the south, and his mother, and conjuring, and all of these other ideas—but it’s in him. The drawings are really a reflection of him. I think of them as a self-portrait, like an ongoing, epic self-portrait. And it’s because that’s what he had. You look at the pictures of people, and it’s a whole different game. So I think of the landscapes as people, but the person is him. Even the way that he designs them, you’re at ground level, at the bottom looking in, almost like a postcard. He’s inviting you, and he’s placing you in the same place that he is in.
Adler: I think Lyle’s comparison is incredible, and not the least because of the way that some of the ink washes and the change in tone in traditional Chinese painting also show up masterfully handled by Yoakum in his work. It’s also worth noting that Yoakum was committed to natural landscapes even though he was living predominantly in a kind of brick box in an urban environment. One of the most impressive things is just how different his works are, even with a vocabulary of like eight or nine different forms, and repeating locations. There is an incredible range of things he’s doing in the work, from a sense of breadth to a kind of endless changing and diverse world.
Morris: Consider the weeping pebble piece, Weeping Pebble of Sira Range on Lake Shasta in Nevada State. In a sense, that’s him actually adding a yard show element to the landscape. He puts the pebble in the landscape. I think that’s very significant to what you’re talking about, because it shows him interacting, finally, with that landscape also.
Rail: That’s fascinating. It keeps showing up in his drawings. One of the commentators on shan shui painting said, “pathways should never be straight. They should meander like a stream.” And there is this not-straightness about Yoakum’s world that opens up how we move into those pictures. And once we get there, I think it’s really important for us to examine how we feel, and maybe that’s what I’m looking for in terms of what Yoakum can offer us now, a way of looking at the world around us that forges a more intimate and comprehensive contact with it.