Over a late and brief career, Joseph Elmer Yoakum produced more than 2,000 immersive landscapes that chronicle the terrain of his nomadic youth with bold color and complex detail.

Called to art by spiritual means in the last 10 years of his life, Yoakum never formally studied drawing, instead relying on instinct to develop his style. His distinctive patterns and unconventional perspectives form uniquely personal views of familiar landscapes. His brief exploration of portraiture offers a simpler but equally distinctive approach to common subject matter, proving Yoakum’s inventive drawing practice was entirely his own.

Born in 1890 to a farmer and a housekeeper in rural Missouri, Yoakum ran away from home at an early age in search of travel and adventure. He joined the circus as a laborer and toured the United States by rail, becoming well versed in the fluid terrain of much of the western and central parts of the country. This occupation also facilitated his travel abroad to parts of Europe, Asia, and Australia. Eventually he returned to Europe, mainly France, as a soldier in World War I, before settling down in the United States. The scenery of these varied locations would remain in Yoakum’s memory and inform his later drawings.

By 1942 Yoakum had planted roots in Chicago and 20 years later he began making art, working briefly in ceramics before committing his focus to drawing. Yoakum’s eventual rise to acclaim was swift: six years into his artistic practice he had his first commercial show at Edward Sherbeyn Gallery in 1968, and over the next five years he showed his work at prestigious venues including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His poetic landscapes caught the attention of many artists who were inspired by Yoakum’s inherent style. One such admirer, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor Whitney Halstead, took a vested interest in the work, becoming Yoakum’s close friend and business facilitator for sales and exhibitions of Yoakum’s work.

An extensive exhibition of Yoakum’s drawings debuted at the Art Institute Chicago in 2021, with subsequent stops at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.

Text from Art Institute Chicago


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