Categories in art can be confounding. The term “Impressionist” was coined by a Parisian critic to make a laughingstock of Claude Monet. Donald Judd, who is considered the consummate Minimalist, always rejected the label. The thorniest designation of all may be that of “outsider artist.” Just as the word “primitive” was once dismissively used to yoke together artistic geniuses who were not European, the category of outsider has an inherently lower-rung ring to it.
It also has a few loopholes. The Belgian trickster Marcel Broodthaers did not attend art school and lived in poverty until the age of forty, when he began to make art using scavenged mussel shells (among other materials); now, far from being pigeonholed as a self-taught artist, he is vaunted as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Conceptualists. Several major exhibitions in recent years—including “The Encyclopedic Palace,” at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” at the National Gallery, in 2018—have succeeded in eroding outmoded distinctions by presenting insiders and outsiders as artists of equal merit.
MOMA, like most long-standing art institutions, has had a complicated relationship to canonical hierarchies: in the mid-eighties, a blockbuster Modernist exhibition, which treated African, Oceanic, and American tribal art as little more than source material, stirred a controversy about colonialist curatorial attitudes that persists today in worldwide calls for museums to repatriate objects. But the museum has also been showing and collecting art by self-taught mavericks since the nineteen-thirties. In the spring of 1971, an eclectic group show at MOMA (on view in a members-only penthouse) introduced visitors to the radiant, otherworldly landscape drawings of Joseph E. Yoakum, an eighty-year-old Black Army veteran from Chicago, who had been making art for less than a decade.
Yoakum’s world is populated by countless trees, but tends to be untroubled by people—until you register that some of the rippling mountains and rocks are sneakily anthropomorphic. Their craggy surfaces open into elliptical caves whose placement can suggest an eye or a mouth, lined with copses rather than teeth. By the time that Yoakum’s landscapes were hanging at MOMA, his uncanny world had already captivated a close-knit group of recent art-school grads, figurative painters, some of whom called themselves the Hairy Who. (Now that’s a label.) One of them was so taken with Yoakum’s distinctive vocabulary of marks—dashes, close parallel lines—that he made a chart of them.
Yoakum died the year after MOMA’s show, at the age of eighty-one, but his drawings have returned to the museum in “What I Saw,” a riveting retrospective of a hundred or so indelible works on paper (on view through March 19th). What inspired Yoakum to put colored pencil and ballpoint pen to paper at the age of seventy-one? He said that his instructions arrived in a dream, and he described his drawings as “spiritual unfoldments.” What they unfold are the places he visited, both in his peripatetic younger days and in his imagination.
The show’s excellent catalogue includes a carefully researched chronology, confirming some biographical details of an artist with a fabulist’s gift for embellishment. Born in Missouri, in 1891, to a formerly enslaved mother and a father with probable Cherokee heritage, Yoakum, during his art-making years, identified himself as Navajo. He ran away from home at the age of nine to join the first of four travelling circuses, as well as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. By the time he turned eighteen, he was back home, working as a fireman, and starting a family. In 1918, he enlisted in the Army and, after basic training in Kansas, sailed from Canada to France to join the First World War, with an all-Black regiment which repaired railroads; two months into his tour of duty he was court-martialed for insolence (the racist implications are unmistakable). When the war ended, he left his wife and five children (he remarried around 1930) and worked a variety of jobs, from a factory worker in Iowa to a salesman in Florida, before settling down in Chicago, where he lived for twenty years, until he had his art-history-altering dream.
Trains and ships are frequent motifs in Yoakum’s drawings; as for the flying saucers that hover in his landscapes from time to time, the artist explained those with an anecdote about his only flight on an airplane, which, he said, was required to make an emergency landing in Arizona after being “buzzed” by aliens. (Somewhere a sleuthing art historian is even now likely consulting declassified government records.) As the artist told a reporter in Chicago, shortly before his death, “Wherever my mind led me, I would go.” In his final years, an artist born in the Jim Crow era chose absolute freedom.