Joseph Elmer Yoakum (1890–1972) was a self-taught African-American artist who claimed Native American ancestry. Though records show he was born in Missouri, he asserted that his birthplace was on the Navajo Reservation in Window Rock, Arizona, and repeatedly referred to himself “Na-va-JOE.” (He also said he was of African, French and Cherokee descent.) Invented or not, this heritage was arguably reflected in visionary landscapes populated by western-style mountains and deserts even when depicting places like the Florida Everglades. Yoakum had worked in various circuses as a young man, including a stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before eventually moving to Chicago. But it wasn’t until after he was briefly committed to a psychiatric hospital there that he began to draw regularly. He started out in the early 1950s and within a decade, his work began to attract the attention of the Chicago art scene, especially among a group of local artists that included Roger Brown, Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt. One month before Yoakum’s death in 1972, the Whitney Museum mounted a solo show of his work. This exhibition of 60 works on paper is his largest since then.
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