Joseph Yoakum and Roger Brown

| September 24th, 2013, 2:46 PM

2013 carnegie international jospeh yoakum

American artist Joseph Yoakum (1890–1972) is one of the 35 artists of the 2013 Carnegie International. The 57 drawings assembled in the Heinz Galleries represent a cross section of Yoakum’s vast body of work. The largest exhibition of his drawings in decades, it offers a unique opportunity to bring this “artist’s artist” back to broader attention. Admired by Vincent Fecteau, Sadie Benning, and many others, he was “discovered” and supported by a group of Chicago artists (also known as the Chicago Imagists). Lisa Stone and James Connolly of the Roger Brown Study Collection (RBSC) in Chicago forwarded me a letter by Roger Brown (1941–1997) from 1995 in which he describes how influential Yoakum’s work was.

“My experience of Joseph Yoakum was for me a very important part of a larger experience in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When I first saw an exhibition of Yoakum’s work in June 1968 I had just graduated with a BFA from the School of the Art Institute. I also had become part of a close knit group of friends—artists who knew we had developed our first mature works. Don Baum, director of the Hyde Park Art Center had asked us to take part in the fall season with a group show. Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, professors at the school who had influenced our work greatly were also very close friends to Eleanor Dube, Christina Ramberg, Phil Hanson, and myself. We younger students were enjoying the association of an older, more accomplished artist and art historian. We also had begun to attend the openings of the Hyde Park Art Center which were lively festive celebrations of art. The members of the ‘Hairy Who’ became our friends and we enjoyed social occasions at the home of Ruth Horwich, president of the Art Center. The things that were happening to us seemed to parallel what I had read about earlier artists who had become friends and had been part of a large social milieu of their own time. I could not help but think of the Impressionists, the Fauvists, the Cubists, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists. I thought of Gertrude Stein and I could not help but think of Dennis Adrian holding court in his own apartment stuffed with art and artists and elaborate tables of food and drink, or at soirees given by Ruth Horwich. This was an exciting and creative time for young artists who were just finding their own voices in the world of art.

That probably seems hard to believe now, but it was still a time of romanticism and idealism. Oh, there was satire in abundance as it has always existed in art, but cynicism had not yet become the rule of observation. It was still believed that art could provide the mysteries that are yearned for in what is becoming a totally, scientifically explained world.

Having just read The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck and his beautiful description and analysis of Henri Rousseau and his work I could not believe the appearance in our midst of Joseph Yoakum, Chicago’s own Henri Rousseau. It was history repeating itself. I lacked no confidence in our own importance in the world of art and here we had been handed this wonderful artist and his beautiful, lyrical drawings and paintings. I believe this man’s work had the same effect on all of us as Rousseau must have had on Picasso and the others of his generation.

How could someone with no training just start making art that was so superior to most of the art of the day done by trained artists? I’m sure Joseph Yoakum influenced all the artists in some way, but in no way caused anyone to want to imitate his style, or to try and become a “naïve” artist. Jim Nutt has said something to the effect that Yoakum gave him the liberty to express his own deepest and most secret inner voice. I think that is the best description of what Yoakum did for all of us as artists.”

—Roger Brown, letter to Mark Pascale, 1995, courtesy Roger Brown Study Collection (RBSC), Chicago

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