New York magazine
Not Looking For The End Of The World Image Credit: New York magazine
Not Looking For The End Of The World Image Credit: New York magazine

Not Looking For The End Of The World

A TROVE OF OVER 60 exquisitely beautiful, quasi-abstract coloured-pencil landscapes by Joseph Yoakum are emitting undulant optical auroras on Madison Avenue right now.

Jerry Saltz

Yoakum was born in Missouri in 1890 to a former slave mother and a Native American father. At age 10, he began working with Ringling Brothers, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and other railroad circuses as a horse handler and billposter. He served in France during the First World War and, over his life, worked as a miner, carpenter, shoeshine, janitor, and mechanic, as well as on farms and in a foundry, and traveled the world, including Asia and Australia. In 1962, already retired in Chicago, he had a dream and, at 72, began to draw. By the time he died ten years later, he had produced around 2,000 drawings— strange shapes that look like segmented islands and elephant skin, geologic maps and sedimentary core samples marked with nerve systems and erosion, protozoa and lava that seems to flow into clouds, claw configurations, and biomorphic jigsaw puzzles. All are glimmering with prismatic secondary colors. Things are depicted from all directions at once—from above, below, left, and right. You see the world at a great distance, maybe passing on a train, maybe remembered, maybe made up or in tunnel vision. They are people less places, yet people have been to, altered, or traveled through all of them. Yoakum wasn’t looking for the end of the world. As a Native American and black man, we see him always looking from a distance at a world he knows well but is never quite in or part of.

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