Forrest Bess
By Barbara Haskell, Curator
Whitney Museum of American Art
October 7-December 13, 1981

orrest Bess was a visionary painter. He derived his images from dreams and from a private symbolism based on obscure sexual references. Bess believed the unconscious capable of apprehending the abstract patterns and movements underlying natural phenomena, and he sought to capture this "reality" in his work. Throughout his mature years he kept a notebook at his bedside in which he drew—for later translation into oil—the visions that appeared to him between waking and deep sleep. "I close my eyes and paint what I see on the insides of my eyelids," he once remarked. To Bess, these "ideograms," as he called them, conveyed universal meanings transmitted from one generation to another through the unconscious (see Selected Lexicon of Symbols). He felt himself merely a conduit, claiming not to know at times what his images meant until years later. "I do not feel responsible for my work," Bess wrote in 1951. "I was only a conduit through which this thing, whatever it was, flowed. . . . I have copied [my dreams] faithfully without elaboration."

Dedication to Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 1946
Stimulated by his readings of Jung's theories concerning the symbolism of the unconscious, Bess developed a curiosity about his own abstract images. In Bess' study of mythology, alchemy, archaeology and religion he perceived the recurrence of many of the symbols in his own work; he became obsessed with investigating the mystery of this universal language. Eventually he concluded that this shared symbology held the key to the alchemists' quest for eternal life. Unlike others—Jung and the alchemists, for example—who had considered these images only in spiritual terms, Bess applied a physical interpretation to them. Beginning in the early fifties he came believe he had discovered the secret of immortality—androgeny, the conjunction of male and female, through actual physical transformation. Believing in the magic of symbols to stimulate the unconscious, Bess felt he could communicate this secret through the depiction of pertinent symbols; a vocabulary of images relating to his own interpretation of how this life-prolonging union of opposites might physically be effectuated appeared frequently throughout his work.

Bess' theory of androgeny and its attendant symbology arose from his anxieties and attitudes about his own sexuality and what he saw as dichotomous aspects of his personality—a polarization manifested in the sensitive, gentle painter on the one hand; the rugged, liquor-drinking fisherman on the other. During the fifties, he became fanatical about disseminating his theory of immortality: he advocated uniting male and female by means of a surgically produced fistula into the male urethra, which made possible urethral orgasm. Bess propounded his theory tirelessly both in letters and in conversation. Eventually, when it proved resistant to acceptance, he felt he had to involve himself physically; beginning in 1960 he underwent a series of operations in an attempt to prove the validity of his hypothesis.

Bess' painting career began when he was twelve and spanned more than six decades. He grew up in the oil fields of Texas, the roughneck son of an itinerant oil laborer. Inspired in part by the fantasy painting of his maternal grandmother, he became interested in art as a child. To appease his father, however, he studied architecture—considered a more masculine pursuit—while attending first Texas A & M University and then the University of Texas. He dropped out in his junior year and went to Mexico, where he remained intermittently for four years, painting in an expressionist style with thickly impastoed paint and dark colors. He returned to the United States during World War II and served in the Army Corps of Engineers, rising to the rank of captain before acknowledging that he could not reconcile the conflicting aspects of his personality—masculine and feminine—in such a world.

Untitled, No. 5, oil on canvas, 1957
Following a year of painting in San Antonio, in 1947 he moved to his family's bait camp on Chinquapin Bay, on the southeastern coast of Texas. Seven years later his father died and his mother moved to nearby Bay City. Bess remained at the camp for the next twenty-seven years, making his living fishing for shrimp which he sold as bait. His house—a ramshackle barge turned upside down and covered with tar and shells for insulation—was located on a spit of land reachable only by boat an the Intracoastal Waterway. Conditions were rugged, and Bess often lacked money even for food: at times he would sell paintings for as little as ten dollars in order to buy food and supplies. The physical demands of fishing left little time to paint; consequently Bess' entire oeuvre consists of only one hundred works.

During the lean years he found solace with a few friends—in particular Harry Burkhart and his friend Jim Wilford; Mary and Earle Ludgin; and Betty Parsons. Parsons gave him a one-man show in 1949 followed by shows in 1954, 1957, 1959, 1962, and 1967. Despite her encouragement and the enthusiastic support of Meyer Schapiro, Bess' work received little notice during his lifetime except from fellow artists. After his last show with Parsons in 1967, his reputation went into virtual eclipse. He became increasingly eccentric in the early seventies, during the time when his rhinophyma, a nodular swelling of the nose, was becoming more pronounced; after a brief period in a mental hospital, he was admitted to a nursing home in Bay City. He died there on November 11, 1977, a victim of skin cancer exacerbated by long hours in the sun.

What Bess left was a body of richly poetic works unequivocally derived from his inner being. Yet despite the specificity of his iconography, the impact of Bess' paintings does not depend on deciphering his pictorial vocabulary; rather, it rests on the power of his visual images to evoke universal responses quite apart from the paintings' obscurely personal origins. Their directness and authenticity speak to the art of today. Creating an idiosyncratic symbolism which is simultaneously personal and universal, and exploiting expressive paint surfaces are pictorial achievements shared by many of today's artists. Meyer Schapiro, in his essay for Bess' retrospective exhibition at the Betty Patrons Gallery in 1962, called him a "real visionary," not inspired by "texts of poetry or religion but moved by a strange significance of what he alone has seen."

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