The Landscape of Eternity:
Travels Through Texas, With Forrest Bess
by Lucia Arbery Simek

It sometimes happens that even the person quite indifferent at home suddenly becomes alive to the animate world as soon as he gets out on the road.

—Roy Bedichek, Texas naturalist

very time we stopped for gas that first time I drove west through Texas, I choked up a quickie of a cry, overcome with self-pity and shame about the predictable nature of this narrative: A jilted woman on a Western-tilting road trip of indeterminate purpose. My first marriage was ending cataclysmically after my husband coolly revealed one evening his yearslong exit strategy. The slow fuse of his deceit and misery stretched across the whole terrain of our union, hidden beneath the scrub brush of daily life, detonating into a florid bouquet of clichés. He offered me the consolation that he'd think of me on his deathbed.

Expelled into a new reality, I put my three kids in the car and fled Dallas toward Wyoming, where we had never been but where my parents had become professors at a conservative Catholic college. My eight-year-old daughter read off printed directions as we drove through Quanah, the town named for the last great Comanche leader, Quanah Parker, who had been as savvy a businessman as he was a warrior and who had once blessed the place—"May the Great Spirit smile on you, little town, may the rain fall in season . . . and contentment be with your children forever." Now it was a string of dollar stores and understaffed fast food restaurants.

Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 1), 1957. Oil on canvas, 8 x 12-1/4 in. (20.3 x 31.1 cm). Courtesy Modern Art, London
We passed Amarillo, smelling its black masses of cattle for miles before we saw them in their pens. Then we pushed on through Dalhart, where we knew that somewhere close by a ramshackle RV held the archive of the late, great, Silver Age Marvel comic book letterer, Artie Simek, my children's great-great-uncle. Artie's daughter Jean had fled New York for the West Coast in a camper van years ago, but had broken down here on Highway 87 in the Texas Panhandle, had never left, and then had died, leaving the RV and the care of her father's effects—the whams and bams of America's superheroes—to a lover and half a dozen cats.

We spent that first night on the road in a shitty motel by the highway. I lay awake for hours as a cacophony of strangers' judging voices, guided by my husband's, rumbled through my head, making me fear that someone would break through the thin door and steal my children. I wadded up under the thin polyester coverlet and spooned around my little boy to protect him and myself. I thought of the circumstances that had led the father of these children not long beforehand to grow his hair into a pompadour and take up swimming laps at the YMCA.

As a child, I had struggled to fall asleep like this. Every night, I'd close my eyes and try to focus on the shapes and flashes that I perceived behind my eyelids— zigzags, constellations of blood vessels, the afterimages of whatever light leaked under the bedroom door. The practice was effective, and I'd soon doze off, the shapes I'd seen invariably segueing into dreams. The zigzags became the legs of mechanical spiders that ticked their way from the foot of the mattress up toward my pillow. The blood vessels became the paths of stars as I fell into a deep hole, like a well but as endless as space. Looking at the interior of my body was a way to ground the voices in my head, which, as soon as it grew dark outside, began to clatter and snarl—demons, angels, saints. Together and without allegiance for good or evil they would chastise and accost me as I got into my pajamas, brushed my teeth, said prayers with my family and got into my bed, my least favorite place.

The tormenting began when I was eight, after an innocent-enough though confusing physical encounter with a boy left me— knowing nothing about how reproduction worked—certain that I was pregnant. At the time, my mother was expecting my sixth sibling, our only brother, and I ran myself mad waiting for my stomach to begin growing like hers, outing me as the sort of sinner the stories of the virgin saints instructed us not to be, as recounted to us by our Sicilian grandfather, Bumpa.

In this catalogue of virgins (virgin saints are always women) was my namesake, the 4th century Sicilian, Lucia of Syracusa, patron saint of eyesight and sailors lost at sea, who is often depicted as a beautiful woman with her eyeballs in a dish and a sword through her throat. Having dedicated her body to Christ, so the myth went, Lucia refused the advances of a suitor, ripping out her own eyes rather than look at the man. Her furious suitor revealed her illegal Christianity to the Romans, and Lucia was sentenced to life in a brothel. But when soldiers came to drag her off to her clever punishment, they found they could not move her body—God had made her inordinately hard to lift. They tried lighting her on fire; she wouldn't burn. Eventually, a sword to the throat did the job, a detail I ponder when I've uttered something I wish I hadn't, which is often.

Forrest Bess posing nude, ca. 1955. Meyer Schapiro papers, 1949-1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
The worst of Bumpa's stories, and the one that made me the most sleepless, was that of the 20th-century Portuguese mystic Alexandrina of Balazar, who spent thirty years of her life in bed, paralyzed after jumping from a window to escape would-be rapists. While she was confined to her bed, Bumpa told us, Satan would visit and taunt her, throwing her around the room to demonstrate his hatred of her piety. Bumpa would show us terrifying photos of Alexandrina's frail body suspended and contorting in air. During her last thirteen years, Alexandrina ate nothing but the Eucharist—Christ's body in the form of a small round wafer, scored with the shape of his cross—and prayed for the chastity of young, unmarried women. She, letting nothing but God into her body, was the example we girls were meant to follow if we had any hope of heaven, inscribing in my mind a horrendous equation: purity + torture = eternal life.

We moved to Texas from New England when I was a teenager, and I started to watch a lot of Western movies, I think in an effort to replace the saintly legends that haunted me with different ones, the myths and heroes of Texas—simple good guys and bad guys in an arid landscape in which everything was laid bare. On the screen, I could track a rider in the distance and regard the scrawny trees and silhouetted figures that sought their shade as kin. I liked how little the depicted world offered: bare-minimum provision and the just-so touch upon the darkest things— betrayal, pain, death—along with the brightest—horses, men, biscuits.

Not much later, as a new, very young mother, home with a baby, feeling unseen and trapped, I found space in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and the Wild West that it described, its deceitful theater and its truth. I'd look out across the network of Dallas highways and concrete and imagine hills and prairies with cattle. For a time, it helped me see a landscape beneath the things that sat upon it. But this world beneath a world—a reality just out of sight—became little more than a new religion, and it wore me out. So when the time came to flee, temporarily, the summer that my marriage fell apart, I took it, fueled by a profound loathing of Texas and a paradoxical desire to actually see it, to be part of it.

There's a painting from 1950 by the Texan artist Forrest Bess, Untitled No. 44, that shows a golden, undulating prairie set against a gridded, red-black sky. At first, the prairie's hills seem like little solid mounds, but once the eye adjusts to the movement of Bess' brushwork, the mounds reveal themselves to be small caves, like bales of hay hollowed out to fit and hide some sleepy body passing through the field. I love beyond telling this painting's promise of safe shelter upon the land, its tender envelopment.

In another painting, this one from 1957, Untitled (No. 1), a line of magenta mesas sits against a striated pink-and-lavender sky. In the foreground stands an incongruous object like a lamppost, a radiant yellow oval atop a post, with what looks like the silhouette of a human head at its center. More than a lamp, the form resembles a monstrance, the ornate golden tool used in the Catholic Church for holding the Eucharist for the congregation to adore, the belief being that in doing so one literally sits with Christ. I have no way of knowing about Bess' awareness of Catholic ritual or whether it made its way into this piece, but the object's resemblance to a monstrance has always struck me as a sort of pun—some quip about an arid, virginal landscape and Christ's body standing erect upon it.

Forrest Bess, ca. 1951. Earle and Mary Ludgin papers, 1930-1983. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
All of Bess' paintings offer these sorts of puzzles and complex vistas. When I first saw a small group of them at Kirk Hopper's gallery in Dallas just before my marriage ended, I was struck by their roughness, a quality that I initially read as a cheeky aping of amateurism. But I was transfixed by their nubby, dense surfaces, their shoddy frames and the earnest, concentrated urgency they exuded. The more I looked at them, the more I believed their maker's belief in their purpose—the paintings as a kind of prayer.

When Bess went to New York for the first solo show of his paintings at Betty Parsons Gallery in October of 1949, he was briefly marooned upstate with some friends, having arrived too early to the city; his show was not scheduled until December. He wrote to Betty from Woodstock—where the trees were turning a riot of colors and the air was crisp—that he was desperate to return to his "treeless, dismal, uninteresting land" on the Texas coast, where he worked for his ailing father's bait-fishing business. He wanted, he said, to "tend to my crab traps and catch my fish and feel clean." He found his body greatly at odds with this leafy northern place and his usual suffering within his own skin thicker in displacement. Though Texas offers scant protection from the elements, Bess felt exposed in a more existential way in New York—seen and scrutinized by human eyes, which regarded him as a stranger—and crushed by the inescapable hug of the close-to terrain.

About his spartan life in Chinquapin, on the Texas coast, he once wrote: "It is funny, but I thought that it would be a project that would last just a month or two at the most—not years. But I found myself in love with this damn mosquito-infested swamp."

Bess had worked as an artist for a while in San Antonio but decided to settle permanently in Chinquapin, a little place accessible only by boat, without electricity or phone until the late 1950s. He'd gone there to help his father, but he had also gone to escape the burdens of a big-city art scene, detesting the constant art talk and interruptions in his studio. He wanted to be alone. Also—though it took him a while to admit it to anyone he loved—he was gay and wanted to avoid the dangers posed by his sexuality. Through error he had discovered that his sexuality was too masculine for the gay communities in Houston and San Antonio. He grew to feel as disenfranchised as he'd been in the army, from which he'd been dishonorably discharged after making a pass at another soldier, ending up in the hospital with a cracked skull.

In remote Chinquapin, Bess was alone enough to maintain his identity without threat of judgment or reproach, and he felt a connection to the land and to his family that surprised him. "I found my dad to be an altogether different person than I had known. Underneath his rough exterior and mannerisms I found a philosopher who had inherited from his father a theory of God in Nature, rather than God in church—a theory that I could accept." Photos of Bess from that time show a tall, attractive man smiling, holding fishing nets on a small boat.

But the isolation also left him disoriented: "I try to tell myself that only by breaking completely away from society can I arrive at a reasonable existence," he wrote to a friend. "This is far from being the truth. In doing so, I further block the sex urge and this, no matter how it looks, is not normal."

The suppression and subsequent social complexities exacerbated another aspect of Bess' life just as integral to his being: From the time he was a boy, he had been visited by visions that came to him in the liminal space before sleep. This oneiric landscape grew fertile, full of coded symbols that affected him so profoundly he recorded them in a bedside notebook as soon as he awoke. The symbols became a lexicon of his waking mind's perception of its own subconscious and also his guide to understanding himself and his paintings.

Forrest Bess, Here is a Sign, 1970. Oil on canvas, 15 1/2 x 11 5/8 in. (39.3 x 29.5 cm). Photo: Robert Glowacki. Courtesy Modern Art, London and The Museum of Everything, London
For years, he didn't understand what the visions meant, but his compulsion to paint them was absolute, deeply connected to his feelings about nature itself. As he told Parsons before the first painting show: "The canvas I paint is as close to what I saw as I could make it and I know when it has been truthfully followed [. . .] Betty, the feeling that they (the paintings) needed to be seen came from the same source as did the sense that there were shrimp in the bay—and they were where I had seen them."

Bess' development as a painter ran in parallel with increasingly anguished efforts to plumb a sense of his own body and fundamental being. He came to understand that his visions were urging him to an undertake an extreme act: the joining of the male and female sexes within him, a transformation of himself into a hermaphrodite. Such a unification, according to all of his studying and discernment, would grant him nothing less than immortality. His little paintings served, in fact, as a depiction of the search for this very unification of the sexes and freedom from death. Guided by conviction, Bess performed a series of botched at-home operations to create a "vaginal" opening at the base of his penis, above the scrotum. The ultimate goal was to find sexual partners to penetrate the opening and ejaculate into him, fomenting a kind of magic that he believed would reverse the aging process when the semen struck the inner wall of his body. To Bess, such coupling promised to tap into the deepest generative mysteries of the world, the strings at which sex plucks—desire, dreams, the human spirit and the animal one.

By the time he died in 1977 in a nursing home, his body had become a desiccated map. Its surface described a life lived in the sun: His nose was partially missing, claimed by cancer; the rest of his skin was discolored, pocked, leathery, consumed by alcoholism, making him look far older than he was, at sixty-six. His deep dimples, a fine attribute on his once-handsome face, held in parenthesis a mouthful of jagged yellow teeth, like ancient rocks, made lopsided by the constant grip they had kept on a pipe. His self-created sex organs, which he had once believed offered the promise of eternal life, only intensified the agonies that sped him toward death.


As I drove out of Texas that summer nine years ago and decamped to a red cabin facing a Chugwater bluff in the middle of Wyoming, I thought often of Bess. Broken by a network of betrayals—by my spouse, my religion, my own trust in everything I'd chosen—I found that his paintings provided some kind of balm, a consolation. A ravine below the cabin was laced by a creek in which the kids would bravely wade through freezing mountain runoff after coating their legs in mud. On our way back up, we'd spy in the thicket the corpse of a doe that my father had covered in lime, slowly vanishing into the dead grasses.

Bereft of words and too addle-brained to use my hands, I simply framed the world as I saw it, like Bess. In hundreds of quick videos and photos, I recorded every small indication of the earth hiding or withholding or spewing out or cramping up or giving in or cracking open: ants let loose from a log on fire, flies on manure, mud nests full of swallows high on a cliff, snakes beneath the porch, spiders in neglected sheds, June bugs in the mailbox, mayflies ascending from lifted wet towels, hot springs with phosphorescent algae, gold flecks in the river, a llama weeping, seashell fossils on a mountaintop, a horse's twitching flank, a burnt-black forest, Old Faithful right on time.


Lucia Arbery Simek is an artist, curator, writer and museum professional based in Dallas. She is at work on a book for Deep Vellum Publishing about the Texan landscape as read through the work of artists Forrest Bess, Myron Stout and Alberto Burri. She currently serves as deputy director at Dallas Contemporary.

This article originally appeared in Ursula, the art magazine of Hauser & Wirth. It has been reprinted here by permission of the author.

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