Forrest Bess Was a Fisherman by Day and Painter of Wild Visions by Evening. A New Present Explores His Legacy

The painter Forrest Bess (1911–77) lived most of his grownup life in a ramshackle home he constructed on a bayou in Chinquapin, Texas, a rural stretch of the state that straddles the Gulf of Mexico. In 1956, a author for the Houston Chronicle known as it “the loneliest spot in Texas.” A bait fisherman by commerce, Bess’s residence was accessible solely by boat, which means that clients and guests alike had been required to drive to the tip of the closest filth street and honk their horns till Bess may cross the water in his skiff to choose them up. The inventive legacy he left behind has for many years defied categorization and largely befuddled curators and establishments. 

From one vantage level, he was the consummate Outsider artist; he was even included within the celebrated 2018 survey “Outliers and American Vanguard Artwork” on the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork in Washington, D.C. And but, he was on the artist roster of the Betty Parsons Gallery, one of the crucial vital New York galleries of the twentieth century, which means he was in the identical secure as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Nonetheless, Barnett Newman, and Agnes Martin.

He was additionally formally educated—he studied structure in school, though he didn’t graduate. And we all know via his many letters, which had been donated to the Smithsonian Archives of American Artwork (and partially digitized), that he maintained deep relationships with historians, collectors, and different art-world figures, in addition to with teachers throughout the sciences, together with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. 

A portrait of Forrest Bess. Picture: Courtesy Josh Pazda Hiram Butler.

“I believe he by no means felt like he slot in, within the artwork world,” mentioned Martin Clark, director of the Camden Arts Centre in London and curator of “Forrest Bess: Out of the Blue,” on view on the museum from September 30 to January 15, 2023. The present options 50 of Bess’s work—virtually half of the just-over 100 recognized to nonetheless exist—in addition to a set of his letters, notebooks, and different ephemera. “He selected to place himself on the margins in several methods, however when you learn his letters, they’re very realizing.” 

In these letters, Bess described his youthful self as “a careless awkward child who was at all times on the skin wanting in. However the important thing factor was that he was a homosexual man in Texas,” Clark mentioned. “And although he got here out to sure buddies and to individuals he felt near—and he really wrote very movingly about his sexuality—he by no means discovered his place inside that both.”

Bess wrestled to sq. his queerness with a life that he noticed as in any other case conventionally masculine. This culminated in two surgical procedures he carried out on himself in an try to change into what he known as a “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” Bess wrote that he believed these surgical procedures may carry him immortality, although whether or not his phrases had been meant to be taken actually or figuratively is a matter of debate. He additionally possible hoped they might carry an finish to the interior disharmonry that had dogged him for therefore many a long time.

Forrest Bess, Untitled (The Spider) (1970), oil on canvas. © documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH Picture: Andrea Rossetti.

“There are, in my make-up, two distinct personalities,” Bess as soon as wrote. “Primary is the army engineer, the oil-field roughneck, the accomplisher of missions well-done. Quantity two is weak as a jellyfish, he suffers a lot, thinks deeply, and is sort of passive in nature. Primary was actuality, the oilfields, mud tents, battle. The opposite, the kid who hid within the sandbanks and spent the day watching clouds and gathering flowers.” 

The surgical procedures had been primarily based on an Aboriginal Australian custom that Bess studied, and his want to merge what he felt to be dissonant elements of himself was a hyper-literal tackle Jung’s principle of individuation, of which there is no such thing as a doubt that Bess was acquainted. 

He stored a scrapbook—most of which is now presumed to be misplaced—that he known as his Thesis, during which he wrote intensive notes and picked up medical texts and different types of historic analysis that aligned with this concept of reaching an enlightened state via gender non-dualism, or by merging the female and male elements of oneself. (Pages from the Thesis are on view on the Camden Arts Centre.) 

Forrest Bess, Crowded Thoughts / Untitled (The Void I) (1946/47), oil on canvas. © documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH. Picture: Andrea Rossetti.

He wrote a number of letters to Parsons in 1958 asking if he may exhibit the Thesis alongside his work in a present on the gallery, however Parsons rejected the thought, saying she “would relatively preserve it purely on the aesthetic plain.” A 2011 exhibition of Bess’s work, curated by the sculptor Robert Gober and displayed as a show-within-a-show on the 2012 Whitney Biennial, tried to rectify this, presenting some remaining Thesis pages in a vitrine alongside 11 work. 

Bess noticed the Thesis “as completely underpinning all the work he was doing,” Clark mentioned. And simply as notions of union and non-duality are on the core of practically each main non secular and mystical custom, the Thesis too facilities on “the thought of opposites coming collectively to supply a type of transcendent state,” the curator added.

When World Struggle II arrived, Bess enlisted within the army, the place he was tasked with designing camouflage. He served from 1941 to 1945, however after struggling a nervous breakdown, in addition to being brutally crushed with a lead pipe by fellow troopers who suspected him of being homosexual, he met with a army psychiatrist. Bess spoke of their assembly about “visions” he’d had with regularity since childhood, during which summary symbols would seem to him, and the psychiatrist inspired him to color them. In 1946, Bess found Jung’s psychological theories, which renewed his give attention to these kinds. 

“I by no means knew there was a clue to the understanding of my symbols till I ran throughout Jung unintentionally,” he wrote in a 1952 letter to collector Dominique de Menil. “Not solely have I discovered which means in my work, however I’ve been given one other dimension.” Bess described the symbols as “the language of the unconscious” which “comprises some historical sorcery.” He exchanged letters with Jung as properly, even mailing the famend psychiatrist a portray.

Forrest Bess, The Three Doorways (1959), oil on canvas. © documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH. Picture: Andrea Rossetti.

And in contrast to many different members of the Parsons gallery roster, Bess didn’t view himself as an motion painter or an Summary Expressionist. His work was not involved with improvisation, however was relatively an try to translate and discover the visible lexicon that got here to him in these meditative states.

“I simply go to mattress, shut my eyes and see this stuff. I preserve a pocket book useful and sketch them down in the dead of night or activate a flashlight and sketch them,” he wrote of his course of in an undated letter to artwork historian Meyer Schapiro, who was an in depth good friend to Bess. “I rise up the following morning—spend the day fishing, then that night time I paint the canvas because it was seen. Actually I sense that I’ve little or no to do with what’s put down on the canvas.” 

The surfaces of Bess’s work are wealthy and thick, the paint typically utilized with using a palette knife, the biomorphic types of his symbology floating amid intricate textures and patterns. He typically framed the work himself utilizing driftwood. 

Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 18) (1952), oil on canvas. Assortment of Beth Rudin DeWoody Picture: Robert Glowacki. Courtesy Fashionable Artwork, London.

“They’ve an object-quality, like a relic or one thing devotional,” Clark mentioned. “He was very near the pure world that he was a part of, so I believe these textures and that sense of a tangible, bodily world was vital to him, and it comes via within the portray.”

Regardless of having six solo exhibits with Betty Parsons in his lifetime, Bess by no means discovered business success. He spent his life in poverty, and the shortage of recognition from the artwork market and institutional world continued for years after his loss of life. “Modernism, for such a very long time, was about being secular, it was about purity, internationalism; it was undoubtedly not in regards to the esoteric or the occult or any of those messy issues,” Clark mentioned. “The work wasn’t commercially profitable and he simply fell via each kind of crack.”

“Now, I believe Bess speaks to the messiness which has change into way more part of the best way that artists do function,” Clark mentioned. “We’re way more accommodating of artists shifting via and throughout concepts. There’s way more curiosity in what could be thought of non-normative or queer methods of thought.” 

At the moment, it’s simpler to grasp Bess’s search to really feel full, the curator added. “The tragedy is that, on the time he was doing this, there wasn’t actually a method to work as an artist like that.”


“Forrest Bess: Out of the Blue” is on view on the Camden Artwork Centre in London from September 30, 2022–January 15, 2023.

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