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Forrest Bess was a fisherman by day and a painter of wild visions by night. A new show explores his legacy

By on September 29, 2022 0

Painter Forrest Bess (1911-1977) lived most of his adult life in a dilapidated house he built on a bayou in Chinquapin, Texas, a rural part of the state that straddles the Gulf of Mexico. In 1956, a writer for the Houston Chronicle called it “the loneliest place in Texas.” A bait fisherman by trade, Bess’s home was only accessible by boat, which meant that customers and visitors had to drive to the end of the nearest dirt road and honk their horns until Bess could cross the water in his skiff to pick them up. The artistic legacy he left behind has for decades defied categorization and largely baffled curators and institutions alike.

From a certain point of view, he was the Outsider artist par excellence; he was even included in the famous 2018 survey “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And yet he was on the list of artists at the Betty Parsons Gallery, one of the most important New York galleries of the 20th century, which means he was in the same stable as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin.

He also received a formal education – he studied architecture at university, although he did not graduate. And we know from his many letters, which have been donated to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art (and partially digitized), that he maintained close relationships with historians, collectors and other prominent figures in the art world, as well as with scholars of all sciences, including the psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

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

“I think he never felt like he belonged in the art world,” Martin Clark, director of the Camden Arts Center in London and curator of “Forrest Bess: Out of the Blue,” told on display at the museum from September 30. to January 15, 2023. The exhibition features 50 of Bess’s paintings – nearly half of the just over 100 known to still exist – as well as a collection of her letters, notebooks and other ephemera. “He chose to position himself on the sidelines in different ways, but if you read his letters, they’re very understanding.”

In those letters, Bess described her younger self as “a clumsy, clumsy kid who was always on the outside to look inside. But the bottom line was that he was a gay man in Texas,” Clark said. . “And although he revealed himself to some friends and people he felt close to – and he actually wrote very movingly about his sexuality – he never found his footing either.”

Bess struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with a life he viewed as otherwise conventionally masculine. This resulted in two surgeries he performed on himself in an attempt to become what he called a “pseudo-hermaphrodite”. Bess wrote that he believed these surgeries could bring him immortality, although whether his words were meant to be taken literally or figuratively is a matter of debate. He also probably hoped that they would put an end to the internal disagreement that had dogged him for so many decades.

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

“There are, in my composition, two distinct personalities,” Bess wrote. “Number one is the military engineer, the oilfield thug, the one who accomplishes missions well done. Number two is weak as a jellyfish, he suffers a lot, thinks deeply and is quite passive in nature. Number one was reality, the oil fields, the mud tents, the struggle.The other, the child who hid in the sandbars and spent the day watching the clouds and picking flowers.

The surgical procedures were based on an Australian Aboriginal tradition studied by Bess, and his desire to merge what he saw as dissonant aspects of himself was a hyper-literal interpretation of Jung’s theory of individuation, which he does not no doubt that Bess was familiar. .

He kept an album – most of which is now presumed lost – which he called his thesis, in which he wrote detailed notes and collected medical texts and other forms of historical research that aligned with this idea of ​​achieving an enlightened state through gender non-dualism, or by merging the masculine and feminine of oneself. (The dissertation pages are on display at the Camden Arts Centre.)

Forest Bess, Crowded Mind / Untitled (The Void I) (1946/47), oil on canvas. © documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

He wrote several letters to Parsons in 1958 asking if he could exhibit the thesis alongside his paintings in a gallery exhibition, but Parsons rejected the idea, saying she would “prefer to keep it purely aesthetically”. A 2011 exhibition of Bess’s work, curated by sculptor Robert Gober and presented as a show-within-a-show at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, attempted to rectify this, displaying a few remaining dissertation pages in a display case alongside 11 paintings.

Bess considered the dissertation “an absolute foundation for all the work he did,” Clark said. And just as the notions of union and non-duality are central to almost all major religious and mystical traditions, the dissertation also centers on “the idea that opposites come together to produce some sort of transcendent state.” , added the curator.

When World War II arrived, Bess enlisted in the army, where he was assigned to design the camouflage. He served from 1941 to 1945, but after suffering a nervous breakdown, in addition to being brutally beaten with a lead pipe by fellow soldiers who suspected him of being gay, he met with a military psychiatrist. Bess spoke during their meeting of “visions” he had had on a regular basis since childhood, in which abstract symbols appeared to him, and the psychiatrist encouraged him to paint them. In 1946, Bess discovered Jung’s psychological theories, which renewed her interest in these forms.

“I never knew there was a clue to understanding my symbols until I accidentally came across Jung,” he wrote in a 1952 letter to collector Dominique de Menil. “Not only did I find meaning in my work, but I was given another dimension.” Bess described the symbols as “the language of the unconscious” which “contains ancient sorcery”. He also exchanged letters with Jung, even sending a painting to the famous psychiatrist.

Forest Bess, The three doors (1959), oil on canvas. © documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

And unlike many other members of the Parsons Gallery list, Bess did not consider himself an action painter or abstract expressionist. His work was not about improvisation, but rather an attempt to translate and explore the visual lexicon that came to him in these meditative states.

“I just go to bed, close my eyes and see these things. I keep a notebook handy and draw them in the dark or I turn on a flashlight and draw them,” he wrote of his process in an undated letter to the historian of art Meyer Schapiro, who was a close friend of Bess. “I get up the next morning, I spend the day fishing, then that night I paint the canvas as it was seen. In fact, I feel like I have very little to do with what is written on the canvas.

The surfaces of Bess’s paintings are rich and thick, the paint often applied with a palette knife, the biomorphic forms of her symbology floating amid intricate textures and patterns. He often framed the work himself using driftwood.

Forest Bess, Untitled (#18) (1952), oil on canvas. Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody Photo: Robert Glowacki. Courtesy of Modern Art, London.

“They have an object quality, like a relic or something devotional,” Clark said. “He was very close to the natural world that he was a part of, so I think those textures and that sense of a tangible, physical world were important to him, and that comes through in the painting.”

Despite six solo exhibitions with Betty Parsons during her lifetime, Bess never found commercial success. He spent his life in poverty and the lack of recognition from the art market and the institutional world continued for years after his death. “Modernism, for so long, was secularism, it was purity, internationalism; it certainly wasn’t about esotericism or occultism or any of that messy stuff,” Clark said. “The work was not commercially successful and it fell through all sorts of cracks.”

“Now I think Bess is talking about the mess that’s much more a part of how artists operate,” Clark said. “We are much more accommodating to artists moving through and through ideas. There is much more interest in what would be considered non-normative or queer systems of thought.

Today, it’s easier to understand Bess’s quest to feel complete, the curator added. “The tragedy is that back when he was doing this, there wasn’t really a way to work as an artist like that.”

“Forrest Bess: Out of the Blue” is on view at the Camden Art Center in London from September 30, 2022 to January 15, 2023.

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