Forrest Bess: Seeing things Invisible

Review by Sarah Williams




An afternoon at The Menil Collection this summer, unmelting in the air conditioning otherwise heatstroked by a Texan summer, I met Forrest Bess.  Worn down from the wet slouch of a summer cross-country drive through the South and hours of other art, other visions, I walked in expecting to do a spin, call it a day. The small, vibrant canvases seduce and his story fascinates, A deep primitive nerve, deeply human pictures. I knew this language in another life, just sit here long enough on this museum bench, and so will you.


Andrew wrote me that evening, “…Forest Bess has a particularly curious story, I’ve never seen the work in person. Is it as breathtaking as everyone says?”


It really is.


Andrew always picks his words carefully, and he didn’t say beautiful, which wouldn’t have been the right word. The paintings are beautiful, in a way, but breathtaking is more accurate, awe inspiring. Like fire, or like lightning, or perhaps childbirth. They are incredible, a bittersweet lining of beauty mixed with pain and elemental truth.


And a curious story? Indeed.


Bess begs to be classified as a mad genius, or a the total outsider savant. Both are reductive. He lived most of his adult life in a shack on an isolated bait camp on the Gulf in Texas, spending much of his free time rather obsessively painting his uncontrollable visions (likely caused by a head injury endured while serving in the military) on small-scale canvases. An eccentric in all places, he still exhibited at Betty Parson’s gallery in New York alongside Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock in their heyday.


This dichotomy is almost interesting enough on its own.


Bess was also obsessed with the idea of becoming a “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” His paintings were only a small part of a total vision. Through a self-authored theory–based around alchemy, Jungian philosophy and the collective unconscious, blended with Australian aboriginal mythology and rituals–he proposed that a surgery to create a hole under his penis, accessing the widest part of the urethra would allow for another penis to enter him. This act would produce the most awesome of orgasmic experiences and result in immortality. In service to his theory, he kept up a decades-long correspondence with both art historian and critic Meyer Schapiro, and sexologist John Money. In 1960, Bess went through with the surgery. There is some debate over whether he found a doctor willing to perform it, or as Money concluded, that he exhibited a competent enough understanding and performed the surgery himself, fabricating a doctor’s involvement to validate the experiment. Regardless of the facts surrounding it, the surgery failed to produce the desired results and antithetically, was the beginning of a slow decline in both his health and artistic production.




I don’t detail his story to make Bess seem like a circus side show, but to touch on the two ends of the spectrum of talking about his work. In the introduction of the book, Clare Elliott quotes Peter Schjeldahl who calls the story “shy making,” in this comment it seems to come from a loyalty to the Modernist tradition of the time Bess was producing and an overall sentiment that maybe it’s best not to get too caught up in the story when looking at painting. Once known, it is impossible not to see Bess’ paintings without his story, even he saw the work as part of his larger theory. The paintings are a representation of his visions, his psychological state, woven tightly with myth, writing and aspirations of salvation. This combats the Modernist attitude of his time—to look at the work as process, material on canvas, abstraction, action, medium, and is more apt to ignore the personal in service of a more theoretical painting agenda.


What does tie Bess to his contemporaries, that Irving Sandler lays out in The Triumph of American Painting, is that Pollock, Rothko and others of the time, were also dealing with Jungian psychology and especially his ideas around the collective unconscious. There was an interest in “employ(ing) automatism to reveal what they believed to be universal symbols that inhabited the inner mind.” And while Bess’ automatism comes from the need the making physical his visions, he also connected them to a sense of universal truth in the collective unconscious, the same ideas that wove through his thesis and ideals of hermaphroditism. And while the painterly quality of the works seem very much about medium with the thickness and application giving texture to mountains, dicks, and rain with an emphasis to repetitive symbols, you feel the paintings from a physical and emotional place. Where others of his time strived to take out the personal, in an attempt to distill the universal, it could be suggested that instead, Bess was grasping towards the universal via the personal.


Most of the paintings here  are printed not far from their actual size and are accompanied by essays that detail Bess’ story, his participation in the New York art scene and some insight into his correspondence with Shapiro and Money. In the back you find the codex of all the “selected lexicon of symbols.” Like the Rosetta stone into the mind of Bess, the artist provides a list of about 25 simple geometric shapes and six colors to which the artist had attached a meaning, where the same sort of oblong figure can go from begin a stick to the “bodies of little dead children” with a slight bend of the shape.

Spending this time thinking about Bess, with an art history degree nagging in the background, I wanted to be able to properly place him within the context of painting during his time. Was he an outsider, who happened to strike a chord with the right gallerist at the right time or was he an eccentric whose style hits a universal, sensitive spirit that it was destined to find its way into a larger art world? I think where he really lies though, is somewhere in the paint-splattered, messy, in-between. Liking his work so much, I want to believe he is a visionary. A representation of a radical queerness that is the pinnacle of truth outside of defined social structures. I want the truth to be beyond a head injury and his theory to be more than the manifestation of repressed sexual desire in a time that didn’t allow for many alternatives to heteronormativity.
In the end I rested on  the answer is also probably a little of both. That he was both an insider and outsider, masculine and feminine, tortured and redeemed. And so are we.


Claire Elliott, Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, (The Menil Collection, 2013)

Cover and Images: from Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, (The Menil Collection, 2013)