Once a label is attached to an artist, it becomes difficult, if not impossible to see past these particular labels. In case of the painter Forrest Bess, it is the term “visionary” that has been used ever since Bess referred to himself as “visionary painter” in a letter to art historian Meyer Schapiro in 1948. Among other things, Bess has been called “a simple man”, “a type of painting hermit saint" and "eccentric" who experienced "painful isolation.” It seems that the temptation to characterize Bess as a tormented, artistic genius still prevails.
Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 5), 8” x 12”, 1949
On January 5th, the first museum retrospective of Forrest Bess’ work in over two decades ends at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibition features 50 paintings from the years 1946 to 1970 and it was my first opportunity to see his work in person.
Forrest Bess was not the recluse we would like him to be. After he graduated from High School in Bay City (where he spent a large portion of his life), Bess enrolled at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas to study architecture. Two years later and without a degree, he transferred to the University of Texas, where he eventually left in 1932 (again, without a degree) to work on several oil fields. According to Claire Elliott’s informative catalog essay that accompanies the Hammer exhibition, Forrest Bess made extensive use of the libraries at both institutions: “He read widely of Hinduism, Greek mythology, mathematics, and the writings of Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin. One book at UT intrigued him particularly: Psychology of Sex (1933) by Havelock Ellis, a pioneer in the objective study of human sexuality, which helped Bess to come to terms on some level with his own sexual difference (12).”
Forrest Bess, Untitled (The Dicks), 14” x 16”, oil on canvas, 1946
Throughout the 1930s, Forrest Bess made several trips to Mexico to see murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. In the late 1930s, Bess moved to Houston and set up a cooperative art gallery with local artists (Carden Bailey, Gene Charlton, and others). Even though he became part of a vibrant artistic community, Bess did not feel entirely comfortable: “There I found protection in numbers with people I thought were my own kind - but for some reason or other I was too ‘butch’ - rough for them - I was an oddity and I didn’t fit. I wasn’t effeminate enough.” (From a letter to Rosalie Berkowitz written in 1950.) In other words, the circle of artists he met in Houston accepted his sexual identity as gay man, but not necessarily his lifestyle. The idea that Forrest Bess chose to live on an island by himself because he wanted to be isolated, might have a simple explanation: he wanted to live on his terms. Did he lead a happy life? Did he believe that the choices he had made were inevitable? These are questions that can hardly be answered. But what becomes indisputable is that Forrest Bess was neither a naive simpleton nor a genius loner.
In 1941, Forrest Bess enlisted in the US Army designing camouflage patterns and eventually training African-American recruits. While in service, he revealed his homosexuality to a fellow soldier who then assaulted Bess by inflicting a head injury (Bess mentions this incident in a letter to Rosalie Berkowitz in 1950). In light of the recent ruling - in July of 2011 - against the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, it becomes clear that the widespread practice of denial was not only forced onto generations of gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, but on civilians outside the military as well.
It is unclear how much and what information exactly the people of Forrest Bess’ home town Bay City had about him. Therefore it is not surprising that they considered him “eccentric.” They might have had their suspicions, but probably never asked in fear of the answers they would be presented with. Under the given circumstances - having no college degree shortly after the Great Depression, growing up in a conservative, Texan working class family, being gay and interested in literature and art - Forrest Bess was left with few options in terms of building a future for himself.
Forrest Bess, Bread and Potatoes, 16” x 18”, oil on canvas, c. 1938
In 1947, after Bess had been discharged from the military and moved to San Antonio for a short time (he set up a studio, frame shop and gallery there), he decided to return home and make his living as a fisherman outside of Bay City on his family’s bait-fish camp (which was set on a peninsula and only accessible by boat).
The story of Forrest Bess is not unlike an odyssey. Before he decided to move back with his parents, he traveled the state of Texas and worked on oil fields. He visited Mexico, studied at two universities (or attempted to do so), and was actively involved with the art scene in Houston and San Antonio. Long before his work was shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City in 1950, Bess was honored by solo shows at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in D.C. He was no hermit saint, nor was he a simple man. He was not an outsider artist either. Bess was an established regional artist and an active participant in the fashioning of his own career.
From his letters, we get the sense of an avid reader and a man with a great intellectual appetite. While Vincent van Gogh was one of his heroes and references (the painting Bread and Potatoes appears like a hasty fusion between a late Manet and early van Gogh still life), Bess repeatedly mentions Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Goethe, Homer, symbolism, surrealism and his own visions that form the basis for many of his paintings. While the visions or dreams that Bess claimed to experience regularly have received most of the attention in numerous articles and essays on his work (in addition to his genital self-surgery), his roles as a skilled observer, informed reader, writer, multifaceted intellectual and engaged individual have been neglected.
Max Ernst, Graetenwald, 1926
In 1948, Forrest Bess traveled to New York City with the intention of finding a potential gallery. There he met the gallery owner and artist Betty Parsons who exhibited his work for the first time in the winter of 1950 (the same year that Barnett Newman has his first solo show there). The Betty Parsons Gallery featured work of American avant-garde artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is easy to imagine the amount and diversity of art that Forrest Bess must have seen when he was going from gallery to gallery during his stay in New York. The fact that he chose New York as the destination for his work shows that Bess did his research and was well aware of the centrality of New York as the capital of the art world after WWII. With the influx of European artists immigrating to the United States, the New York art scene had dramatically expended in size, diversity and cultural relevance.
Forrest Bess, Dedication to Van Gogh, 15.6” x 17.7”, oil on canvas, 1946
Even though the painting above is titled Dedication to Van Gogh, it seems highly unlikely that Forrest Bess would not have read extensively about early twentieth-century art, in particular surrealism’s focus on the unconscious, dreams and their meanings, as well as automatic drawing and writing, and the role of chance within art making.
Joan Miro, The Tilled Field, oil on canvas, 1923-24
The importance of nature and the landscape with its ever-changing fields of color and organic forms becomes evident in many of Bess’ letters. In an undated letter to Jack and Naomi Akridge, Bess described the scenery during a fishing trip: “[T]he sun was setting red, but the sky was blue crystal blue but a light wind caused ripples on the water to be reflected both red and blue. I was catching trout but took time to see it. Very rare. Background nothing but dark salt grass-deep green.”
Forrest Bess, Untitled (Indian Dancers), date unknown
There are many differences between the Miro and Bess paintings, but what they share is their interest in a visual language that is universal, yet deeply individual. In their paintings, nature is not so much a product or object to be looked at, but a productive force: water flows, it reflects light, waves break, trees grow, the sun sets, grass sways. Miro (as well as Paul Klee) and Bess deduct signs from it, shapes, forms, colors and arrange them into systems not unlike an iconography of phantasms. Some of these elements are reminiscent of human bodies or organs that are oozing out of the natural world and back into it, taking on colors and hues that are foreign, but strangely familiar.
Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 11a), 18” x 24”, oil on canvas, 1958
Forrest Bess is also a painter of all things visible. He is not a copyist, but he clearly paid attention to what surrounded him. These visible things include other works of art, literature, people, history, the politics and ethics of his time, the experience of “self”, the natural world - reflections of it alongside less reliable byproducts like dreams - fevers of the mind - and unfinished thoughts. Why should we wonder about “visions” that might or might not have occurred in Bess’ case, when we can’t even answer a simple question: which one comes first - thought or language?
Looking at some of the stronger work in this retrospective, I could not help but think that Forrest Bess found a way to paint what would otherwise be impossible to experience: Bess’ paintings think, while others, usually the less interesting ones, only talk.