Shotgun Reviews

Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible at the Berkeley Art Museum

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Maria Porges reviews Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible at the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, California.

Forrest Bess. Bodies of Little Dead Children, 1949; oil on canvas; 6 x 7 5/8 in. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.

Forrest Bess. Bodies of Little Dead Children, 1949; oil on canvas; 6 x 7 5/8 in. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester.

Forrest Bess (1911–1977), a talented, visionary artist whose work was exhibited in notable galleries and museums during his career, spent most of his adult life in poverty and isolation because that was the only way he could stand to live—away from others, entirely on his own terms.  This monographic exhibition of his work presents a selection of nearly forty pictures, the majority of them dating from the period during which he was most active as an artist, the 1940s and ’50s. A prodigious reader and letter writer (and, as an artist, an autodidact), Bess based his small, mostly abstract paintings on visions that often arrived in the last moments before falling asleep or waking, recorded as soon as he opened his eyes. Despite the fact that he lived in relatively primitive circumstances in a fishing shack on the Gulf of Mexico, he did travel to New York, met the fabled gallerist Betty Parsons, and persuaded her to show his paintings six times between 1950 and 1967.

Bess’s work fell into relative obscurity after his death. In recent years, however, a number of artists have become interested in him, including Robert Gober, who presented a selection of Bess’s paintings in conjunction with archival materials relating to the artist’s idiosyncratic beliefs and ideas in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Bess, who had a theory that hermaphroditism would lead to immortality, surgically altered his own genitals in an effort to make himself physically bisexual. He sought further surgery later on to complete what he had started, but never succeeded in achieving his goal. It was his fervent wish, repeated in many letters to Parsons, that his “thesis,” as he called it—a now-lost scrapbook of sketches, research, clippings, and drawings—be shown alongside his paintings; Parsons politely declined. Gober’s 2012 inclusion of the materials that could still be marshaled together, such as correspondence, books, Polaroids, and magazines, granted Bess’s request at last.

In this show, three cases in the middle of the room containing documents and objects reprise and expand the Whitney presentation. The paintings surrounding these materials are clearly of their mid-century time; a palette of red, gray, black, and white predominates in works like Drawings (1957) or Before Man (1952–3) to delineate biomorphic shapes and/or repetitive, hypnotic patterns. At the same time, each picture radiates an almost confounding uniqueness—a complete statement, communicated through a personal iconography of symbols (Bess was an avid reader of Jung, whose ideas were also favored by the Abstract Expressionists) and a dizzying variety of mark making. Uninterested in the idea of a signature style, Bess’s aim as an artist was to reproduce his visions as scrupulously as possible.

Bess’s paintings are everything that the grandiose, calculated bigness of most art of the last sixty years is not. The appeal of this work is clear. Framed by the artist with rough wooden strips, these small pictures assert a hard-won independence: a kind of self-sufficient integrity that, in the digitally connected, market-driven present, can only be imitated, but never re-created. Bess’s struggles with his own identity as a gay man, his slightly mad obsessions with gender/genitals, and a sense of not fitting in anywhere might make us feel compassion for him. But, like Van Gogh—an artist he admired greatly—his work inspires only admiration and respect.

Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible was organized by the Menil Collection, Houston. The exhibition is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through September 14, 2014.

Maria Porges is an artist and writer whose critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Ceramics, Glass, and a host of other now-defunct art magazines. She is an Associate Professor at the California College of the Arts in the Graduate Program in Fine Arts.

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