The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) presents “Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible,” the first museum retrospective of the eccentric outsider painter in more than twenty years. Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, the Berkeley presentation features approximately forty of Bess’s works, dating from 1946 to 1970 with an installation of archival materials curated by American artist Robert Gober.
Born in Bay City, Texas in 1911, Bess’s childhood was that of a child of migrant oil field workers, wandering from oil strike to oil strike. It was not a childhood that offered much sympathy or understanding for a boy trying to understand why he was different from other boys. As a child he admired the paintings of his maternal grandmother and took a few basic art lessons from a neighbor but largely taught himself to paint by copying illustrations from books and magazines.
In 1932, Bess entered to college to do study architecture but was diverted into religion, psychology and anthropology, the foundation of his later theories. He dropped out of college, wandered the Southwest, lived in Mexico, and worked in the oilfields. During WW II, he enlisted in the army and worked painting camouflage. While in the army he made a pass at a solder, was roughly rebuffed, beaten badly and suffered a nervous breakdown. The army doctor suggested that Bess make art as therapy. What emerged from that was an art made by a man who knew that making art would save his life. There is a saying “Art Saves Lives.” As long as Bess could make art, it did indeed save his life.
In 1947 he went to live at his parents’ bait camp on Chinquapin Bay, off the south Texas coast, 20 miles from Bay City. He remained there for 27 years, fishing during the day, painting irregularly at night, copying his visions in a sketchbook in the morning. Bess lived his life there in virtual isolation, on a strip of land accessible only by boat. “I try to tell myself that only by breaking completely away from society can I arrive at a reasonable existence.” He loved the solitude, which gave him time to paint his visions and follow his own path. His art came from visions which he saw on the inside of his eyelids during sleep and which he captured on a notebook, always kept by his bedside.
He was able make contact with the New York art world and was represented by Betty Parsons. During his most creative period, 1949 through 1967, Parsons arranged six solo exhibitions at her New York City gallery, showing along Rothko and Pollock. Although he never sold much and his prices were rock bottom low, he became the insider’s artist with a small, dedicated band of collectors.
In the 1950s, he also began a lifelong correspondence with art professor and author Meyer Schapiro and sexual identity researcher Dr. John Money. In his letters to both Shapiro and Dr. Money (which were donated to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and some of which are on view at the exhibit), Bess makes it clear that his paintings were only part of a grander theory, based on his versions of alchemy, Jungian philosophy and the rituals of Australian aborigines. He believed that by uniting the male and female sides of his personality would guarantee was the key to immortality and eventually operated on himself, creating a fistula in his genitalia.
Dr. John Money later corresponded at length with Bess and concluded that Bess, who exhibited an extensive knowledge of anatomy, medical procedures and painkilling drugs, had operated on himself and invented a local doctor’s participation to legitimize his experiment. Bess cut an opening at the base of his penis near the scrotum and created an incision in the urethra with the intent of fulfilling this theory. A local doctor apparently did attend Bess on the night in question and supposedly performed a second operation on Bess in late 1961.
John Yau, a critic who wrote an essay for the catalog for the Hirschl & Adler Modern show (1988) suggests, “that Bess’s fervent searching, as well as his self-surgery — the idea came from studying rites performed by Australian aborigines — reflected an inability to accept his homosexuality and, more generally, his reaction to a culture with little tolerance for difference. Mr. Yau likens the scarred surfaces of Bess’s paintings to the psychic and physical scars he endured. “
According to Bess’s theories, the bulbous section of the urethra could, if sufficiently dilated, receive another penis in what would be the ultimate, eternally rejuvenating form of sexual intercourse.Bess’s self-mutilating surgery never achieved the results he had hoped for and, ironically, this quest for immortality was the beginning of a slow decline in both his health and his creative output.
His work is visionary but it is not a vision of a harmonious utopia. His paintings are not naively pretty like some outsider art. The tiny pieces, enclosed within Bess’ hand made wooden frames have rough surfaces and compelling colors with obscure symbols that hint on the edges of meaning. “Art is a search of beauty,” he wrote Betty Parsons, his New York dealer, in 1954, ”but not a superficial beauty – a very deep longing for a uniting of lost parts.”
Symbols, he wrote, had the power ”to release pent-up tensions and actually bring about a higher level of consciousness.” He believed art could present symbols in a way that would allow their magic to emerge. Meyer Schapiro, in his essay for Bess’s retrospective exhibition at the Betty Patrons Gallery in 1962, called him a “real visionary,” not inspired by “texts of poetry or religion but moved by a strange significance of what he alone has seen.”
Given his self-surgery and his battle with his homosexuality and his, at that time, undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, it is hard not to let his story overtake his art. But they are intertwined. Each small painting is another piece in the puzzle. Their crusty and textured surfaces, sometimes-bold colors and odd mixture of symbols disturb and intrigue the viewer. The rough wooden frames and uniquely personal symbols are the work of a man devoted to his visions and who believed in the power of art “to release pent up tensions and actually bring about a higher level of consciousness.” For Bess, who had an obsessive fixation on immortality, art was no less than “the search for truth so death will end.”
Bess’ work displays a wide variety of influences. The exhibit opens with two canvasses, dedicated to Bess’ artistic heroes – van Gogh and another to Albert Pinkham Ryder. “Dedication to van Gogh” (1946), shows van Gogh’s influence in a landscape composed of a blue sun above a field thickly painted with zigzagging orange and green brush strokes. “Before Man’ reflects both Aborigine and American Indian symbols, translated via Bess’ reading of Jung and “Drawings” with the four ambiguous symbols could have come right out of New York’s most sophisticated artistic circles,
In one painting from 1957, railroad tracks coil up from a black well into a red sky with an implication of a rattlesnake about to strike. The mysterious yet somehow familiar icons of “Before Man” (1952-53) illustrate Bess’s interest in Aboriginal art and the symbolic, universal power of “The Dreamtime.” In “Bodies of Little Dead Children” the curved symbols, against a muddy blue background look like the Australian boomerang. Are they actually two boomerangs or the children that Bess will never have- given that the other visual identification of the curved oblong could be a penis?
“The Spider” is the most boldly graphic pieces in the show, with thinly painted white lines radiating out from a center, set against a red background. “Hermaphrodite” is another tiny, thickly painted piece with red stripes painted against an oblong shape, floating in a dark black/brown ground. One of the smallest pieces is “View of Maya,” (1951). Just 8 inches square, it is composed of alternating lawyers of red and blue stripes. The rhythmic stripes give the piece an organic rhythm and the title – possibly a reference to the world of illusions. With Bess, one never knows. But their honest oddness intrigues, more than the larger and slicker paintings of his contemporaries.
In 1967 Hurricane Carla destroyed his fishing shack and forced him to move 20 miles inland. He was never at home among other people and began a rapid downward slide. In Mr. Smith’s film one of Bess’s friends says that he sometimes spoke of committing suicide, which he said he intended to accomplish by drinking. But before he could do that, he was partly incapacitated by a stroke, finally professionally diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was institutionalized before dying of skin cancer at the age of 66.
The Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive is also showing. “Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle,” a 48-minute film completed in 1998 by Chuck Smith, working with the photographer Ari Marcopoulos. In this film you hear from numerous friends and relatives who knew Bess intimately. Although he was an oddball unlike any seen in Texas, they show enormous understanding and affection for him.
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive: June 11, 2014 – September 14, 2014