Painter, mystic, fisherman . . . Forrest Bess occupies a fascinating corner of American art, not to mention American history.
A visionary artist who worked in virtual isolation from an Gulf Coast island near Bay City, Texas, Bess landed himself a string of well-received New York shows in the 1950s and '60s thanks to longtime support from art historian Meyer Schapiro and gallerist Betty Parsons, the noted early champion of Abstract Expressionism.
Taking into account his complex philosophic beliefs — which ultimately led to the artist's surgical transformation into what he called a "pseudo-hermaphrodite" — the Menil Collection is reassessing Bess' life and work through a series of 48 symbol-laden paintings dating from 1946 to 1970.
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, on display through Aug. 18, includes an additional installation of archival materials organized by artist Robert Gober, whose small exhibit on Bess at the 2012 Whitney Biennial helped to lift the artist from his longstanding status as a quirky outsider artist to that of a foundational figure in 20th-century art.
The paintings themselves undoubtedly have a Abstract Expressionist tone, with a mythic quality one might find with Rothko and pre-splatter Pollock — artists who, like Bess, were greatly influenced by Jungian psychology and its emphasis on dreams, archetypes and collective consciousness.
" Bess's work has this duality of being spontaneous-looking while actually being very carefully painted."
"Bess's work has this duality of being spontaneous-looking while actually being very carefully painted," explained Menil curator Clare Elliott during a preview of the show. "He would make drawings of his visions and then re-create them in color as paintings. They appear very loose, but you can occasionally see the pencil under-drawings."
On the tour, Gober highlighted the manner in which Bess viewed himself as a sort of medium to another realm of existence. He felt he was simply recording the information presented to him in dreams.
"From his point of view, these paintings were clues," said Elliott. "He held them and studied them throughout his life, 'reading' the paintings and working these findings into a cohesive theory."
He even codified his visionary symbols into an established written system, a detailed chart of which is presented in the exhibit.
"Bess's life goal was to have his paintings show along with his thesis, which he never get anyone interested to publish in full," Gober said. "Unfortunately, we think it's lost at this point."
Elliott and Gober have honored the artist's wishes, by recreating the lost treatise through letters, personal ephemera and one of the largest collections of Bess' work ever displayed.
For more on Bess, be sure to check out the 1998 documentary Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle from filmmakers Chuck Smith and Ari Marcopoulos. Catch the preview below (warning, it's a little graphic):