Forrest Bess’s canvases quiver with colors, textures, shapes and symbols that are at once profoundly familiar and deeply mysterious. It is no wonder that his paintings—the Menil exhibition “Seeing Things Invisible” features almost 50 works (dating from 1946 to 1970) based on the artist’s hallucinatory visions—have been on the periphery of the art world for decades.
Self-taught, Texas-born Bess (1911-1977) was always on the edge. After a childhood spent migrating between oil fields for his father’s work as a roughneck, Bess attended college for several years but left before graduating. In the 1930s he settled in Houston with a group of artists and began making figurative and then abstract paintings. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Bess enlisted. After revealing his homosexuality, he was beaten with a lead pipe, suffered head trauma and had a nervous breakdown. A doctor suggested he paint the hallucinatory visions he reported having, and, in the mid-1940s, after being discharged and studying Jungian theories about the psyche and symbols, he started doing just that.
Around this time he moved into an isolated cabin on the gulf outside of Bay City, Tex. When not selling fishing bait, he painted and eventually showed his canvases—often featuring biomorphic shapes hovering against horizons, always framed with found wood—in local museums and galleries. His work attracted the attention of Betty Parsons, who gave him six solo exhibitions at her Manhattan gallery between 1949 and 1967. She never consented, however, to showing his paintings alongside his “thesis:” a scrapbook of material on hermaphroditism, including allusions to Bess’s genital self-surgeries. Bess believed such bodily modifications, coupled with painting his visions, would allow him access to universal truths, and therefore eternal life.
The canvases resulting from his visions are magnetic and elusive. Most in the Menil exhibition are no bigger than a foot tall or wide, yet they vibrate on the walls of the large gallery where they are installed in clusters of like imagery (geometric shapes, stars). They even eclipse artist Robert Gober’s involvement in the show: vitrines of archival material relating to Bess’s now-lost thesis. (Gober presented some of these documents, along with 11 Bess paintings, as his contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennial.)
Bess is a favorite of artists for good reason: his work exudes commitment to, and facility with, the craft of painting. An early canvas, Untitled (The Dicks), 1946, is loaded with inky black paint and charged with rows of orange pigment encased in smears of creamy white and yellow. Bodies of Little Dead Children (1949), on a nearby wall, is more haunting. Daubs of brownish pigment form two bent elongated shapes orphaned over a grayish background that has been scraped in spots to expose stained canvas beneath. The vision in Untitled No. 31 (The Symbol of Sleep), 1951, is particularly palpable: against a dark gray field, four-legged stick creatures march below a towering pelvic shape articulated in gloomy black. Two of the show’s most arresting works were at the entrance. The surface of The Spider (1970) is textured with waves of scarlet pigment and pale spidery lines that emerge from the center and extend to the edges, threatening to go further. For The Hermaphrodite (1957), Bess heavily built up the canvas with black paint, smoothed it flat in the center to create a shadowy, bulbous shape, and marred that with a white and red lesion. The painting makes you shudder, but you look again. Bess’s images are like the unconscious: dense and endlessly absorbing.