Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible

by Robert Boyd April 23, 2013

Forrest Bess (1911-1977) lived a hermit’s life in a cabin in Chinquapin, Texas. In the catalog for the exhibit Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, Robert Gober writes, “Forrest Bess lived a life of profound poverty and solitude, working for most of his adult life as a seasonal bait fisherman in a series of camps and homes built from scavenged detritus on a tiny spit of a treeless island on Chinquapin Bay.”

The only problem with this description is that there is no Chinquapin Bay that I can locate (a fact that Gober acknowledges in a footnote). There is a small community (approximately 30 people) who live on Chinquapin Road where Live Oak Bayou enters East Matagorda Bay. This community is decribed as having been wiped out by Hurricane Carla in 1961, and slowly rebuilt. There is also a Chinquapin Reef that extends out into East Matagorda Bay, which includes several tiny treeless islands. Perhaps it is one of these that Bess lived on. His cabin was destroyed by Carla.

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Forrest Bess, untitled (1957), 9 7/8 x 14 1/4 inches

It is an isolated spot, but people live there and fishermen are well aware it. Working as a bait fisherman implies selling the bait. And he must have made it into town (Bay City is about 24 miles away) from time to time for groceries and supplies. After Carla he moved back to Bay City, where he had family, and stayed there until until he died except for a stay in a mental hospital in San Antonio.

Bess was an abstract artist in a community that had no museum, no tradition of art and certainly no understanding of avant garde art. Additionally, Bess was homosexual. In a big city, he could have found many places to meet other gay men, but one doubts that Bay City in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was a particularly welcoming place for gay men. But Bess could have moved to New York City. After all, he showed his work there in Betty Parsons Gallery. I don’t know why he didn’t leave, but I suspect his isolation went way beyond being an artist or being gay. He developed a strange belief that if he made an incision at the base of his penis, he could become a pseudo-hermaphrodite, gain access to the hidden knowledge of his unconscious, and become immortal. He had a “thesis” on this subject that he laid out in voluminous correspondence with many people, including Karl Jung, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and sex researcher John Money. Money was quite interested in Bess and co-wrote an article about him for Journal of Sex Research. The article is accompanied by some disturbing photos of Bess’s mutilated penis.


Forrest Bess, Untitled (ca. 1950), oil on canvas, 6 x 7 3/8 inches

The symbols that permeate Bess’s painted work come from his visions, the mental world he hoped his auto-surgery would help him better access. In Untitled from about 1950, Bess paints the symbols like graffiti on a wall in a spare spooky landscape. In this painting, they feel like petroglyphs. As a reader of Jung, he must have known about the idea of the “collective unconscious.” Therefore the idea that the symbols he saw in waking visions would be found as petroglyphs makes sense. The catalog has an explanation for many of the symbols he employed. But it is incomplete—few of the symbols in Untitled are included, for example.


Forrest Bess, untitled (The Crowded Mind/The Void) (1947), oil on canvas, 10 x 11 3/4 inches

But whether we understand the symbols or not, they tell us one very important thing: Bess was no formalist. He isn’t trying to arrange colors and shapes in an interesting, aesthetically pleasing way. I see his work as a compulsion, a need to get what he was seeing in his mind down on canvas.


Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 31) (1951), oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches

The bicycle shape in the center of Untitled (No. 31) is an upside-down representation of a symbol that Bess identifies as “bell-glans penis.” Hovering in an indistinct gray space, where animals (dogs? herd animals?) gather, it feels primitive, the work of a neolithic shaman who equates his own sexuality with the multiplication of the flock.

This kind of painting—symbolic, Jungian, mythic—was almost a movement in the days before Abstract Expressionism rose. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko dabbled in this sort of primitive surrealist symbology. Think of Pollock’s Male and Female (1942) or The She Wolf (1943), for example. It’s hard to say that Bess was a part of that tradition since he was so isolated, but the works have a lot of similarities. Pollock and Rothko moved on. For Bess, contending with his visions was a lifelong pursuit.


Forrest Bess, Untitled (The Void II) (1951), oil on canvas, 8 5/8 x 15 5/8 inches

Because his symbolism is so personal, one is thrown back into viewing his work as expressive arrangements of color and form. You can’t easily enter Bess’s mind, despite all his voluminous correspondence and attempts to explain. And even when you start to think you have a grip on the artist, the art itself remains mysterious.With The Void II, there are two rectangular spaces with the same form in each—a downward sloping space at the top, a rough, rounded rectangle in the center and two parallel horizontal lines at the bottom. The colors are reversed, like a photographic negative. But what struck me, and what are hard to see in a digital image of the work, are the buttery yellows on the left and deep purples on the right.

The work contains subtleties that can’t be photographed. Bess’s impasto and the swirling colors he uses with it are hard to see flattened into a jpeg. Sometimes, as in the painting Bodies of Little Dead Children, he has areas of glossy color next to areas of matte color for a certain effect—which is also hard to convey in photos. The paintings are very small, and the Menil has put them in a low-light gallery with grey walls. To view them, I suggest you walk around the gallery for a while, letting your eyes adjust, looking at the paintings from a distance. Then go up to each one and lean in close.


Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 12A) (1957), oil on canvas, 12 x 18 inches

Often you will see an artist’s work and feel that the artist is in a dialogue with other artists, particularly his predecessors. You rarely see this with Bess, although there are a couple of paintings that directly refer to Van Gogh. I thought No. 12A might also be a painting about Bess’s relationship with other art. The two rectangles seem to recall the severe work of Malevich, whose suprematist paintings Bess could have seen at MOMA in one of his visits to New York. That kind of work conveys a kind of spirituality on a platonic, non-physical level. But Bess’s spirituality was related to the body—hence the pink wedge on the right side. It looks like a piece of raw meat or mucus membrane. Juxtaposed with the rectangles, it is a disturbance. To me, it represents the messy spirituality of Bess, which seems at odds with the odorless purity of Modernist spirituality.

This might be why Bess has something to say to the artists like Robert Gober, who came along after the edifice of Modernism collapsed in on itself. Part of this show is a selection of paintings, but the other part is a collection of documents gathered by Gober that deal with Bess’s writings, his auto-surgery, his pseudo-hermaphroditism, his gallerist Betty Parsons and John Money. These documents were originally displayed at the last Whitney Biennial as part of a tiny Bess exhibit within the larger exhibit. Gober’s essay presents Bess as a profoundly isolated man, a hermit living in “the loneliest spot in Texas,” according to the great newspaper columnist Sig Byrd. I think Gober does valuable work making this side of Bess known (although it wasn’t hidden—the first time I ever heard of Forrest Bess was in a great article about him in Texas Monthly in 1982, and it spoke at great length about his auto-surgery, his philosophy and his isolated island cabin).

The hermit practicing strange alchemical sexual surgery on himself is a good basis for a new myth. Knowing this, one can’t but look at his art differently than if one didn’t know it. That is what Gober intends. But Bess was also a man who lived in Bay City from 1961 until he died. He had friends and acquaintances, many of whom are interviewed in the movie Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle. According to Bess’s friend and assistant, Michael Senna, “Forrest took the neighborhood teens under his wing, letting us all hang out at his house, eat his food, play chess, watch TV or box out in the front yard.” (Senna said that Bess looked down on Senna’s adolescent love of the paintings of Frank Frazetta, but adds that Bess was a fan of “Star Trek”!)


Forrest Bess, The Penetrator, (1967), oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

Forrest Bess the-mystic-who-operated-on-his-own-penis is also Forrest Bess the-neighbor-who-played-chess-with-the-local-teenagers. But the reason we remember him is because of these paintings, with their ambiguous spaces. In The Penetrator (which I read as a flag when I saw it in reproduction but read as a room when I saw it in person for the first time), the seemingly simple colors hide a subtle richness, an impenetrable system of personal symbols. There is no key to the riddle. Knowing Bess’s biography allows us to get closer to his mind as an artist, but the way through is still shut. The riddle is enough.


Forrest Bess, The Prophecy (Sputnik) (1946) oil on canvas, 6 x 7 1/2 inches


Robert Boyd writes the enormously entertaining blog The Great God Pan is Dead, from which he has graciously allowed Glasstire to borrow this piece. He is also organizing the PAN Art Fair: Dallas at the Belmont Hotel on April 13.


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JP April 25, 2013 - 14:11

Thanks for this piece, Robert. Enormously interesting.

Larry Kennedy April 29, 2013 - 10:42

Mr. Boyd:

The best piece on Bess that I have read. My first teaching assignment in history after graduating from UT was at Bay City H. S. Became interested in Bess, his connections to both UT and A&M, as well as his Texas/NYC travels and recognitions.

Texas history is filled with contradictions and Bess represents one of the most unusual!

Thanks from Atlanta,

Michelle Cate April 29, 2013 - 17:45

Saw this show yesterday. His life actually reminded me quite a bit of another Texas hermit visionary type… Charles Stagg.

Michael Galbreth April 30, 2013 - 12:47

Dear Michelle,
Charlie was no hermit. At least not the Charlie Stagg I knew. I found him to be just the opposite. He was gregarious and would often come in to Houston just to go to openings, see shows, and visit friends. He was as knowledgable about the Texas art scene as anyone else. He was certainly not a “visionary artist” in the sense of “folk” artist. Illness in later life slowed him a bit. Admittedly, he was a bit kooky, but who ain’t?

Robert Boyd April 30, 2013 - 13:09

Maybe living in a hand-made sculpture of a home in Vidor made him seem like an “outsider” artist at first glance.

HJ BOTT April 29, 2013 - 23:37

With every Bess exhibition the contradictions continue to mount. Travel to NYC and secure representation by a hermit? And that’s but the beginning.

Robert Ziebell April 30, 2013 - 21:28

After seeing the Forrest Bess show at the Menil Collection, and now reading this review, I come away with the distinct impression that people have absolutely no atheistic understanding of Bess’s work.

But they certainly have a morbid fascination of one aspect of Mr. Bess. And the show had the Polaroid photos to prove it.

I have to thank Robert Gober for providing the Menil the beard to pull it off. Without his cover, they would have to take full responsibility for such a tawdry exhibition in the display cases. There is quite a treasure trove of writing, letters, photographs and memorabilia from Forrest and the people he communicated with. Much, much, more than is in the exhibition. In fact it can be found in the Archive of American Art, in of all places at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It is truly a fascinating story.

If the Menil would have known how to look at the work, they would have realized that, yes, it could’ve been hung salon style, like it was at the Betty Parsons exhibition in New York. But the paintings needed much more room and distance.

Forrest Bess’s small paintings can suck more oxygen out of a gallery space than many large works by other artists. Having to “lean in close” as Mr. Boyd suggests, only underscores that fact.

And contrary to Mr. Boyd’s observation, I do think Forrest was at times “trying to arrange colors and shapes in an interesting pleasing way.”

Anyone who spent any time in a remote part of the Texas coast at night, at sunset, or even at high noon, would understand what Mr. Bess was able to achieve with his intimate and self framed paintings. And taking in the vastness of that landscape might  even explain what he was trying to accomplish on his own self.

So instead of looking at Google maps, cryptic letters, pseudo medical photos, and jpegs of his work, take a day and drive out on the one way in, one way out dirt road to Chinquapin. When you get to the end of the road by the intercostal waterway, look over to the other side of the tributary that meanders down to the Gulf from Lake Austin. Honk your horn, and if are lucky Forrest will get in his skiff and ride across to pick you up.

I think it will all make sense then. Without the Polaroids.

Susan Schmaeling May 6, 2013 - 14:32

My friend and I spent Friday afternoon viewing Forrest Bess and the Byzantine Things in the World exhibitions at The Menil. She found the Bess exhibition “disturbing” due to the Polaroids of his self surgery in the display case. I found his work fascinating. I get that he wanted to meld his male/female selves into one self. I guess this aspect of his life is important to his work. Or not?

I have never been to Bay City but someday I may get there. Texans are endlessly fascinating.

Lynn October 17, 2013 - 00:50

Love his work. Are prints available of any ?

HJ BOTT October 19, 2013 - 23:47

Thanx, Robert. This is review is very telling about a marvelous marketing program for the self-imposed hermit that was so ever cognizant of the “art world. Wonder how many Bess paintings Gober owns.” BTW I love most of his very market aware paintings. Some of the most fascinating symbolism for the time.


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