The legend of Forrest Bess (1911–77), an abstract painter and self-described “visionary” championed by New York dealer Betty Parsons in the 1950s, is endlessly intriguing. After suffering a head injury in the army, Bess moved to a fishing camp outside Bay City, Texas, where he lived as the town eccentric—painting his uncontrollable visions until his death in 1977. Curated by Clare Elliott, the artist’s first museum retrospective in nearly 25 years features some 40 paintings and a work on paper, as well as a contribution by sculptor Robert Gober, originally created for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Gober’s selection of archival material relates to Bess’s “thesis” that becoming a hermaphrodite was the key to immortality, which led the painter to perform self-surgery in 1955.
Bess made his own frames and worked mostly with dark, brooding pigments, which he sometimes mixed with sand or varnish for texture. In many of his tiny canvases— some measuring a mere six inches—there is a compelling, compact tension, an almost hermetic language of symbolic shorthand. A series of staccato vertical lines in View of Maya (1951), for example, offers homage to van Gogh’s waving fields of wheat, distilling the Dutch master’s landscapes into a diminutive abstraction. Some paintings, such as Untitled (1947), seem prophetic—its twin vertical forms, each topped with a burst of purple light, bear a haunting resemblance to the Twin Towers. In The Prophecy (Sputnik), 1946, Miró-like forms bubble toward the surface of a dark horizon, while a strange object comes into orbit from above.
As he revealed in letters to Parsons and art critic Meyer Schapiro (both missives are on view here), Bess dreamed of exhibiting his art together with his theories of gender unification—which were inspired by alchemy, Carl Jung, and aboriginal rituals. To that end, the vitrines present startling photographs of Bess’s surgery, his sketches and theoretical writings, and his correspondence with sexologist Dr. John Money.
In this show, Bess’s artworks appear as fresh as ever, conjuring a surreal world drawn directly from his vivid imagination.