NEUBERGER MUSEUM OF ART | FEBRUARY 16 – MAY 18, 2014
“I feel like a pelican in a church,” Forrest Bess wrote to his dealer, Betty Parsons, in 1949. He was staying at a friend’s house in Woodstock, New York, painting and passing time until the opening of his first show in December of that same year. New York felt burdensome to the painter; he much preferred his isolated shack on a treeless spit of land off the Texan Gulf Coast, where he scraped by a living as a bait fisherman. Yet it was the conviction that his paintings needed to be seen that drove him to endure such civilized conditions—he knew their visibility was essential like he knew “that there were shrimp in the bay.” He went on to admit, “Do you know, I can’t keep clean, physically, up here?”
Forrest Bess: Seeing the Invisible, currently at the Neuberger Museum, attempts to present the artist in his entirety: his paintings, his letters, his infamous “thesis.” Examining a life of such complexities is a sensitive task, and the curators carefully present the paradoxes of Bess’s character. Bess was a serious, committed artist who showed regularly in New York City throughout the ’50s and ’60s, yet struggled with mental illness, spending the last years of his life in an institution. He was well-read and kept lengthy correspondences with leading intellectuals, including Meyer Schapiro, but it was this same intellectual perseverance, when channeled toward alchemical and medical experiments, that convinced Bess to severely alter his body with a razor blade. Aptly, co-curator Robert Gober titles his contribution to the exhibition catalogue: “The Man that Got Away.”
Seeing the Invisible begins with “Dedication to Van Gogh” (1946), a small canvas in which pulsating zigs and zags—echoing the wheat fields of Van Gogh’s last canvas—meet a setting blue sun in a mustard sky. It feels the most outwardly anxious of all the canvases, as if the colors of nature appeared through a negative spectrum. Bess had his first mental breakdown around the time of this picture, after he was attacked for revealing his homosexuality during his military service. Gravely, the work sets the tone of an artist in turmoil.
From this point forward, painting became a vital outlet for his active subconscious. Bess referred to himself as a “visionary painter,” which he meant literally: he painted his visions, as authentically as possible. He had little interest in what he saw as embellishment in contemporary art. “Frankly,” he wrote in the same letter to Betty Parsons, “I would very much like to see some work that would cause me to feel—‘yes here it is—this is no concoction—no creation—this man painted his vision.’” The work on view is evidence that he held himself rigorously to this standard.
Cryptic and surreal, much of the work offers a door into the artist’s dreams. Forms are distilled into abstractions and thickly painted; often, pigment looks to have been squeezed directly from the tube. His colors are bold and opaque, and fill the small canvases with tightly-wound symbols. In “Untitled” (1957), stacked yellow and black rectangles arc into the crimson horizon like the last few vertebrae of a snake, or train tracks to nowhere. In “Untitled (The Crowded Mind/The Void)” (1947), hieroglyphic-like characters lay jumbled in a concave pit: the artist’s Tower of Babel. Each canvas is painted with care and confidence, carrying an essential message that retains its tension over time.
Bess believed in metaphor as an essential tool for transmitting knowledge, and in the evangelical tone of his letters, he describes himself as a modern day sibyl. “Each one is a statement,” again, to Parsons, “of what I don’t know. I am only a conduit through which they pass.” In works like “Untitled (No. 40)” (1949), previously owned by Parsons, symbols compose a riddle. A swatch of white is sutured to a canary background, across the small canvas, an incomplete spiral faces black, radiating faint, multicolored dust.
Bess often wrote of his instinctual knowledge that the paintings needed to be seen, but also, he hoped they would be studied, even read. “Untitled (No. 40)” is encoded with the artist’s iconography, a language of nearly 50 symbols he transcribed into equations for his correspondents: a circle = hole; a three dimensional triangle/tent = to stretch; a tall isosceles triangle = to cut deep. (So many of these symbols are tied to his own ideas on bodily modification.) By collecting the abstract forms culled from his visions and imbuing them with symbolic weight, he sought to establish (or to his mind, rediscover) a universal pictorial language, accessible and meaningful to all.
In his own research, this utopian drive brought him to a radical conclusion. Bess’s “thesis”—his highly annotated archive of Dr. Eugen Steinach’s controversial experiments of the 1920s, Aborigine rituals, and ancient alchemical treatises (just to name a few of his areas of inquiry)—led him to believe that immortality was achievable through his own transformation into a hermaphrodite. To experience this kind of sexual pleasure, so he imagined, was true, genuine freedom. He often asked that his “thesis” be displayed alongside his paintings; the gallery always politely declined.
At the Neuberger exhibition, the artist’s words, clippings, and Polaroids of self-surgery are here in the same room, destabilizing our gaze. They refuse a clean look. Never were his canvases exercises in formalist abstraction. They were and remain artifacts within a grander system of belief. And his forms may resonate with ancient, non-Western symbols, but in a more immediate sense, the paintings are portraits of sublimated desire. In fulfilling the artist’s wish, the exhibition reveals the entangled web in which Bess’s work still hangs.
In “Untitled (No. 12A)” (1957), two white, symmetrical rectangles are set against an expanse of darkness, like panes in a window. From a single white edge, a stream of golden, cosmic fire rushes towards the frame in a euphoric, controlled burst. In mythic language, the colors scream of an escape from the repression of black and white: the kind of personal freedom the artist yearned for, and found only through pigment. To our eyes, the work still captivates with its enigmatic spell, speaking in tongues of lust, strife, discipline, and belief.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.