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A New Vision of a Visionary Fisherman

March 25, 2012

                                                                                                                                                       Christieís Images, Ltd.

“Chinquapin, 1967” by Forrest Bess shows how he was influenced by his surroundings on the Gulf of Mexico. More Photos »


The art of Forrest Bess (1911-77), like that of Vincent van Gogh, may be in danger of being overtaken by his life story. Especially now, when the work of this eccentric visionary painter — who spent the bulk of his maturity as a fisherman on the Gulf of Mexico, living on a spit of Texas beach — is having an especially intense New York moment.

The current Whitney Biennial includes a show within a show of 11 Bess paintings, organized by the sculptor Robert Gober; it proffers Bess as a kind of foundational artist of our time. And an additional 40 of his paintings can be seen in “A Tribute to Forrest Bess,” an exhibition at Christie’s that is occasioned by a private sale of those works for a single seller. (It makes for the rather uneasy sight of an auction house acting like a commercial gallery handling what is tantamount to an artist’s estate.)

The facts of Bess’s life are nothing if not sensational. They include isolation, poverty, recurring visions — Bess said that he merely copied motifs that had appeared to him in dreams since childhood — and even self-mutilation. In the late 1950s, convinced that uniting the male and female sides of his personality would guarantee immortality, Bess attempted to turn himself into what he called a “pseudo-hermaphrodite” through two acts of painful self-surgery that yielded a small vaginalike opening at the base of his penis.

But as with van Gogh’s work, Bess’s small, intensely personal quasi abstractions seem designed to withstand the onslaught of biography. The best of them, made from 1946 to 1970, are initially unimposing yet can rivet the eye with their roiled surfaces, saturated colors and combinations of odd symbols or distilled evocations of the natural world.

Equally important is the way Bess’s works reshape art history. Like Myron Stout, Steve Wheeler and Alice Trumbull Mason, who also favored small size and resonant forms, Bess expands our understanding of the ascendancy of American painting in the 1940s and ’50s far beyond the wall-size canvases of the usual Abstract Expressionist suspects.

There has not been so much of Bess’s work on view in New York since 1988, when Hirschl & Adler Modern mounted a show of 61 paintings. And both the Whitney and Christie’s displays include fascinating, if sometimes unsettling, ancillary information.

At the Whitney, Mr. Gober has juxtaposed the paintings with Bess’s correspondence with New York art world figures like the art historian Meyer Schapiro and Betty Parsons, the leading dealer of the Abstract Expressionists. Parsons gave Bess six solo shows from 1951 to 1967, which demonstrates the extent to which this outsider was also very much an insider, as driven to exhibit his work as any painter in a downtown loft. There are also photographs of the self-surgery.

At Christie’s “Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle,” a marvelous 48-minute film completed in 1998 by Chuck Smith, working with the photographer Ari Marcopoulos, is being screened continuously, if not to best effect, on a small monitor. In this film you hear from numerous affectionate and understanding friends and relatives who knew Bess intimately, as well as from interested New Yorkers. These include Schapiro, the Buddhist writer Robert Thurman and John Yau, a critic who wrote an essential essay for the catalog for the Hirschl & Adler Modern show.

Mr. Thurman floats the thesis that, from a Buddhist perspective, Bess was “maybe someone who had been a yogi in a former life.” He notes that a yogi’s role is to “yoke your body and being to your view of life,” calling Bess’s body “his supreme work of art.”

 Read more at:  Forrest Bess Paintings at Christie’s and Whitney Biennial
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