Critics’ Picks

Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 6), 1959, oil on canvas, 17 x 26".

Forrest Bess, Untitled (No. 6), 1959, oil on canvas, 17 x 26".


Forrest Bess

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)
2155 Center Street
June 11–September 14, 2014

Like the Kinsey Report, Forrest Bess’s work synthesized several currents in motion in midcentury America: new, open-minded perspectives that science and medicine offered on the physical body and the self. This exhibition emphasizes not only Bess’s small, spare abstract paintings, but also his life as a sexual visionary in a small Texas fishing village, where he painted in solitude and corresponded with such art-world luminaries as Betty Parsons and Meyer Schapiro, and sexologists such as John Money. From his small house where he worked as a bait salesman, he would send Parsons paintings to sell, such as Untitled (No. 6), 1959, which shows two cigar-thin maroon-and-white figures facing each other, streaks of Pepto-Bismol-colored paint streaming outward from behind each, like light beams emanating from behind their silhouettes. The paint is thick and labored, clogging the implied dynamism of the scene. In several other canvases as well, the human body appears in parts before disappearing into atmospheric ooze or mist. The colors are both acrid and heavenly—pinks, gray-blues, a chartreuse—and swirl together into offbeat Jungian portals.

Bess devoted years to studying the union between masculine and feminine energies in science and literature. In 1953, he performed at-home genital surgery on himself, reporting to Schapiro, “I had found entrance to the world within myself—a beautiful dimension.” Archival materials chosen by Robert Gober—Bess’s endless letters, journals, and his written thesis on hermaphroditism—show his attempts to convey own bodily and spiritual unity to a matrix of thinkers. In a sense, this is “Seeing Things Invisible”’s thesis: that Bess’s work is a rhizomatic force drawing together multiple worlds.