PRINT May 2012


Forrest Bess

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

THE CONTINUED mythic, outsider status of Forrest Bess is a testament to the sheer anxiety he sparks around hierarchies of vision and social organization—hierarchies that are central to how we legitimate works of art. It is no small feat for an artist who showed regularly during the peak years of Betty Parsons Gallery (that epicenter of the development and promotion of Abstract Expressionism) to continually reemerge as a holy grail of glimmering and elusive marginality. Since Bess’s death in 1977, his work has made cameo appearances in discourses as varied as an essay in Art Journal griping about the global ascendance of curators over artists circa Documenta 10, which claimed Bess’s “intensely personal worlds” as an antidote (1997); a lesbian-feminist revisionist history of Parsons’s gallery, which put the painter at the forefront of an ostracized queer AbEx (1994); and John Yau’s marvelous, poetic writing on Bess, which treats him as an exceptional subjectivity emblematic of the ways all modernists were disquieting, different, estranged (1984, 1988, 2012). Bess was labeled an “outsider against his will” on the occasion of a show at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in 1989; he was more recently appropriated as the harbinger of a certain celebrated, kooky mark-making in late-2000s “near-abstract” painting. This year saw a solo show of some forty paintings at Christie’s in New York, as well as his crowning as the universal critical favorite of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, where he was given a room to himself, guest-curated by the artist Robert Gober.

That these modest, terrifyingly strange paintings could stand for so much to a handful of influential people and yet be described as “marginal” in almost every iteration of praise could be explained in part by the actual social marginality of Bess’s life and by the way, from the start, he promoted himself in the New York art world. In the letter that initiated his nearly thirty-year-long epistolary, confessional relationship with the art historian Meyer Schapiro, written in response to Schapiro’s participation in the 1948 Life magazine round table “Modern Art: Fifteen Distinguished Critics and Connoisseurs Undertake to Clarify the Strange Art of Today,” Bess described himself as follows:

I am a painter—fisherman. I live on Chinquapin Bay on East Matagorda Bay on the Gulf Coast of Texas. I am fairly unknown and desire to remain so but like most painters—when I hear or meet a person with a viewpoint similar in some ways to mine I have the natural inclination to desire to further that acquaintance. My gallery is Parsons at 15 E. 57th in N.Y. My gallery would have been Willard if I had sent my work there. I also know Miller (Dorothy) at the M. of M. Art. The classification of my work is “abstract primitive” and “visionary painter.” Sometimes when you’re in town go by and look at it and drop me a note.

The simultaneous way in which the artist declares his proud obscurity while claiming, with passive arrogance, the position of being the same, or on the same level, as “most painters” is part of the annoying charm of Bess’s personality: his blithe blindness to social hierarchy in a world in which he nevertheless finds himself so alienated. In current writing about Bess, the words Texas, fisherman, visionary, and some version of hermaphrodite (more on that later) always form, like a cloud of apologies—or, given the astonishing increase in the value of his work in the past few years, like dollar signs—around his name.

But I don’t think it is primarily such outsider-insider marketing that places his work, perennially, just outside the margins of visibility (or awaiting its next rediscovery). The paintings themselves are curious, strange—and, for someone confronted with writing about them, particularly terrifying, as many of his canvases perform that intimidating act of becoming unintelligible. Dense crossings of paralogical sign systems; anachronistic, constantly sliding stylistic modes; and an absolute directness in execution tend to flip out even critical minds that have developed careful procedures for explaining pictures.

This, of course, is part of the pleasure of looking at a painting by Bess, and even the most weathered art pursuer greets such moments with a combination of relief, wonder—and squirming. The words that you might reach for disform as they are confronted with the paintings’ stark opacity; as a result, critics are tempted to confront the work with a spray of biographical information. This temptation is egged on by the particularly explosive nature of what, exactly, Bess did to his “urogenital region.” (The story is so overpublicized at the moment that I won’t go into detail, but in short: In 1955, as the culmination of his intensive research into discovering an orgasmic, youth-inducing “secret” within hermaphroditism, Bess, with the crude anesthesia of getting “good and drunk,” cut an elaborate hole into the base of his penis.)

What I find disappointing with all of the tangential praise around Bess’s practice is that it always meets these “difficult” biographical details as stopping points—as if biographical details can be left to float, unattached from the form or development of the artist’s work, either used to further mystify a cryptic aura or dismissed as freakish anecdotes that have little to do with the art at hand. This type of dislocated biography is used as an arbitrary—even infantilizing—critical (and curatorial) haze that “protects” us from seeing what is going on. With Bess, these critical blinders are particularly politicized, as this “disturbing” biographical side note is the locus of major artistic and theoretical developments in his work, and any failure to see Bess’s production of transsexual sexual difference as significant beyond the limits of his own personal psychology is art-historically feeble, out-of-date, even bigoted.

By now, it should be possible—if not necessary—to think Bess’s bodily acts on the same plane as his paintings: to treat them not as biographical tidbits, but as artistic gestures intrinsic to his work. As Gober’s lyrical “inhabitation” of the archival body of Bess in the Whitney Biennial emphasizes, Bess insistently tried to have his “thesis” (a dense assembly of image and text, which has unfortunately survived only in fragments) shown as part of his solo exhibitions in the late 1950s. Parsons denied his request, suggesting that the combination of paintings and thesis would be more appropriate in a “medical hospital.” The mythology set up by the Whitney is that Gober “realizes Bess’s wish,” and with its vitrines of archival materials—including three pages of his thesis, shown out of order; a crotch shot of Bess’s self-surgery; and a magazine article featuring glamorous photos of Parsons—along with extensively researched, often poignant wall text, the small gallery devoted to Bess’s work gestures toward a visual-informational field in which this could happen. I only wish that Gober, himself a master of creating voided objects and spaces, had pushed the formal aspects of Bess’s paintings, writing-collage, and bodily experiments further, past a safe dichotomy between archival material (vitrine, wall text) and art object (paintings on the wall). But the potential is there. And with a certain intensity of attention and reflection, the documentation of the void Bess produced in his urethra can be understood as part of a continuous sequence of voids he painted from the late 1940s through the ’50s—and not merely a proximate, personal detail.

An early void (Untitled [The Void I], 1946–47) on view at the Christie’s show is particularly interesting, as it features a dense mass of symbols not included in the Jung-inspired charts Bess produced as a kind of decoder key for his own work. The painting holds in its carved-out center a mixture of cosmological, natural, mathematical, and “primitive” doodles, none of which seem to signify anything—and all of which are painted with a fresh, cartoony flair that, like much of Bess’s work, would look more at home in the 1980s than in the ’40s or ’50s. This overflow of signs appears to have fallen into the sinking bottom of a white void. The painting was made before Bess began communicating with Schapiro—the great American importer of semiotics into art history—and yet the arbitrariness and the nonmimetic aspects of what Schapiro called the image-sign seem here already pushed to the limit of hermeticism, of unreadability. On the other side of the “world,” meanwhile, another clump of junk signifiers has begun to collect—or this could also be a bunch of markings on the roof of the mind, or crude oil spilling from the earth, as blood inside the brain sparks a jolt of overfiring synapses.

Forrest Bess with his work, Chinquapin, TX, ca. 1960.

It has often been mentioned that Bess was quite literal about the “visionary” aspect of his work; he saw images on the backs of his eyelids, which he copied directly into sketchbooks in a half-dreaming state, and these sketches served as “memory aids” for painting. What I find fascinating about this process is its wayward scientificity. Bess, as self-anointed scientist, mystic, philosopher, and artist in one, could be both the observed object and the subjective (better yet, “psycho-alchemical”) producer of experiments on his own body. His visions were not spaced-out hallucinations projected onto the world but intimate, experimental physiological phenomena, where images formed in the synaptic mesh of his brain were projected onto the flesh of his eyes. The materiality of this process gives the paintings what I can best describe as the feeling, but not the look, of microscope slides. There is a certain viscosity or filminess to the paint that reminds me both of the fluid used to keep a biological sample fresh as it is pressed between pieces of glass, and of the weary, glassy tears of watching, and blinking, in the darkness of the lab, with soft light projected through cold glass onto the surface of the eye.

In Untitled (No. 5), 1951, the material of the eyeball itself seems to form informational voids on the surface of the canvas. Across a gently rippling plane of golden, dark ocher that passes through a flat blackness, random, squiggling gaps in continuity resemble the way the optical aberrations known as floaters create clusters of interference in vision. Even when the eyes are closed, if the head is tilted toward a light source, these deposits in the clear, jellylike center of the eye flick back and forth across the field of vision, creating a sense that what is seen in the mind also has a potentially motile support surface. Bess, like Goethe before him, poses sight not as transcendent but as irrevocably embodied, gelatinous—yet also charged, even electric.

The voids enlarge and morph in other paintings, and in my personal favorite, Untitled (No. 12 A), 1957, we are confronted with two white rectangles, like an empty stereoscope, and a red and pink smear of bubble-gum-like flesh oozing off to the side of this divided field of vision; this is the void of shocks, flashes of light, chutes of semiotic breakdown through which one can fall into an absolute vacuum of words, sounds, breath. In his various explanatory charts of symbols, Bess conveys the visceral and narrative density he gave to white and red voids, with the former representing the female and the “new moon” drawn between “legs of man”; the latter, the male, the sun, and the “golden star” (the anus). If we follow his charts and read Untitled (No. 12 A) as a return to the feminine, we can see that for Bess, the feminine is not a comforting or soft space, but a doubling, intensifying, electrifying set of voids. Two pages from the thesis-fragment on display in the vitrine at the Whitney elaborate Bess’s complex thinking even further:

The alchemists did not know whether the penis could be turned inside out—the red and the white in. Cauldwell says that such is impossible unless the penis be partially severed. However this constitutes the “red stone”—that which is impregnable—cannot be dialated [sic] however the spongy section can be dilated. . . . Therefore we have and understand the origin of both the red and the white. . . . Our search however is for the Star—the Quarternity—the Door to the Kingdom of Heaven, etc. In a very early dream we were in a three room house. The middle room contained all the great art treasures of the earth. A door was opened into the third room and the odor of death and the earth came forth. The Woman (Mother) closed it quickly. This dream preceded the perineum incision and the wound closed very quickly. You remember that Plato would have the hero inter [sic] the small passage—outside urethra.

Our analysis of the eyebolt as the symbol of the ankh is in error because of the direction shown in the dream is always complimentary [sic]—that is 90 degrees from consciousness therefore rather than seeing the eyebolt as it was shown, it in reality is the other way round. . . . The dreams have come forth showing the Star above the breasts. Also it has been shown above the anus using the whole body as the phallic symbol. This is the location verified by Cauldwell and the mika operation—with the exception that the Australians apparently never found the dialating process therefore it was a ritual act only—

What we can also see in this fragment is the peripatetic movement: the rapid shifts in scale and register of Bess’s mostly illogical thought patterns that hang inside straightforward expository gestures. In a way, Bess’s writing, when seen as part of his artwork (and, in many ways, outside his own understanding of his work) prefigures a textual aesthetic more fully developed by the Language poets. In fact, the deeper one delves into the archival material, the more one sees aesthetic connections with all types of groups that Bess could have been part of—ways in which his work might have developed.

But it may be this lonely, quarantined quality—as when you have spent all day doing tedious tasks on the computer and then can’t form proper sentences in a social situation—that explains why Bess’s work resonates with us so profoundly today. As I look at the cover of the Christie’s auction catalogue, which features a Polaroid of Bess wearing a certain happy-go-lucky smile that seems alien to the brutality of his work, the artist’s oft-repeated line finally starts to slide into sense: “My painting is tomorrow’s painting. Watch and see.” This phrase (also printed on the cover) reads differently in the present—Bess’s “tomorrow”—than when it was first declared. In 2012, as we “watch and see” his work, we feel an empathy for a crudeness, a technological invasiveness, a desire to cut holes in or redistribute affects on our neocyborgian bodies. Bess’s aggressive rewirings of psychological, artistic, mystical, philosophical, and medical discourses feel prescient. This is the contemporary form of Bess’s work, as if painted on the surface of our eyes and on the synthetic screens of our sociability.

Ken Okiishi is an artist based in New York and Berlin.