New York

Forrest Bess

Artists and critics have long sought validation from wildmen, have looked for authority from the primitive and the unschooled. It was with madmen and saints that they hoped to find the key to an authentic expression. So it is interesting that the Whitney should choose this moment to revive the work of Forrest Bess, a Texas primitive who died four years ago. Interesting because of the current upsurge of pseudo-expressionism, and interesting because it demonstrates an apparent curatorial misunderstanding that might just prove to have gotten things right.

Bess, to put it mildly, was an eccentric. And by far the most fascinating thing about his eccentricity centers on what Barbara Haskell, writing in the brochure that accompanies the exhibition, rather daintily describes as his “obscure sexual references.” Bess believed that androgyny held the key to everlasting life, and “advocated uniting male and female by means of a surgically produced fistula into the male urethra, which made possible urethral orgasm.” Apparently Bess was a tireless advocate of this theory (though he never seems to have bothered overmuch that women would be unable to share this mode of immortality), and he even underwent a series of operations to prove his point. Haskell refuses to tell us any more, however, which is a disappointment, if an expected one. It seems to me that if critics and historians are going to use biography to help them explain an artist’s work they have an obligation to go all the way, not just tease their readers with fragmentary gossip.

The paintings that came from this seemingly overheated imagination are remarkably modest and restrained—small icons of thick, dark paint framed by rather chunky strips of wood. We are told that the images came to Bess in that agitated state between wakefulness and sleep, and that he considered himself no more than a conduit or medium, recording these visions without elaboration. The signs that he jotted down and used in his paintings are remarkably similar to that range of symbols collected and made familiar by Carl Jung. What at first can be claimed as a personal iconography turns out to be, if not universal, at least widespread enough to be characterized as stereotypical (something acknowledged by Jung when, in a response to a letter from Bess, he told the artist that his ideas were not unique or new). Odd as they are, the paintings yet gain a quiet force from this quality of being already known. They make the strange seem familiar, they domesticate the primitive.

And, in so doing, they would seem to contradict Haskell’s thesis: that the “directness and authenticity” of Bess’ paintings have something to do with current practice. She is right, though, if for the wrong reason. For what is interesting about Bess’ work is that it demonstrates the impossibility of that much vaunted ideal of personal authenticity, and does so from the inside. Bess was a troubled man who cobbled together a theory of hermaphroditism to explain and justify a felt loss of real identity. And yet, working as an untutored loner, he still came up with the same old pictures. Apparently even wildmen cannot escape the prison house of language, the constraints of representation.

Thomas Lawson