Forrest Bess

Hiram Butler Gallery

Forrest Bess has long been more of a legend in the Houston art community than an artistic presence or influence. There hasn’t been a major show of his work during the last 24 years, while tales of his eccentric life and thought continually circulate. The exhibition organized by Terrell James corrected this situation, in part, by bringing to view 25 of Bess’ paintings done between 1934 and 1970.

Bess died in 1977 in Bay City, Texas, where he was born in 1911 and spent much of his adult life fishing and selling bait to survive. His art career, however, was by no means merely regional. He began exhibiting in 1949, and a 1962 retrospective included in its catalogue an essay by Meyer Schapiro in which Schapiro remarks on the tendency to read the work as the product “of a self-taught, educated primitive,” whereas on close examination the paintings belie this apparent naiveté by virtue of Bess’ “mastery of an exacting technique.” Schapiro closed his piece with a Modernist caveat against interpretation, and never mentioned the great mass of psychoanalytic-mystical theorizing Bess had integrated into his work.

Barbara Haskell supported her curatorial presentation of Bess’ paintings at the Whitney in 1981 with a much longer essay that informed viewers of the visionary context of the works’ creation, and went on to explicate Bess’ Jungian-based conception of the collective unconscious as well as his more radical notions of sexuality and immortality. In the end, Haskell, too, felt obliged to invoke the sufficiency of visual imagery to call forth the vague and ubiquitous condition we call “universal response.” That is not to imply that this problematic if comforting Modernist principle (universality) has no relevance for Bess: from the ’50s on he identified his work increasingly with the larger communal reservoir of symbolic forms.

Most of Bess’ work is disarmingly modest in scale; many paintings, including their handmade frames, are not much bigger than an average book. His execution of these unembellished, often homely, and cryptic images is deliberate and specific to each painting. The enigmatic simplicity of their mute forms draws the viewer into a realm of subjective abstraction where he or she inevitably confronts the lacuna between the factuality of what is seen and its apparent reference to or dependence on a world beyond immediate sense—the “elsewhere” of meaning. For Bess that elsewhere had its “origin” in the dream state, where images presented themselves whole. His self-assigned task was to copy, without esthetic or interpretive intervention, those unsolicited psychic manifestations captured at the margins of consciousness.

Oneiric imagery has had a broad influence on 20th-century art. One of its attractions for the artist has been that the intellect is thoroughly disabled in dreams, permitting the deep self to betray its “true” nature. It is possible to understand Bess’ paintings as hieroglyphic eruptions of the psychic body, and it would appear that Bess came to value his work in precisely this way: as messages from the interior. In many of these paintings, the message that surfaced over and over concerned the search for sexual wholeness. Vaginal, ovoid, and spherical forms recur with some regularity. Androgyny eventually became his particular obsession. That fact has a reflexive logic since, in Jungian terms, it is the anima (the male’s female personification of the unconscious) that acts as guide to the hidden world concealed within the envelope of consciousness. Bess virtually illustrated this state in an untitled 1959 painting dominated by a blue-and-white anima figure standing portentously in a frame of light—the threshold of the unconscious.

Critical difficulties issue from the working suppositions of Bess’ project: namely, the notion of the unconscious as pure source directing the painting hand to create in its image. The poetic intensity of his psychic labors and the spare beauty of his art do not triumph entirely over these problems, but for the moment his achievement does obscure them. It is also important to recognize an indissoluble relation between Bess’ collected works, his personal history, and the speculum of his theories. To insist on esthetic autonomy for the paintings risks diluting Bess’ significance in the mushy oneness of “universal response.”

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom