New York

Forrest Bess

It’s easy to see why abstract painters of the ’40s and ’50s were drawn to the work of Forrest Bess (1911–77). Even now artists enthuse over Bess’ fluent command of a rich array of simple but powerful abstract imagery, presented in blocky, saturated color on tiny canvases. This exhibition—reportedly the largest exhibition ever of Bess’ work—gave ample evidence of his quirky, distinctive style. The twin white rectangles centered against a black background of Untitled (No. 12A), 1957, for example, have a mute eloquence that seems to anticipate the solidity of Minimalism, but the pinks and purples streaming out of the righthand rectangle suggest an urgent, fleshy aspect to this otherwise idealistic drama of forms.

The sketchy facts of Bess’ life have contributed to his appeal to subsequent generations of painters. Bess called himself a visionary painter and aligned his work with that of such figures as Van Gogh and Albert Pinkham Ryder. (For much of his work he would simply paint whatever he saw when he closed his eyes.) He wasn’t really an outsider, though; he was trained as an architect, and the numerous exhibitions of his paintings included six solo shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. But Bess spent almost all his life in Bay City, Texas, where he fished and gathered bait for a living, and as such he can easily be made to fit into the familiar type of the innocent outsider, unsullied by culture, who shows a greater clarity of vision than other, more sophisticated artists.

As time went on Bess attempted increasingly to articulate the meanings of his visions, tying them to a presumed universal language of signs expressed through the unconscious. This sort of attempt to base formal invention on a source outside of art is a familiar aspect of Modernist art. Where other artists had looked to science or biology to support their stylistic undertakings, Bess based his efforts on a system of psychological thought—in his case, that of C. G. Jung; others had turned to Freudian symbolism or surrealist automatism or Eastern mysticism.

While Bess’ relative isolation may have given him the freedom to pursue his project of articulating a universal symbology, in the end that same isolation set the limits of his vision. With the intensity of a true believer, Bess attempted to extend his symbols into a comprehensive system—an effort as chimerical as attempting to prove a dream. Without a tradition or dialogue of formal invention, his work, although remaining brilliant and startling, became repetitive and constricted. In his own life too he became increasingly detached, as he undertook a series of operations on himself in an attempt to substantiate his theories regarding the complex nature of sexuality.

Whatever the source of Bess’ compulsions, his singlemindedness enabled him to paint pictures that have a remarkable symbolic and coloristic inventiveness. But there is little sense of growth in his work—in the ’40s he had already achieved the vividly simple style that would mark all his subsequent painting. Bess was no primitive, however appealing it may be to see him as such—his work was very much part of the art world, but Bess himself chose to remain outside it. By opting out of the dialogue about form and meaning being carried on in New York and elsewhere in the ’40s and ’50s, he was able to retain his individuality, but by the same token, his work came to lose much of its relevance.

Charles Hagen