Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible
June 11, 2014 - September 14, 2014
Forrest Bess (1911–1977) described himself as a visionary artist. His small but powerful abstract paintings, with their thick paint and handmade rough-hewn frames, are deeply personal. They draw on a vocabulary of simple biomorphic shapes and symbols the artist developed over the course of years from his recurring visions; when he awoke each morning, he would sketch the shapes he had seen on the inside of his eyelids in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness. While resonant with Modernist abstraction, Bess’s beautiful and mysterious pictures suggest a spirituality akin to indigenous religious icons.
For most of his career, Bess lived an isolated existence in a fishing camp outside of Bay City, Texas. He made a meager living fishing and selling bait. However, by night and during the off-season, Bess read, wrote, and painted prolifically. He taught himself to paint by copying the still lifes and landscapes of artists he admired, including Vincent van Gogh and Albert Pinkham Ryder. He was also interested in Symbolism, the exploration of universal truths, and particularly the writings of Carl Jung. Despite his isolation, Bess developed an underground following and was known to a number of other artists and art historians, including Meyer Schapiro, who collected his work. In 1949, he traveled to New York and met the prominent dealer Betty Parsons, who between 1950 and 1967 organized several solo exhibitions of his work at her gallery in New York, one of the most avant-garde of its time.
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible pairs Bess’s paintings, dating from 1946 to 1970, with an installation of archival materials curated by sculptor Robert Gober, titled The Man That Got Away, which illuminates Bess’s art and life. The exhibition of this piece at the 2012 Whitney Biennial renewed interest in the magnetic, compelling paintings of Forrest Bess, whose reputation had waned, along with his health, in the 1970s.
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible is organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, curated by Assistant Curator Clare Elliott, and coordinated at BAM/PFA by Lucinda Barnes, chief curator and director of programs and collections. At the Menil Collection, this exhibition was realized through the generous support of The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; The Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation; Ann and Henry Hamman; Bérengère Primat; Michael Zilkha; Baker Botts LLP; Bank of America; Peter J. Fluor/K.C. Weiner; Christy and Lou Cushman; and the City of Houston. Support for the BAM/PFA presentation is provided in part by Rena Bransten; Kate and Adam Clammer; Patricia W. Fitzpatrick; Beth Rudin DeWoody and the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc.; Charles Kremer; Tecoah and Tom Bruce; the Robert Lehman Foundation; and Laura and David Perry.