Among the giants (Rothko, Still, and Pollock) represented by the Betty Parsons gallery in the 50’s and 60’s, there roamed the small but potent work of an artist named Forrest Bess. He hailed from Bay City, Texas, a bait fisherman and oil rig roughneck by day, and a conduit for the visualization of eternal truths by night.
Parsons heard his name through the grapevine, and when she came to Texas, she ate him up with her silver spoon. Parsons mounted no less than six solo exhibits of Bess’s work, and introduced the artist to Meyer Schapiro, with whom he began a lasting correspondence.
Bess has been compared with Miró, because of a biomorphic bent and a use of black as an elemental nothingness, from which chromosomal life springs forth. Schapiro was especially partial to “his wonderful black, of many nuances: granular, matt [sic], shiny and rough.” These blacks are often used in counterbalance with white, although the exploration of opposites that Bess embarks upon is never hierarchical. Bess’s idea of opposites is that they attract and define one another in the most basal, semiotic way: they are each other. The balance struck in Before Man (1952) functions as a two-handed grip, fingers interlacing in a symmetry of color and form. The fusion of the antithetical is his raison d’être.
Before Man, 1952
Bess worked extensively on his “thesis,” a rambling document that fuses philosophy from Carl Jung, rituals from Australian aborigines, and transformative ideas from alchemy. Gender was the diametric relationship that concerned him most; and paintings like the one titled, The Hermaphrodite (1957) expose his fascination with a female/male composite body, as well as a craving to depict “primordial” form.
Once a label is attached to an artist, it becomes difficult, if not impossible to see past these particular labels. In case of the painter Forrest Bess, it is the term “visionary” that has been used ever since Bess referred to himself as “visionary painter” in a letter to art historian Meyer…