Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible
Forrest Bess, Untitled, 1947. Oil on canvas. The Menil Collection, Houston, gift of the artist
Photo: Paul Hester
April 19 – August 18, 2013
Self-described “visionary” artist Forrest Bess (1911–77) is a unique figure in the history of American art. For most of his career, Bess lived an isolated existence in a fishing camp outside of Bay City, Texas, eking out a meager living by selling bait and fishing. By night and during the off-season, however, he read, wrote, and painted prolifically, creating an extraordinary body of mostly small-scale canvases rich with enigmatic symbolism. Despite his isolation, Bess was known to a number of other artists, and in 1949 he met the prominent artist and dealer Betty Parsons. Between 1949 and 1967, Parsons organized six solo exhibitions of his work at her gallery in New York, the undisputed center of the art world at the time.
Bess taught himself to paint by copying the still-lives and landscapes of artists he admired, such as Vincent van Gogh and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Beginning in early childhood, Bess experienced intense hallucinations that both frightened and intrigued him; in 1946, he began to incorporate images from these visions into his paintings. After discovering Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, Bess began to understand painting not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end. By meticulously recording and studying the dream symbols captured in his artwork, Bess hoped to uncover their universal meaning.
To aid in his search, Bess looked to a variety of fields—medicine, psychology, anthropology,
philosophy—combing their literature for clues. He eventually formulated a theory, which he
referred to as his “thesis,” that the unification of male and female within one’s body could
produce immortality. He so sincerely believed in his idea that he not only sent written copies of
the thesis (now lost) to prominent researchers, but used his own body as a testing ground,
performing several operations on his own genitals in an effort to produce a hermaphroditic state.
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible will present a selection of approximately forty paintings,
along with rare works on paper and selected letters by this important but under-recognized
artist. The exhibition will also include The Man That Got Away by contemporary American
sculptor Robert Gober, originally created for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. In this room-size
installation, Gober compiles a selection of Bess’s paintings and writings, and photographs of the artist as a way to fulfill Bess’s long-held desire to present his artwork alongside his thesis.
Organized by Assistant Curator Clare Elliott and accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue,
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible is the first museum exhibition to focus on Bess’s work in over twenty years.
This exhibition is generously supported by The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation, The Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation; Ann and Henry Hamman, Bérengère Primat; Michael Zilkha, Baker Botts L.L.P., Bank of America, Peter J. Fluor/K.C. Weiner, Christy and Lou Cushman, and the City of Houston.