Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible

Apr 19 – Aug 18, 2013
Main Building

Self-described visionary artist Forrest Bess (1911–1977) is a unique figure in the history of American art. Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible presents a selection of approximately 40 paintings, along with rare works on paper and selected letters by this important but under-recognized artist.

For most of his artistic career, Bess lived an isolated existence in a fishing camp outside of Bay City, Texas. He eked a meager living fishing and selling bait by day. By night and during the off-season he read, wrote, and painted prolifically, creating an extraordinary body of mostly small-scale canvases rich with enigmatic symbolism. Despite his remoteness, Bess made himself known in 1950s New York City, which was becoming the center of the commercial art world. The prominent dealer Betty Parsons represented Bess, dedicating several solo exhibitions to his work between 1950 and 1967.

Bess taught himself to paint by copying the still lifes and landscapes of artists he admired, such as Vincent van Gogh and Albert Pinkham Ryder. From early childhood and throughout his life, Bess experienced intense hallucinations, which both frightened and intrigued him. In 1946 he began to incorporate images from his 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 conveyed in his artwork, Bess hoped to uncover their universal meaning.

To aid in his search for meaning Bess looked for clues in literature from a variety of fields—medical, psychological, anthropological, and philosophical. 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 also used his own body as a testing ground, performing several operations on his own genitals in an effort to produce a hermaphroditic state.

For the exhibition, the Menil Collection has asked the contemporary American artist Robert Gober to make a selection of correspondence and articles by and about Bess, as well as photographs of the artist that attempt to fulfill Bess’s long-held desire to present his artwork alongside his thesis, an elaboration of the project originally created by Gober for the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Curated by Assistant Curator Clare Elliott, Seeing Things Invisible is the first museum exhibition to focus on Bess’s work in over 20 years, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue including detailed research on the chronology of Bess’s life. The exhibition will also be at the Hammer Museum of the University of California Los Angeles (September 29, 2013–January 5, 2014) and the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York (February 16–May 11, 2014).

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.

Photos: Paul Hester