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No matter what the relationship between art and medicine, I would rather keep it on the aesthetic plain. . . . Why don’t you show your paintings and the thesis in a medical hospital?
—Betty Parsons, letter to Forrest Bess, 1958
Female patron: The paintings up there are amazing!
Male patron: Did you look at the stuff in the middle?
Female patron: No.
Male patron: Super weird.
—exchange in Berkeley Art Museum gift shop, September 2014
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, the latest retrospective of Forrest Bess’s (1911–1977) work, is one animal on the outside, and something else at its center. In one sense, the exhibition is a recovery mission of an obscure “visionary artist” who, through the efforts of a curator and a contemporary artist, is reconsidered in order to give a fuller account of his life, not just his paintings. Although a familiar historiographical exercise, a recovery mission is not an easy undertaking, and in the case of Bess, it is one that posed unusual challenges to curators and exhibition space alike—challenges that were handled admirably by the exhibition’s organizers, Menil Assistant Curator, Clare Elliott, and co-curator, artist Robert Gober, as well as Berkeley Museum of Art and Pacific Film Archive’s (BMA/PFA) Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections, Lucinda Barnes, who coordinated the Berkeley installation.
The current Berkeley Art Museum (a new building will open in 2016) is a neo-Brutalist structure constructed in 1970 with a characteristically conspicuous, concrete facade. Upon entering the building, all of the galleries come immediately into view as cantilevered tips jutting over a pause-inducing view of the museum’s vast landscape. The interior is a utopian space: promising to the point of suspicion. As are Bess’s canvases. (Indeed, it is a serendipitous alignment of museum architecture and traveling exhibition.) Small (most fit to the size of a human head), Bess’s paintings are expansive vocabularies, but with only a tip of their content visible from the gallery’s physical walls. Like most of Bess’s work, Untitled (No. 11A) (1958) is meticulous in both title and substance. Within a thin, hand-hewn frame that resembles a crudely constructed window, the impasto on the surface of the canvas is a tediously rendered landscape of blue and white stripes, stacked three rows high to form a high horizon licked by black flames against a red sky. The work shows striations of either terrestrial or aquatic origin; such striation suggests accumulation. We see depth, and thus also sense what remains unseen just beneath the surface. All of Bess’s paintings invoke the weight of that which always remains out of view: there is process here, and yet, when standing in front of his canvases, never do we feel as if the artist is figuring out anything as he goes. Painting for Bess was not an exploratory exercise in the same way it was for some of his better-known Abstract Expressionist contemporaries—Jackson Pollock or Hans Hofmann (both of whom hang on the concrete walls of this museum known for its strong representation of mid-century abstraction). On the contrary, the “visionary” part of Bess’s art-historical categorization in part comes from the clarity of the visions that the artist said appeared to him as complete pictures on the underside of his eyelids. As art critic John Yau observes in Chuck Smith’s documentary Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle (1999), Bess’s paintings “seem to have come directly from his eyes—closed or open—down through his hands, and onto the canvas.” There is no process of discovery for the painter in his materialization of vision into object; instead, the discovery has been for the rest of us who have come in contact with his work. And most especially, for those of us who are seeing it for the first time—as the artist always wanted it to be seen.
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible is really two exhibitions. The first is comprised of the paintings, which appear mostly in groups of two and three around a large one-room gallery. Primarily from the Menil Collection, but also the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Neuberger Museum of Art, and private collections, all of the included paintings are dated from 1946 to 1970. For most of this time, Bess was living on the Gulf Coast of Texas in a house he built by hand from old pieces of boat, working as a fisherman and a roughneck on an oil rig in the gulf. At the same time, he was showing his work at Betty Parsons Gallery, exhibiting alongside figures such as Pollock and Mark Rothko. The artist also had six solo shows at the gallery before his death in 1977. Bess was a man broadly invested, we could say, navigating two very different lands. To unite in perfect harmony opposites in the universe was his life’s work: work that he enacted on the page, the canvas, and his own body.
At the center of the room lies the second exhibition of Bess’s retrospective at BMA/PFA. It is the portion of the exhibition curated by Gober, who first presented Bess’s work as an installation at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Far from a “medical hospital,” as Parsons suggested rather curtly in her 1958 letter to Bess, Gober presents Bess’s paintings as the artist himself wished them to be seen: as one aspect of a larger project that argued for the perfection of uniting male and female in one body. Now lost, Bess’s thesis included diagrams, prints, and other kinds of visual evidence in promotion of the perfection of the hermaphrodite. His grandest gesture in support of his beliefs was a series of self-surgeries he performed—rendering himself what Bess called a “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” One of the three vitrines at the center of the exhibition is devoted to information about Bess’s self-surgery, including letters to President Eisenhower and Carl Jung about his thesis, and photographs of the hole that he made at the base of his urethra. The second vitrine is dedicated to books and articles written by Dr. John Money, a pioneer of sexual reassignment surgery, who wrote about Bess in a medical journal. Gober devotes the final vitrine to letters and photographs related to the artist’s relationship with Parsons. This second exhibition gives a view of the artist as simultaneously card-carrying Abstract Expressionist, avid amateur scientist/philosopher, and sexual-reassignment case study.
To get from the paintings on the periphery of the gallery to the center vitrines and back again (and back again) can be daunting, as demonstrated by the overheard exchange between museum patrons in the gift shop—along the perimeter, paintings like Untitled (11A) are “amazing,” while the center is “super weird.” Of course, it is not necessary to seek reconciliation between Bess’s paintings and the other material. Certainly during his lifetime, his paintings existed squarely in the art world of Manhattan while his thesis and medical correspondence stayed wholly in Texas (despite his letters to presidents and Swiss psychiatrists.) Indeed, until Gober’s installation of Bess’s paintings in 2012, the only other major consideration of the artist’s work after his death was in 1982, also at the Whitney. Here is where the myth of Bess was born, a myth rooted in the most distressing parts of his biography without any of the vitrine materials curated by Gober in the current exhibition. The myth is coarsely predictable: repressed homosexuality, alcoholism, depression, and isolation on the Texas Gulf led to the culminating events of his self-surgeries. Thomas Lawson deftly identified the inherent sensationalism of the Whitney’s project when he reviewed the show in 1982: “It seems to me that if critics and historians are going to use biography to help them explain an artist’s work, they have an obligation to go all the way, not just tease their readers with fragmentary gossip” (quoted by Travis Diehl, “Bleeding Horizons: Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible,” Los Angeles Review of Books, November 24, 2013).
More than twenty years later, Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible attempts to explain the artist’s work not with additional fragments of gossip but with conviction that Bess’s creative enterprise has been incompletely considered for too long—it has been dislocated and disjointed for the clarity of “amazing” over the murkiness of the “super weird.” The ultimate triumph of the show is the handling of center objects and perimeter paintings in a way that does not overdetermine the canvas’ surfaces, or make more poetic the objects in the center. The result is an exhibition that allows Bess to remain floating between worlds while also complicating, to productive effect, a myth that does not account for the completeness of his vision.
Elizabeth L. Bennett
Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University
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