File Note 142: Forrest Bess - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Archie Squire

 

Postcards from Bimini Images Quote Reading List Biography Credits

Scene – a landscape so beautiful. Blue – as if netting was dyed a cobalt blue for the sky – a dancer dressed in blue with a red shirt and a blue jacket with arms outstretched toward the viewer. Blond hair. A wall like affair keeps him from coming forward. The land I have known before – what was it – the blue land of the Bimini? So very beautiful. Forrest Bess letter to Betty Parsons, undated, c. 1961 [‘First, let us talk business.’]

Postcards from Bimini

Forrest Bess’s visions shudder forth, out of the blue. Projected from a subliminal beyond, they communicate in textured codes, their lines incised or scratched-in, oils transformed into matrices that hold grains of sand in fragile suspension. Primordial glyphs hover over breathless body-landscapes as the marks left behind by an urgent yet controlled hand. The atmospheres are leaden, the spaces shallow. Edge closer, and forms and techniques hidden in the paintwork now emerge, surfacing into being. The delivery of these images is unflinching, the palette knife lapping with precision and certainty. Bess’s paintings make dark mysteries of nature; they make Rothko look tentative.

Notice the rough strips of driftwood that often frame them, and it’s as though the works have weathered storms to be here. Forrest Bess (1911–1977) lived mostly in solitude for 19 years at Chinquapin Bayou on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, a numinous place roughly 25 miles south of the petrochemical community of Bay City, Texas, into which he had been born. The flat terrain there left him at the mercy of the elements, to say nothing of the rattlesnakes, scorpions and giant mosquitoes he would encounter. He sacrificed artworks and dwellings to the hurricanes that tore through the landscape. ‘[I]t is unspoiled by claptrap – it’s raw – rugged – frontier-like in feeling. But to me it is like working in a big third dimensional canvas’, he wrote in an early letter to his dealer, the New York gallerist Betty Parsons. [1]

In the aftermath of any turbulent episode, splintered branches washed up on the shore beside Bess’s home. Like those branches, his images originated in a romantic non-place, dictated by the eidetic flashes of his unconscious mind. The driftwood frames tell of their elusive passage, materially tethered to the sea and the storm as if nature itself has brought them in. To see Bess’s tiny paintings hung on the wall is therefore to temporarily reorient ourselves. We’re positioned now above the water, and the visions are like traces of petrol swirled kaleidoscopically on the surface below: that threshold between the conscious and unconscious worlds. ‘The sea is the symbol of the unconscious’, Bess once noted to his faithful listener, the art historian Meyer Schapiro, his words recounting those of psychoanalyst Carl Jung. [2]

Blond-haired Bess must regularly have caught his own reflection in the water at Chinquapin. On the surface bobbed the image of a lone man; beneath it an indescribable immensity. And since – extraordinarily for someone who lived on an island and made a meagre living selling bait and trawling for shrimp – he couldn’t swim, perhaps a looming sense of death lurked there too, in the void.[3] Recalling one of his nocturnal visions to Schapiro, he wrote:

the Anthropos seeing his shadow or reflection in the water – an ancient thing but it happened to me here in the twentieth century – it was my man dressed in blue with the blue background – I remember that the image was ‘dissolved’ as if the water was disturbed or the reflection disturbed on the surface of a still pool. But again it is among the Indians of the blue land… [4]
Bess to Meyer Schapiro, 11 February 1955. Schapiro papers.

Hyperlinked to antiquity, Bess’s self-identified protagonist was also connected – or so he claimed in his outdated terms – to the native populations of Bimini, a cluster of Bahamian islands once heralded in colonial myth as the source of the Fountain of Youth. In an essay for his local newspaper, the artist-fisherman offered other syncretic examples of this quasi-Jungian ‘blue’ archetype: Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, ‘the blue men who danced in their pagan ritual at ancient Stonehenge’, and ‘the blue men of the South Pacific island legends’.[5] His own blue man was merely one expression of a primeval lineage. When he glimpsed himself in the water, then, he perhaps also saw his mirrored silhouette dwarfed by a reservoir of predecessors.[6]

Bess came to understand his identity as a self-professed ‘pseudohermaphrodite’ in a similar way, his expansive research into bodily transmutation uncovering what he believed to be the ideal form reiterated across histories and civilisations.[7] Initially inspired by the writings of Havelock Ellis, whose intimate case studies of sexual roles and ritual practices he had devoured at college, Bess recognised in the unification of the normative sex binary an untapped potentiality that might not only render him psychosomatically whole, but could also bring harmony to the world outside. As he pushed to understand himself further, wrestling with queer desires and with the meanings of the symbols he copied onto his canvases from a bedside sketchbook, he became immersed in a research-led practice that recast his Chinquapin cabin as a laboratory at the edge.

“Once I felt as if I was on a revolving stage that turned – that flopped around quickly for a second then came on back around to my original position – but I had a glimpse of a Blue Land as crystalline – clear cut – beautiful – and as eternal as anything I have ever experienced. Sometimes I think perhaps that that is what I am looking for again” [8]

Bess read avidly and widely in search of the unknown, threading between texts that spanned psychoanalysis and mythology to studies of prehistoric art, alchemy and literature. Then, in early 1952, he made a radical leap. One fateful evening, he took a razor blade to his body and produced two small cuts, the first at the tip of his penis and the second in his perineum.[9] The ecstatic instance only plunged him deeper into his inquiry. ‘[T]he process of the unconscious is to bring about the self-pseudohermaphroditic in nature’, he put to Schapiro four years later.[10]

Between the endocrinological and nuclear frontiers of mid-century, which showed nature to be fundamentally plastic, pseudohermaphroditism was unveiled as the next earth-shattering breakthrough. ‘Perhaps you did not know that [Max] Planck’s Law of Complimentaries [sic] is the same as Jung’s Law of inevitable complementariness. That which produces the bomb will also produce the hermaphrodite?’ he asked his friend and patron, Sidney Berkowitz.[11] His words foreshadowed those of Christine Jorgensen, the first publicly transgender woman in the United States, who recalled the moment she procured estradiol in a 1968 autobiography:

“How strange it seemed to me that the whole answer might lie in the particular combination of atoms contained in those tiny aspirin-like tablets. As recently as a few years before, science had split some of those atoms and unleashed a giant force. There in my hand lay another series of atoms, which in their way might set off another explosion.”[12]

Throughout the 1950s, Bess proceeded to build a case for his obliterative ideas. In a loose series of letters to which he first referred as a textual ‘ballet’ related to the blue man of his vision, and which he later came to term his ‘thesis’, he compiled citations and plates torn from books, collaging them with sketches, typewritten paragraphs and photographic self-portraits to set out a chimeric body of knowledge. He submitted the general tenets of his theory to eminent figures throughout the country, scattering himself widely to be met often with silence or scorn.

At the subtextual level, he sought a third urogenital incision, this one ratified by the medical establishment. In January 1960, a sympathetic Bay City doctor agreed to carry out the procedure, which would create a penetrable orifice at the root of Bess’s penis and in doing so perhaps conclude an eight-year-long embodied experiment. Bess announced nonchalantly to Parsons three months later, ‘Recently I underwent a minor operation in which a fistula was established at the peno-scrotal angle. This makes your boy Bess a pseudo-hermaphrodite. Dialation [sic] is proceeding.’[13]

For Bess, his resculpted ontology floated atop a vast archive of signs. ‘I find that precisely the same thing has been said over and over from the earliest Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, Chinese, etc etc.’, he remarked.[14] Pseudohermaphroditism, it seemed, was the common denominator behind the creative impulses of all cultures and ages. Through abstract geometric symbols, history pointed compass-like towards the nebulous notion of acquired intersexuality circumscribing Bess’s ideal. Borrowing from Jungian terminology, he described these symbols as ‘the language of the collective unconscious’.[15] If only we were to follow their insistent cues, he inferred, we’d know to transform ourselves in order to uncover an eternal, regenerative source that could transcend pathological and violent mortalities; to access a truth hitherto held in latency. Bess’s project was both an exceedingly individual one and a revolutionary blueprint for the advancement of the social body, proffering in his words, ‘a future state of man somewhat different from modern man’.[16] It promised the death-defying rejuvenation Bimini had never delivered. He believed it could end the Cold War.

Like Bess’s pseudohermaphroditic quest, his paintings simultaneously address an individual and the collective. On the one hand, the extensive written discourse that co-produces them consistently redirects us to the artist, his body and indelible biography. By a process of re-envisioning the dream content that he termed ‘integration’ after Jung, for instance, Bess determined that his mandalic canvas The Greek showed an endoscopic view of the urethra by way of his modified penis.[17] If we take on face value his hand-written primers indexing what he recognised as the elemental symbols of art history, we learn that the use of silver leaf signifies semen; that the triangle represents a cutting gesture. The symbol is always pluralised, carrying significations at once abstract and corporeal so that Bess is himself invariably framed.

On the other hand, he maintained that the collective unconscious speaks through this symbol, reflecting back at the beholder a timeless and universal language that binds together those tuned into it. Like Bess’s reflection rippled in the water at Chinquapin, should we therefore glimpse the artist as a transparent film in his own works, underneath which we might find a trove of references and truths, peaceful interconnections and morphological destinies? As we reorient ourselves to confront one man’s inner world suspended on the wall, we face the sea and our own liquid images metamorphosing on its surface. The body-become-symbol in Bess’s pseudohermaphrodite is bounced back at us by his specular paintings; we could begin to envision ourselves in their watery sceneries, as surgically evolved beings. Against the divisions of the ages, Bess’s visions might bring us closer, into nature.

If Forrest Bess saw his own death submerged in the water at Chinquapin, he also saw the iridescence of life in schools of fish, in his ‘blue’ ancestry, in the catalogue of symbols, and in his highly particularised ‘pseudohermaphrodite’. Something grander was taking place there, and through his attempt to arrive at a reasonable existence, he captured it in paint. Amid the stillness of his diagrammatic images, we witness a live synthesis – the blue man’s painting-into-being – and his passage beyond the ghostly balustrade.

In the sixteenth century, the alchemist Paracelsus contended that magic mirrors produced by the fusion of seven metals could establish a connection between macrocosm and microcosm.[18] Similar to Jung’s collective unconscious, these mirrors produce inter-relations between those who peer into them. In his 1944 work Psychology and Alchemy, a book familiar to Bess, Jung included a reproduction of Rembrandt’s enigmatic etching Faust (c. 1652), accompanied by the caption ‘Faust before the magic mirror’.[19] With an undated letter to Schapiro, Bess enclosed the same image torn from a magazine. This time the caption reads, ‘Only a master of Rembrandt’s size could make so luminous and complete a vision out of something essentially unpicturable: a man gazing at an idea.’ As we look into Bess’s paintings, past the driftwood and relativising grains of sand that locate us on a specific, mystical shoreline, we too happen upon a man, gazing at an idea.[20]

In this uncertain situation, where everything can be destroyed – the individual by psychosis, civilization by nuclear wars – the saving aspect also grows, the poles of the pairs of opposites draw closer together again, and the archetype of the coniunctio is constellated. Wolfgang Pauli

Reading List

A. J. Cronin, A Thing of Beauty. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956.

Ann Gibson, Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Representation in Betty Parsons’s Gallery’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 27, No. 1/2 (1994): 245–270.

Dean Spade, ‘Mutilating Gender’, in Stryker, Susan, and Stephen Whittle, eds., The Transgender Studies Reader, 315–332. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Gregory Flaxman, ed. The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Hal Foster, Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Ken Okiishi, ‘Parsons Tale’, Artforum, Vol. 50, No. 9 (May 2012): 89–90, 92.

Leah DeVun, The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Meyer Schapiro, ‘The liberating quality of avant-garde art’, Art News, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Summer 1957): 36–42.

Pamela M. Lee, Think Tank Aesthetics: Midcentury Modernism, the Cold War, and the Neoliberal Present. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020.

Paul B. Preciado, Countersexual Manifesto. Trans. Kevin Gerry Dunn. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Sabu Kohso, Radiation and Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Theodore Sturgeon, Venus Plus X. New York: Pyramid Books, 1960.

Biography

Forrest Bess was born in 1911 in Bay City, TX, and died there in 1977. He studied architecture at college before joining the war effort as a member of the camouflage unit. A fixture in the early artistic communities of Houston and San Antonio, he painted his first mature visions in 1946, having sublimated his visionary ‘source’ the previous decade. He began showing at Betty Parsons Gallery four years later. His works were well known by many of the leading curators of his day, and were acquired by influential collectors; yet Bess died in relative obscurity. Often described as an ‘artist’s artist’, he has been the subject of renewed curatorial and scholarly attentions in recent years. Sculptor Robert Gober curated an installation of Bess’s paintings at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, realising the artist’s previously overlooked desire to exhibit his ‘thesis’ alongside his artworks. The following year, The Menil Collection in Houston mounted the retrospective Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, which later travelled to the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY; and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. In 2020, a landmark retrospective was organised by the Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany. A monograph published on the occasion is forthcoming.

Credits

1 Forrest Bess to Betty Parsons, undated, c. 1949–1950 [‘You are in touch with modern thinking.’]. Betty Parsons Gallery records and personal papers, 1916–1991. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

2 Bess to Meyer and Lillian Schapiro, 14 March 1953. Meyer Schapiro papers, 1949–1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

3 See Bess’s Crowded Mind/Untitled (The Void I), 1946–1947, Collection of Constance R. Caplan; and Untitled (The Void No. II), 1952, Kunst Museum Winterthur. On the void in relation to nuclear obliviation and Bess’s colleagues at Betty Parsons Gallery, see Jeffrey Weiss, ‘Science and Primitivism: A Fearful Symmetry in the Early New York School’, Arts Magazine, Vol. 57, No. 7 (March 1983): 81–87.

4 Bess to Meyer Schapiro, 11 February 1955. Schapiro papers.

5 Forrest Bess, ‘Rebirth of Symbolism’, The Daily Tribune [Bay City], 27 January 1954: unpaginated.

6 The mirroring effect at Chinquapin was apparently acknowledged by Betty Parsons, who hung one of Bess’s paintings directly below another in a 1962 retrospective exhibition, as if reflected on the wall.

7 I employ this term as Bess himself used it, in a deliberately opaque fusion of fantastical and clinical senses, prior to its explicitly pejorative connotations. By ‘pseudohermaphrodite’, however, he was largely referring to an intersexed subject. The Merriam-Webster medical dictionary defines pseudohermaphroditism as: ‘the condition (as that occurring in androgen insensitivity syndrome) of having the gonads and karyotype of one sex and external genitalia that is of the other sex or is ambiguous’.

8 Bess to Betty Parsons, undated, c. 1949–1950 [‘The waves are so high in the Gulf…’]. Parsons papers.

9 Bess to Carl Gustav Jung, 11 March 1952. ETH-Bibliothek, University Archives, Hs 1056:18168.

10 Bess to Meyer Schapiro, 10 January 1956. Schapiro papers.

11 Bess to Sidney Berkowitz, postmarked 5 May 1954. Rosalie Berkowitz papers relating to Forrest Bess, 1947–1981. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

12 Quoted in Susan Stryker, ‘Christine Jorgensen’s Atom Bomb: Transsexuality and the Emergence of Postmodernity’, in E. Ann Kaplan, Susan Squier, eds., Playing Dolly: Technocultural Formations, Fantasies, & Fictions of Assisted Reproduction (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 159. Although Bess explicitly disidentified himself from Jorgensen, and claimed not to adhere to any transgender paradigm, he nevertheless corresponded with the emergent voices in transgender research, including Harry Benjamin, David Cauldwell and Robert Stoller.

13 Bess to Parsons, 16 April 1960. Parsons papers.

14 Bess to Parsons, undated, c. 1954 [‘Thanks for the letter and the check.’]. Parsons papers.

15 Bess to Parsons, undated, c. 1954 [‘Good to hear from you.’]. Parsons papers.

16 Ibid. Bess’s proposition was fundamentally androcentric, an issue raised by the visionary curator Jermayne MacAgy, who reportedly responded, ‘You have no place for women!’ Bess to Schapiro, undated, c. 1959 [‘I will admit that I am all of the things…’]. Schapiro papers.

17 Bess to Schapiro, undated [titled ‘Integration of the canvas “The Greek” date 1953’]. Schapiro papers.

18 Giovanni B. Caputo, ‘Archetypal-Imaging and Mirror-Gazing’, Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 2014): 8.

19 C. G. Jung, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 12 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 116.

20 Bess to Schapiro, undated, c. 1957 [‘Were you caught in the flood waters…’]. Schapiro papers.

Archie Squire is a curator based in London.