Forrest Bess was born and lived most of his life in Bay City, making a living selling bait to local fishermen. His few neighbors regarded him as an eccentric, and when he died in 1977 he left behind only his fishing skiff.
Or so it appeared.
When Bess wasn’t selling bait, he was painting. Beginning in childhood, he had experienced intense visions. Like his artistic idol, Vincent van Gogh, Bess suffered a psychological breakdown in his thirties; to recuperate, Bess began painting the images he saw “on the inside of my eyelids.” Featuring mysterious abstract shapes floating dreamily over solid backgrounds, Bess’s paintings were—and remain—nearly unclassifiable.
In 1949, Bess brought a few of his paintings to New York, hoping to find a dealer. After a series of rejections, he was taken on by the cutting-edge Betty Parsons Gallery, which also represented Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman. Over the next two decades Parsons would stage six solo exhibitions of Bess’s work.
Although he was given a posthumous exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1981, for many years after his death the art world seemed to forget about Bess. But with the Menil Collection’s new retrospective (the first solo exhibition of his work in over 20 years) and renewed interest from collectors (a Bess painting recently fetched $112,900 at Sotheby’s), Bess is enjoying something of a renaissance.
The Menil exhibition brings together 48 of Bess’s rarely seen paintings, including seven from the museum’s permanent collection. Most are small works that range between iPad- and LP-size. With their rough-hewn wood frames, the paintings look very much like something made in a fishing shack. But exhibition curator Clare Elliott disputes that characterization.
“I don’t think about Bess as a folk artist,” Elliott says. “In one way he occupies this self-taught, visionary world, but at the same time he was showing at the best gallery in New York. It’s hard to place him.”
Then there’s the matter of Bess’s self-surgery, which the artist performed in 1960 to turn himself into what he called a “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” For the Menil exhibition, sculptor Robert Gober has assembled a display that documents Bess’s anatomical theories. Although definitely not for the squeamish, Gober said that these records—including a Polaroid taken after the surgery—are crucial to understanding Bess.
“You can appreciate his paintings without knowing his theories,” Gober says. “But I think it’s doubly interesting to ponder the riddle of the two of them together. And riddle is the right word—his life and work is a riddle.”