The Art of the Classic Loner

“My painting is tomorrow’s painting. Watch and see.”—Forrest Bess

an exhibition at Christie’s, New York City, March 1–April 11, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Amy Cappellazzo and Charlotte Perrottey, with essays by Robert Storr and Wayne Koestenbaum
Christie’s, 119 pp., $60.00 (paper)

The Man That Got Away

an installation at the Whitney Biennial, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, March 1–May 27, 2012

There is a heightened sense of freedom and experimentation, touched with a gentle, deadpan humor, pervading the work of the American painter Forrest Bess (1911–1977). Looking at his unusually small pictures, which are like so many short, enigmatic tales—they were made from roughly the middle 1940s to the early 1970s—we have no idea, from work to work, what will come next. To a degree that sets him apart from many artists, Bess, who is the subject of a recent good-sized show at Christie’s and a small exhibition that is part of the Whitney Biennial, rarely repeated a motif. And in pictures that blur distinctions between abstraction and representation, we encounter diminutive worlds that, while they can make us think of shapes and forms associated with modern artists such as Arp, Malevich, Picabia, and Brancusi, are at the same time a little like whimsical, nonsensical illustrations, or diagrams, that one might see in books for young children.

All this is surprising because Bess, who has long had an underground reputation in the art world, is a figure one would associate less with freedom or humor than with something driven or portentous. A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists and an artist who showed in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, Bess was a kind of classic loner. He worked with canvas sizes that were in those years unfashionably unheroic. He was based in Texas, where he supported himself as a commercial fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, and, setting him even further apart, his pictures, he made clear, came to him in visions. They were about psychosexual forces and theories Bess had about freeing himself of his anxieties—even attaining immortality. He believed it could happen through his becoming a hermaphrodite. It was a theory he was willing to test out on himself, and when he was nearly fifty he performed what he thought was the requisite surgery on his own body.

In the years since his death, Bess has been admired in part for his very independence. He was given a retrospective by the Whitney in 1981, and in 1984 his work was seen in a traveling show with that of two other uncategorizable painters of his time: Alfred Jensen, whose quilt-like pictures are based on abstruse number charts and color theories, and Myron Stout, a fellow Texan who also used small canvas sizes and in whose stark black-and-white pictures different abstract shapes—and parts of the body—take on an emblematic intensity. Decades after that show, Jensen, Stout, and Bess are still looked to as models, especially by young painters, I think, for going your own way.

Bess’s legacy, though, has become increasingly impalpable. Although there are works by him in the collections of the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art, they are pictures that are on view only occasionally. It is safe to say that his art is hardly ever visible in any of our major museums, and no book reproducing the …

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