The prolific and oracular painter Forrest Bess (1911-1977) spent his lifetime fishing off the Texas coast while sporadically finding national artistic recognition. Curator Elliott of Houston’s Menil Collection presents Bess’s innovative and distinctive body of work to a contemporary audience through a retrospective exhibition and this accompanying catalogue, Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible.
You mention in your introduction that Bess’s work is “a powerful argument in favor of art not as a solution but as a way of seeing.” How do you see that distinction play out in his paintings?
I see that in both the independence of Bess’s work as a whole, but maybe more importantly in the fact that each work is independent unto itself. Bess approaches each canvas as a new start with no conceived notion of how it should look—each painting is a discovery.
After he first became moderately known in the art world during the 1950s, Bess achieved a few moments of prominence only to retreat again into near obscurity. Why do you think contemporary audiences should again direct their attention to his paintings?
This is the question I have been asked a lot since the exhibition opened and your guess is as good as mine, honestly. I think it’s two things: 1) We’re more comfortable discussing sexuality and especially sexual difference than we were even in the late 1980s; 2) The problem of Bess’s outsider status—he is both an outsider and not, and therefore neither—is also less of an issue now. There is a greater willingness on the part of curators and institutions to show these works together.
Could you highlight one or two paintings in the exhibit that would serve as a good introduction to Bess?
“Untitled 1957” is a good introduction: first off, the coloring is extremely beautiful; it’s the “typical” Bess scale and is one that maintains its original handmade frame; it’s mysterious—the symbolism isn’t easy to reconcile even with Bess’s chart, and yet it is also familiar, because like many of Bess’s work it takes on the qualities of a landscape. The black and yellow figure in the foreground can read rather easily as a road or train track leading somewhere (into the future?), which I think is not a bad reading; knowing a bit more about Bess one might see it as a scar or cut with stitches that ties it back to Bess’s thesis.
There is definitely the potential to sensationalize Bess’s narrative—his sexuality and gender identity, his working class lifestyle, his rambling personal correspondences, etc. How do you balance the necessity of talking about these aspects of his life with the risk of exploiting the more startling details?
I was very concerned about that, but I find that I can’t really say anything without taking some risk. I try to focus on what is interesting about the paintings, including the way that they relate to thesis and hope that if I can see past the sensational aspects that others will as well.