Saturday, January 24, 2015

Revisited: Into Bess: The Paintings of Forrest Bess

I published this piece almost exactly 33 years ago after spending many months holed up in my apartment on Central Park West studying the archives and works of Forrest Bess thanks to the Betty Parsons Gallery and its director Jack Tilton. In fact it was probably exactly 33 years ago that I biked down to the modest offices of ARTS Magazine in midtown to hand deliver my manuscript and place it on the desk of my editor Richard Martin. I didn't trust the US Postal Service with my blood, sweat, and tears.

Writing this piece was all I did until I thought it might make me crazy. I ate, drank, and slept Forrest Bess. I had his Polaroids on my wall along with his paintings. I had his letters, heartbreaking, crazy, disturbing, strewn about my room. I was like some crazed FBI investigator. Trying to get to the bottom of Forrest Bess, going down his rabbit hole, through his looking glass, sitting down to his tea party, and then trying to get home.

Nothing had been written about him at the time. In recent years he has gained quite a following. I was embarrassed, maybe diffident, that what I had written would not stand up to the recent craze and fuss. I got that weird silence from people who thought that they had discovered him first. The fight to ignore the facts. Pretend. Like someone telling you about some place that they had discovered and the awkwardness that follows when you tell them that you had lived there for a long time, long ago. I make no claims of discovery, but I lived in that place long ago. In Forrest Bess. And I have had a painting of his all this time, traveling with me through two marriages and the divorce in between. Maybe the only painting I actually bought as a young man.

I can't reread my stuff. And of course it causes problems. Typos. Errors. Roughness. I had not reread this piece in a very long time. It has some typos, some problems. BUT... It actually holds up. It is true to him and the work, and in the way that I write, it is like the work. He painted in a very workman like manner, and I wrote it the same way. Matter of fact. No fuss. About the work. And I kept his life out of it, respecting his privacy. I stand by it. I think it remains an excellent primer for anyone interested in his work. Enjoy.

Forrest Bess, Number 14, 1951, Oil on canvas, 9 x 10",
Courtesy Betty Parsons Gallery

Forrest Bess, Number 51, 1951, Oil on canvas, 8 x 10'',
Courtesy Betty Parsons Gallery

Forrest Bess, Number 40, 1949, Oil on canvas, 8 x 12'',
Courtesy Betty Parsons Gallery

INTO BESS: The Paintings of Forrest Bess

by addison parks

ARTS Magazine; March 1982, p.140-141

Forrest Bess painted inspired images which, like the call of a bird, could be sensed in their entirety; gritty little paintings getting at something inexpressible, whose power and meaning were unmistakable but whose content was incomprehensible, even for him. How this could happen is partly due to their origin in the unconscious and partly to their abstract form. The particular meaning of each, though apparent, could only be fully comprehended by someone who was predisposed toward intuition as well as reason, and toward feeling as well as sensation; someone who saw the entire fabric of his life of which each experience (inspiration) was only a point. Bess was neither. He was a divided person, obsessed in a search for wholeness,and convinced that his paintings held the answer. They may well have, but there is little evidence to suggest that he found it, there or anywhere else. Instead, his paintings are wonderful and revelatory in and of themselves; that Bess had other plans for them must not interfere with our personal involvement with them. He considered himself a research painter, and he wanted to bridge medicine and art. His paintings, however, were better than his ideas, and fortunately they are what has survived.

Why we can grasp Bess' images without being conscious of uncertain or even imprecise meaning is the result of their unfettered form. Bess saw these images on the inside of his eyelids, recorded them, reflected on them, and experimented with them just as he first saw them. Whether they were visions, hallucinations, or psychic impressions, it suits our purposes to call them inspired images. The notion of inspiration locates at least that point of recognition of a controlling force (source) outside the conscious mind, and tells us something about the nature of his kind of painting.
Bess recognized his inspired images, felt their power, and made no effort toward any urgent explanation. He knew that they must come from his unconscious since his conscious mind did not invent them. Any deviations or embellishments reduced their power, so he did not alter them. Instead he put them down in plain terms, in paint.

What kind of images were they? Odd is one way of describing them, and this oddness draws in the viewer like a magnet draws metal. They are marvelous in the way that a heretofore unseen kind of insect or rock can be. Indeed, this is one of their powers: they are marvelous to discover. So marvelous that we might be inclined to forsake them once they become familiar. But if we look into them, like a flame, they look back into us.

They are additive by nature and raw. Color and shape are laid out and left alone. The only modulations of paint occur when gradations are necessary to project the third dimension, or marbling to undulate the plane, or the use of thickness and texture to suggest surface distinction. Otherwise the paint is never worked to correct, build, or add history to the object. Bess did not labor to refine a picture. He did not aim his colors to be pleasing; on the contrary, black and white were often present to keep it strong and plain. Bess was devoted to beauty, but it was an internal beauty which he sought and trusted.

The space of the Bess image moves like a lawless dream. This kind of space is called conceptual because it can be flat, deep, massive, upside-down, bird's-eye, and backwards all at the same time. It answers to form and not to gravity. It is a look through the looking glass into a world that was more vast and exciting than that sleeping world Bess found around him. From these open plains he gave pasture to images which filtered up into his eyelids. If his paintings were to him a key to his infinite and primordial unconscious, they are keyholes for us, views into the interior where few go.

Bess did not let his paintings paint themselves, letting the unconscious flow ally with paint, hand, and eye to give color and shape to whatever whispered in his ear. Instead, he let his inspirations paint his paintings for him, giving complete control over to the prescriptions of his unconscious. He had no choice, and given the alternatives, they were at least the one thing he could trust. He could feel sure of something that burned such a strong impression in his imagination. Bess had an inspiration, and he didn't have to fret about it. It was there, he saw it, and he painted it, much in the same way a still life or landscape painter might attempt to be true to nature. The difference is that these were private images, internal and original. Forrest Bess painted original images. He also starved.

The actual form of Bess' images is at once multiple and single; it points to a unified experience (inspiration) made up of distinct component parts. None of these parts takes on the identity of the inspiration as symbol or otherwise, but instead bonds together in an overlap to become the visual reality of that inspiration.
While the color and shape are reduced and clearly defined, the work is not reductive and does not anticipate Minimalism. It is not about its physical structure, for its physical structure, or of its physical structure. Although nothing is or can be, this does not pretend to be. To look for the anatomy here is to look to the inspiration. If, however, this work was to appear minimal, or even symbolic, psychic, primitive, or medieval, that would be the result of the viewer's personal inclination. Outwardly, the work might appear any of these things, but with intuition they fall outside the true identity of the work.

If the word primitive, and this work has been called primitive, has any real meaning, it certainly does not apply here. Although the application of paint is simple, the painting dimensions are small, and the style is untutored and un-showman-like, these are only the by-products of his particular restraints in favor of clear and emphatic results. Indeed, it is clear that Bess' intentions aimed inwardly and not at any outward demonstration of ability, talent, or skill. Their book-size (intimate) dimensions must have seemed especially strange during the Fifties, when painters chose to aggrandize their state of being with large dimensions. Any painterly invention in Bess' work resulted only from necessity; any virtue was reserved for the state of being which bore the image, not for technical or sleight-of-hand painting methods which might make impressive magic of the physical product.

From the determined integrity of his work it is apparent that he found his reward in the continued growth and experience of his goals and his art. He wanted to be in part a savior of sorts, to bear the strange and wonderful fruits of the pioneer. His motives are hard to doubt; yet his other concerns, like his outward attempt to reconcile his own disturbed sexuality, leading finally to an operation intended to produce a working hermaphroditic state, were bizarre enough to cast a shadow over anything he touched. Like every pioneer he experienced doubts, and like a fanatic he overcompensated for them.
However, as a result of repeated testimony (his letters to his dealer), much of his work escaped his fanaticism. He explicitly maintained that he was true to his inspirations.

Bess' images have been said to be of a symbolic nature, meaning that their components were symbols. On occasion he did use symbols, but these were in his weakest paintings, dominated by his unbalanced ideas, and not possessed of the fresh intensity of the eyelid paintings. To call the eyelid paintings symbolic, even loosely, is wrong. Loosely, all things are symbolic. Otherwise, symbols are parts of a system of communication, either universal or related to a particular group. They are an expression of outwardness that has nothing to do with Bess' inspired work. Symbols, even psychic ones, assume an identity that is common, separable, and transferable. Bess' inspired images are none of these things. It is useless to approach the works as though they had symbols which, under proper analysis, could reveal the latent meaning of each painting. As any systematic effort of this or any other sort would always fall short, the attempt only leads to misapprehension. Only by intuition, a sympathy of being, can we grasp this work in its entirety. Ironically, this has always been the nature of aesthetics. Ironic, because Bess never considered himself an artist.

Because Bess maintained the strictest devotion to his images, and preserved the purity of their form in the clearest terms, we can penetrate the essence of these inscrutable inspirations through this act of intuition. While this is naturally achieved sensorily at first, our next movement occurs in almost a state of hypnosis (the flame) as we see the entire image at once and our intuition of it takes hold, whereupon at some point our feelings can act and be acted upon. Then, finally, the recognition of our feelings emerges upon reflection. These inspirations that Bess saw, and felt the power and meaning of, are ours as well through this direct sympathy with them. They are each so different, each one offered up as a lone revelation, that they are like orphans, even in their appearance. They are, however, also siblings, and thus it is also likely that only as the united family will they make any comprehensive revelation possible. Only then might they speak with the deep shared spirit in all of us. And yet even this is uncertain.

It has been advised that should we need to dominate, person or animal, we should avoid looking into the heart of their eyes. Whether tiger or terrible enemy, snake or someone who serves us, looking into their eyes opens the channel back into ours, and if they look into ours they will see us as we are: fearful, vulnerable, in short, imperfect. They will see us for the untrue and undeserving masters we are and we will be naked before them. Such is the case with art, and with the paintings of Forrest Bess. If we look into them, they will look back into us, and our masks will fall away-and we will behold the miraculous underside of life, and Forrest Bess.

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