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.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Artist Notes: Brett Baker

These are wonderful paintings! Thatched. Thatcher. Channeling Monet haystacks, van Gogh wheat. Great texture, the troughs of paint, furrowed, loaded, the way they build, the way they break free, shifting the narrative from north south east west and slanting toward a horizon. Marching. Beating out rhythms. African drums. Really sumptuous and beautiful to behold. Fields and forests of color like embers.They have something of the atheist about them, the atheist that is also a stargazer, and therefore maybe more believer than believer. It also comes through in the paint. Each stroke a kind of hopeful order, making room for deviations, an affirmation in a crazy mixed-up world.

- Artdealmagazine

"Your observations beautifully describe the kind of poetry I hope for in a painting. So glad it comes through - even over the internet. Also, an atheist/stargazer trying to create a hopeful order pretty much describes me to a tee.

...Porfirio DiDonna is a favorite painter of mine. I saw many shows of his work at Nielsen when I lived in Boston. Not sure how often you get down to NY but thought I'd mention that I have a show coming up in late Feb at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. There will be a Porfirio DiDonna show there as well, in April I think."

Brett Baker

Saturday, January 17, 2015

MARGRIT LEWCZUK: Being and Nothingness and the Infinity Game

Margrit Lewczuk Untitled (2012) 60 x 48

There is an awe. Awesome. Transcendent painting that becomes all things! Nothing less will do. A kaleidoscope of Godhead! A microscope of cosmic eye blinking back at us. At once pleasure and pain, haunting and fun. Easter Island, Coney Island, the Island of Dr Moreau! The island of Lemnos. The third eye, the third world, around third base heading home, and back to the womb. A duet of pairs, a minuet of symmetry, a dizzying ballet of balance and centering and equilibrium.

Margrit LewczukConnie’s Dream, (2006) Acrylic on linen, 60 x 48″
 Green & Purple, (2008) Acrylic on linen, 60 x 48″

Margrit Lewczuk paints monuments. To some being. To some Beingness. Like some extraterrestrial landing strip, like crop circles from space, with deafening sound, she reaches out. Encircling us. Embracing us. Hypnotizing us. Matisse as Svengali. Brancusi as painter. We find ourselves at her gate. Let go and she takes us in. The great mother. The Buddha. The unanswerable. The nothingness.

Margrit Lewczuk Begin (2011) 60 x 48 

Lewzcuk plays the infinity game. Yin Yang. Lemniscate. Möbius strip. Cassini's curve. Bernoulli's curve. Watt's curve. The devil's curve. The ouroboros. The aura. The oracle. The round sound(Om). A world within worlds. Archetypal. Algebraic. Alchemical. Ancient.

Margrit Lewczuk, Angel (2012) 60x48 Acrylic on Linen

Margrit LewczukJourney (2011) 60x48 Acrylic on Linen

Cyclical. Cycladic. Cross cultural. Chrysalis. Cross hairs. Across time. The Egyptian Scarab. The Roman Millennium. The Latin Cross.  The Lotus. The birth. The rebirth. The transformation. The transcendence. Space and time. The hour glass. The butterfly. The Omega.

Margrit Lewczuk Untitled 11 x 13 inches

Margrit Lewczuk is that butterfly. Her paintings are those butterflies. Her avatars. Flapping their wings before us. The smack down simplicity of it all. The eternal mystery of it all. The space odyssey of it all. The all. The one. The ME, WE.

Addison Parks
Spring Hill, 2015

Margrit Lewczuk Me,We, curated by Suzy Spence for The Gallery @1GAP

Opening Reception :Saturday January 17, 6 - 8PM

1 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn
Richard Meier On Prospect Park

Friday, January 02, 2015

Richard Tuttle: Art and the Beauty at the Bottom of Things

Loose Leaf Notebook Drawing, Box 16, Group 6: Drawing 8

by Richard Tuttle

10x 8

watercolor on notebook paper


When I first met Richard Tuttle in 1977, he cautioned me about getting too excited about the fact that we shared similar ideas about life in general, and art in particular. I was in my early 20s and he was in his early 30s at the time. I had never met anyone like him. The things he talked about were just the things that stirred in me, and nobody ever talked about those things, nobody, except maybe my artist mother when I was a boy in Rome.

People, teachers, artists, adults, were always talking about getting ahead in the "world," about technique, about appearances, about success, about making it, about whether things worked. To me this was superficial stuff. Stuff not worth anything. Certainly not worth living for. Or making art for. Or dying for.

I think the Tuttle I met and got to know then was in a funny place, and maybe so was I. He could see that in me. I could see that in him. He warned me not to get too excited about what we were in so much agreement about. He said that recognizing ones own dimension in others was a form of narcissism. But I couldn't help it. I saw it differently. What I saw was a shared vision. What I saw was not a mirror, but a fellow traveller, a kindred spirit, a sign that I was not crazy or alone because of the things I thought and felt and believed. What I saw was an affirmation.

Richard Tuttle (b. 1941) 

False Nexus #11 

signed 'Richard Tuttle' (on the reverse) 

watercolor and pencil on paper in artist's frame 

12 5/8 x 15¾ x 1 5/8in. (32.1 x 40 x 4.1cm.) 

Executed in 1991 

We had nothing else in common. I had been raised in Europe, with European tastes and sensibilities. He was from New Jersey, and mentored by the likes of Betty Parsons, Ellsworth Kelly and Tony Smith. We didn't like the same things. But what we shared was something more important to both of us, something neither of us was shy about.

The way he talked about it was inquiry. He had inquires. He was somewhat clumsy and self-conscious with language. He had to be. He wanted to make it his own. I cared less about that part. That was his pride, not mine. Pride was the thing that he was wrestling with at that time. He was consumed by it. It was where he was, and where he was coming from. The one-person show at the Whitney. The one he had. The one that changed everything. The one that hung over his head like the black cloud he imagined hanging over mine. Everything was pride or of pride or about pride.

Giorgio Morandi (1963) watercolor on paper

No, what he called inquiry I called getting to the bottom of things. That was what interested me. For lack of a better word, call it curiosity. Curiosity was what we had in common. Neither of us were interested in what made things tick or work per se, but what was true. That was all. The results for each of us were quite different because in all other regards we were quite different. We had different make-ups and dispositions and affections, but we were both curious about the stuff at the bottom of life and art.

And yes, that informed our work. Just differently. Tuttle chided me for being guided by beauty, and teased me by calling me the "beautiful Addison Parks." But I grew up on Via Margutta in Rome, and he grew up in New Jersey. I trusted beauty, but as a product of sturdy Yankee stock, he did not.

Beauty meant something divine to me. Divine insight and consideration and inspiration of form, of shape and color, of harmony and tension, of light and texture and mark. Beauty was the instrument of truth and goodness and hope and feeling and dreams and life. It was a vessel and a vehicle and beacon of all that was worth living for. To Tuttle beauty was skin deep. It was all "they" cared about. Beauty was the gulf between us. Beauty was the wedge that drove us apart.

Richard Tuttle

Drawing: watercolor on paper

 8 in. x 10 1/2 

Date: 1980 – 1982

Richard Tuttle was uncomfortable, even angry with anything that smacked of beauty, and as a consequence was always a little angry with me. We were both intuitives. But he begrudged me credit for knowing the difference between the beauty he hated and the beauty he secretly loved, the beauty that came from the heart, instead of from pride. He wanted to change the name. He wanted no confusion. He wanted to be clear. The only beauty that mattered came from some place good inside. I could not have agreed more.

In those days Richard Tuttle lived like a hillbilly, as he liked to say, in a little ramshackled walk-up on Eleventh Avenue with slanting wood floors and stacks of paper and clutter and the occasional priceless Japanese tea bowl lodged on a shelf. This was the man I knew in the late 70s. When he showed me this delicate watercolor of his of such heartbreaking beauty and I said as much, that to me it was so beautiful, he might as well have struck me, because that was what he had felt I had done to him.

He told me that it was pain. That that was what his little watercolor was. I can still see it. But he could see and feel only his own pain. It was the greater pain of course. He knew nothing of mine. He saw only the "beautiful Addison Parks." Not someone who had suffered the death of those dearest, torn from family and loved ones at an early age, constant loss and life-threatening abuse, cruelty, danger, even torture, someone who by some miracle survived being tossed around for as long as he could remember. Someone who by some miracle had found safe harbor in the embrace of art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand), 1917

Watercolor on paper, 12 x 8 7/8 in. (30.5 x 22.5 cm)

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico Gift, The Burnett Foundation

Copyright, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of my regrets from that time in New York was when I was in the dealer Joan Washburn's office and she was looking at some my paintings and behind her was a Georgia O'Keeffe abstract watercolor that I could have bought for about a year's rent. It was called "Headache."

A few years later Milan Kundera published "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Soutine had once painted a side of beef in his studio in Paris until it rotted and stank and spilled blood under the door and drove Chagall to run out of the building screaming that he had been murdered or had killed himself.


Rembrandt had painted that side of beef before him. Michelangelo had sculpted a dying slave of such exquisite beauty that it was love incarnate. Giotto took our breath away with frescoes of a dying Christ. Goya seemed to squeeze pain not paint from a tube. An artist working today like Joan Snyder seems to paint in blood clawed by her fingers. Art has never been a stranger to pain, no, quite the contrary, it has always been its friend.

Joan Snyder, The Fall With Other Things in Mind, 2009, Oil, 

acrylic, papier mache, cloth, seeds, dried flower, 

and herbs on linen, Courtesy Betty Cuningham

And it has always been a gross myth about the "suffering artist," as though being an artist caused suffering. The truth is quite different. Human beings suffer mightily, alone, behind masks, beneath charades, behind facades modest or mansion, inside new cars, on big yachts, in the glare of bright lights, or under a bridge, in shadow's caress. Art is curious about the suffering. Art gives refuge to the suffering. And beauty by no means discriminates against suffering; indeed, it gives it sanctuary. It gives it light. It keeps us together.

I have no idea what Tuttle is like now. What we had in common was a profound curiosity about life through the lens of art. But there is this other thing. Something Tuttle despised. Art love. He despised it like art beauty. No, there was this other thing he warned me about. Art love. There was something pitiful about those artists who professed love. Like they were weak. Like weak like the way "nice guys finished last."

And I was an art lover. Pitiful. Guilty as charged. Yes, it is a dog eat dog world, dog eat dog art world, a kill or be killed art world, and art lovers finish last. I was an art lover, and Richard Tuttle was something else; he was an art predator, and more power to him. But that is a story for another day.

Addison Parks

Spring Hill, 2015

This essay is one in a series of writings on Richard Tuttle relating the author's experiences with the artist from the years 1977 to 1987.