Seeing Things Invisible: Forrest Bess at the Berkeley Art Museum

Forrest Bess never made a living as an artist. He spent  most of his working life as a bait fisherman off the Texas coast making meager wages and living in ramshackle conditions. Yet he navigated the New York art world with relative ease. He exhibited his work at Betty Parsons Gallery along other artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. He held a lifelong correspondence with notable art historian and critic Meyer Shapiro. And his work was purchased by distinguished art collectors like John de Menil. All the while Bess felt marginalized, perceiving that the artists of his generation thought of him as nothing more than a hick.

Forrest Bess | Before Man, 1952–53; oil on canvas; 8-3/4 x 22-3/4 in.; Collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College State University of New York, Gift of Roy R. Neuberger. Photo: Jim Frank.

Bess, then, was a man of dualisms, at once a rugged roughneck in the oil fields of Texas and a deep thinker who corresponded with Carl Jung. He was both a supremely accomplished painter and an isolated fisherman who struggled with alcohol and mental illness. Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through September 14, presents Bess’ paintings alongside an archive of historical material that shed light on the artist’s life. -- Matt Smith Chavez, San Francisco Contributor

Forrest Bess | The Hermaphrodite, 1957; oil on canvas; 8 x 11-1/4 in.; The Menil Collection, Houston, gift of John Wilcox in memory of Frank Owen Wilson. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

Forrest Bess | Untitled (The Spider), 1970; oil on canvas, 13 ¾ x 16 1/8 in.; collection of Christian Zacharias.

Bess sought the isolation of the Chinquapin bayou where he carved a meager subsistence in a sparsely populated landscape. His rugged exterior stood in contrast to what he perceived to be his more effeminate interests. “There are, in my makeup, two distinct personalities. Number one is the military engineer, the oil field roughneck, the accomplisher of missions well done. Number two is weak as a jellyfish. He suffers much, thinks deeply, and is quite passive in nature. Number one was reality, the oil fields, mud tents, struggle. The other, the child who hid in the sand banks and spent the day watching clouds and gathering flowers.”

Bess came to realize that he was homosexual during a time that was not particularly friendly to such differences. In 1955 he used a razor to permanently modify his genitals in order to become what he termed a “pseudo hermaphrodite.” The self mutilation was the apotheosis of his research into alchemy, Jungian psychoanalysis, and ancient aboriginal rituals. It was meant to help him reach immortality and creative vigor. And it was ultimately a gruesome attempt at better coming to grips with his own conflicted sexuality

This kind of courageous spiritual truth seeking, so vital to Bess’ life, is also manifest in his paintings, albeit less tragically. 

Forrest Bess | Drawings, 1957; oil on linen; 9-1/2 x 29-3/4 x 1-1/4 in; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Betty Parsons.

Forrest Bess | Untitled, 1957; oil on canvas; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Adam Kimmel. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, NY/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Forrest Bess | View of Maya, 1951; oil on canvas; 8 x 8 in.; The Menil Collection, Houston, bequest of Jermayne Macagy. Photo: Paul Hester.


Matt Smith Chavez is an artist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Berkeley