Recently discovered Forrest Bess paintings


MONTAUK, New York – Everything in the life of painter Forrest Bess was implausible, from recording his glimpses of immortality in painting, while living in a bait camp in Chinquapin, Texas, to a long correspondence with art historian Meyer Schapiro, to be shown with Betty Parsons and her meeting with Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, who was 19 at the time, to see his work on display in a renovated barn in Montauk. Visionaries live in a universe that might resemble our own, but only in the most fragile way, and the fantastic quality of this exalted realm can sometimes seep into ours, causing disbelief.

No one knows how many visionary paintings Bess made in her lifetime (many people estimate around 150) or where they will surface next. Recently I saw one being rated on an episode of Antiques roadshow filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2011. It seems he gave it to his neighbor, who has kept it since 1962.

A group of his paintings last presented at a private sale exhibition, “My painting is the painting of tomorrow. Look and see. Forrest Bess – Including works from the Harry Burkhart Collection at Christies (March 1-April 11, 2012). Bess aficionados know that he had given Burkhart many paintings over the years, although the exact number is unknown. Those from the sale were not revealed until after Burkhart’s death and bequeathed them to the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, which had cared for his longtime partner, Jim Wilford. Not knowing what he had, the center contacted Christies.

Forrest Bess, “Untitled” (nd), oil on canvas, 4.5 x 6 inches

That’s why I was immediately interested when Chuck Smith, who directed the documentary, Forrest Bess: The Key to the Riddle (1999) – contacted me regarding a cache of recently discovered unknown Bess paintings. According to Smith, they were first brought to respected Dallas art dealer Kirk Hopper by a man who worked for Burkhart. Hopper, who is familiar with Bess’s work, thought they were genuine, as did Smith. For this reason, I traveled from New York to see the exhibit Forrest Bess: I can close my eyes in a dark room at the Ranch (November 12-December 18, 2021) at the end of Long Island.

The exhibition includes 14 paintings, a number of which were quite badly damaged. The only work entitled, “Mandala of the tent” (1954), has already been exhibited. Another, “Untitled” (oil on canvas, 7 x 7 inches, nd), features a discolored area in the lower right corner of an original frame, where her merchant, Betty Parsons, often placed a label to identify her. the work.

According to the gallery’s press release, the paintings were from a man who “started working for Harry Burkhart at the Burkhart Ranch in Markham, Texas, in October 1975. I was 19 at the time and I continued to work for Harry at the ranch for nearly thirty-six years. Knowing of Bess’s relationship with Burkhart and Wilford, and the fact that Burkhart was careless about their storage, I was not surprised to learn that those “These had been discovered in a shed on his property. They could have deteriorated or been damaged while in Bess’s possession; others had been due to the hurricanes. Therefore none of the letters that Shapiro wrote to Bess did not survive.

Forrest Bess, “Untitled” (nd), oil on canvas, 9.75 x 9 inches

The first thing that struck me about the paintings was that none of them looked familiar to me. If I had thought that these were variations on Bess’s paintings, I would have become suspicious. There were recognizable Bessian symbols, like “the tree of life,” and colors he had used in other works, like gray and dark green, but they did not echo any known paintings. Even to someone like me, who is familiar with Bess’s work and has written about it numerous times, starting in the 1980s, it seemed fresh and unexpected.

This brings me to my second point. Some of the symbols were completely new to me – for example, the black painted penis head in the lower right corner of an untitled red painting measuring less than 10 inches by 10 inches. Another work, a pink-orange and turquoise blue painting measuring 4 ½ by 6 inches, depicts two rows of familiar symbols (two circles, a triangle, a square, and an equal and multiplication sign) that surely meant something deeply important. for this enigmatic artist.

Forrest Bess, “Untitled” (nd), oil on canvas, 20 x 25 cm

The third point to remember is that even the badly damaged paintings, some of which had a part missing, were convincing. It’s Bess’s gift. It’s one thing to be a visionary who firmly believed that becoming a hermaphrodite was the key to achieving immortality, and quite another to be the one whose work holds your attention for an extended period of time.

Bess, who once described himself as “feeling like a pelican in a church,” is an American anomaly, like Albert Pinkham Ryder or Joseph Cornell. Yet while Ryder and Cornell worked on their works, Bess’s intimate scale paintings seem to “have come,” as I said in Smith’s documentary, “straight from her eyes – closed or open – through his hands and on the canvas … you don’t feel him discover the image through the painting process. Remembering Bess’s self-description, I thought – as inclusive as the art world seems to have become in recent years, at least at first glance – we definitely need more Pelicans.

Forrest Bess: I can close my eyes in a dark room continues at the Ranch (8 Old Montauk Highway, Montauk, New York) until December 18.

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