Forrest Bess was an American painter and fisherman. He is known for his abstract, symbol-laden paintings based on what he called “visions.” He lived most of his adult life in a shack on an isolated bait camp on the Gulf in Texas, spending much of his free time rather obsessively painting his uncontrollable visions (likely caused by a head injury endured while serving in the military) on small-scale canvases. An eccentric in all places, he still exhibited at Betty Parson’s gallery in New York alongside Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock in their heyday. Bess developed an intensely private symbolic language, influenced by Jungian notions of the unconscious. Whereas the abstract expressionists increasingly viewed painting as a terrain for improvisatory action, Bess approached it as a medium for translating the hallucinatory visions he experienced between sleep and waking. Bess’s paintings are generally small and abstract. faithfully depicting these images and symbols with thick impasto and inventive textures.
After the death of Bess, a 1981 solo show curated by Barbara Haskell at the Whitney Museum of Art was seen as the first step toward readdressing the import of Bess’s work. The artist’s legacy was further enhanced in 1988, when Hirschl & Adler Modern exhibited 61 of his works. In 1999, an award-winning 48 minute documentary film produced by Chuck Smith, Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle, features interviews with Meyer Schapiro, Robert Thurman, and other friends and artists who knew Bess. In 2013, Smith turned the film into a book, Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle, published by powerHouse Books. As part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, sculptor Robert Gober curated an exhibition of Bess’ paintings from the late 1950s, as well as archival material. In 2013 and 2014, the museum retrospective “Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible” exhibited nearly 50 of his paintings and was curated by Clare Elliott, assistant curator of the Menil Collection.
Today, Bess is regarded as a unique phenomenon, an artist who cannot be grouped with any one school, but who answered solely and completely to his own vivid, personal vision. His best art consists of only about 100 small paintings, many with simple driftwood frames that he built himself. The majority of these paintings are in private collections, although the Menil Collection, Houston; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have Bess paintings in their collections.