I term myself a visionary painter for lack of a better word. I can close my eyes in a dark room and if there is no outside noise or attraction, plus, if there is no conscious effort on my part—then I can see color, lines, patterns, and forms that make up my canvases. I have always copied these arrangements exactly without elaboration."
The Ranch; West Barn November 12-January 15, 2022. By appointment only.
Bess’s images are like a message in a bottle, sent from a mysterious and distant shore.
They are quiet places, framing simple, yet profound questions about the exalted consciousness of dream life.
Mandala of the Tent, 1954 Oil on canvas 10 x 10”
His technically modest paintings don’t always adhere to a particular stylistic convention, they are pictorial suppositions; what ifs. As the video documentary “Key to the Riddle” suggests Bess was a wanderer; a stranger in a strange land, a nomad on a mission.
The inherent dichotomy between waking life and the extracurricular wavelength of dream imagery, informed Bess’s somewhat kooky theoretical notions. Through his DIY research into anthropological traditions, he became informed enough to delve into his own visual and written mythologies based on interpretations of ancient hieroglyphics, and arcane practices of gentital mutilation.
It becomes impossible to separate Bess’s infatuation with gender manipulations as a path to creative enlightenment, and his exalted notions of art has a signal from the beyond.
In the way automatic writing and speaking in tongues portend supernatural connections, Bess considered himself a conduit for unknown manifestations emanating from an extroverted Jungian dialogue. He wasn’t an artist, so much as a visionary translator of cryptic notes from the ether.
Bess’s process took this vision quest very literally, adopting indigenous shamanic practices and iconography as a means to an end. Perhaps this disconnect between objective artistic stimuli, and his belief he was actually channeling tangible esoterica, are what contribute to the compelling authenticity of his work.
However this exquisite irony of talent following destiny seems at once futile and fulfilling, life imitating art.
There are many artists who considered their most inspired sources as preordained, Michelangelo merely chiseled away at figures already embedded in the stone. The Incas fabricated enormous glyphs to commune with the gods. Yet even Jung would likely pause before declaring that dreams can be literally transcribed in time/space.
But Bess’s adherence to his tenuous narrative may be what lends such endearing substance to his fragile and delicate picture planes.
It also sounds as though Bess was not entirely convinced of the relevance engendered by his theoretical treatises. This pervasive insecurity must have contributed to his sense of not belonging, and an unstable ego. His letters are full of pleas for money, and even after Betty Parsons represented his work there doesn't seem to be a consensus that they sold well.
Although its apparent he eagerly anticipated his New York City sojourns as networking opportunities (Agnes Martin famously took him clothes shopping), his first trip was problematic.
Arriving two months early (?!) for his first opening at Parsons, and not having enough money to make another round trip, Betty sent him up to a room in Woodstock to paint.
There were also a couple of sessions at the Cedar Tavern with Pollock and Co. that did not go particularly well.
Bess’s status as an outsider was due in part to his being a country boy, non-collegiate artist, but can also be seen as an intentional choice to withdraw from the mainstream art world. He floated above the fish in his skiff under the warm Texas sun, cutting a heroic Hemingway-esque profile without all the macho bravado. It sounds like there was a laconic ambiance that went along with his regular guy looks, but his brushed back hair, and pipe in a clenched jaw belie a highly aware and introspective persona.
Bess’s choice to remain isolated on a lonely spit of sand next to the Gulf Of Mexico defines his reclusive inclinations, even if he welcomed the occasional visitation of local townspeople.
The paintings on exhibit at The Ranch are shown in a renovated barn that nicely fits the ethos of Bess’s rural origins. His father was a roughneck in the West Texas oil business, and though he was moderately successful for a time in the leasing side of the business, the family ended up poor.
After setting up a bait business for recreational fishers, the father’s health failed and Forrest had to assume the Chinquapin bait shack full time.
Bread and Potatoes 1938 16" x 18" Oil on canvas
The artist’s early work displays an impressive grasp of volume and figure/ground that served him well in his mature phase.
Carmichael's 1959 16" x 28" Oil on canvas
There were also curious deviations from his baseline, even later on.
Was this pleinair looking scene done as a commission?
Untitled, n.d. Oil on canvas 8 x 10”
Seeing these small paintings in person is crucial to gaining a full appreciation of their capacity to magnify sensation. Color in particular radiates as a tangible element. Upon a gaze they exude a peculiar yet evocative light; are they landscapes or incantations from a trance-like mantra?
Bess’s relationship to the figure might seem provincial at first; a flattish schematic of pseudo egyptian profiles, but closer examination can reveal witty asides.
Kittens held by a possible actual cat person?! Fun, but not facile.
Untitled, n.d. Oil on canvas 7 x 7 “
The immediacy of Bess’s mark making is convincing. I don’t know if he worked quickly, but his compositions are succinct. My guess is that he did not go in for reworking much, which would expedite his perceived connection to psychic stimuli.
Untitled, n.d. Oil on canvas 8 x 10”
Motif becomes a vital part of the artist's vocabulary. His semiotics encapsulate nature in a kind of shorthand script. Bess’s schematic clues are formed without preconceived notions of how flocking birds might appear in a more expansive universe.
Untitled, n.d. Oil on canvas 9 x 8”
Bess’s imagery unfurls unencumbered by the constraints of conventional pictorial practises.
When other painters might focus on more flamboyant or familiar territory, Bess at his most intuitive relies purely on instinct to feel his way along in the less inhibited realms he inhabited.
If we assume dreams are the primal source of creative inspiration, then inevitably all credible artistic pursuits should be rooted in that most elusive of mediums.
And therein lies the rub; the time spent in those dimly lit regions are not, and never will be completely available to our waking, art-making selves. Then along comes a savant like Bess that illuminates some of those unknowable impulses, but does not quite seem to get that its due to his innate talent in time/space.
Bess’s connection to the sleeping universe may never be fully appreciated, because there is no way we can evaluate how close he may have come to bridging that void. Perhaps someday there will be an avatar technique or a device that allows for crossover access to that more extensive, multi dimensional fabric of consciousness.
Aside from any speculative fiction, artists are limited to what can be accomplished in the here and now, and Bess is a testament to that adventurous spirit of discovery uninhibited by the limitations of the possible.
Unfortunately the story of Bess’s life struggles are a pain-filled legacy of loss and disillusionment.
Substance abuse and paranoia culminated in his arrest and institutionalization by his brother after a night of inebriated nudity on the streets of San Antonio.
This after Hurricane Carla leveled his Chinquapin studio, destroying many years of art making.
Although there certainly were issues surrounding his mental health in later years, his art, though depicting fear and anxiety, never suffered from a lack of energy.
Untitled 1957 27.75" x 7"
Bomb 1954 8" x 10" Oil on canvas
As a postscript to John Yau’s informative article that focuses on authenticity issues with Bess’s work, I would say that although the provenance of these paintings seem sound, (as documented in The Ranch’s press release seen below) Bess had many of his own art students and friends that knew the artist’s work well. That the pieces in this exhibit have never been seen before by anyone might be cause for concern.
Certainly art that had been packed in boxes, and presumably then forgotten in a leaky shed since the 1970’s could be the real thing. Despite his relatively social nature Bess was essentially a recluse, and could well have put his work away, or given it away without much documentation.
How student art or intentional forgeries might end up in the shed could also be considered a strange outcome.
However there is a precedent for Bess forgeries:
This story from 2004 raises as many questions as it answers, but apparently does not directly involve any of the paintings in this exhibit.
That said, it might be helpful if there were a way to more thoroughly establish provenance by comparing structural elements such as Bess’s framing techniques, and identifying signatures or common markings on the art.
In the meantime, I will follow the impression I got from John Yau who seems relatively confident that the work currently seen at The Ranch is authentic enough to write about and comment on.
I will also add that the subject of authenticating Bess’s work may be impossible. The technical limitations of his paint handling would not be that hard to copy for a determined forger.
But then my final thought on this matter is why? Is the risk/reward factor sufficient to commit a criminal act of fraud by forging a Bess? I’d think there are artists with much more market value to go after.
It may yet turn out that there are fake Bess’s floating around the art world, but if there are I suspect it may be the result of the old adage “that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.
From the press release of “I Can Close My Eyes in a Dark Room”
This presentation is made possible by the scholarship and discovery of this group of paintings by Kirk Hopper and stewardship of Chuck Smith, director of the acclaimed film, “Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle” (1999).
Smith relates his surprise encounter with these previously unknown works and enduring fascination with Bess’s interior universe and mythic persona:
I fell into the world of Forrest Bess in the late 1980s when I started researching my documentary “Key to the Riddle.” Over thirty years later, the story of this painter/fish- erman/philosopher from Texas still fascinates me and never fails to surprise.
The latest surprise came this summer when Kirk Hopper let me know that he had come across a bunch of newly discovered Bess paintings. If someone claimed to find a bunch of Jackson Pollock paintings in their back shed, the art world would balk, but the world of Forrest Bess is full of improbable stories that turn out to be true.
Did he really believe that staring at his paintings would reveal a deep truth that would make him immortal and other viewers more enlightened? Yes. Did he really operate on himself to become a pseudo-hermaphrodite? Yes. Did Agnes Martin really take Bess shopping for a jacket to wear to his opening at Betty Parsons? Yes.
Bess painted his visions directly as he saw them while living at a remote bait camp on the Texas coast. Storms came and storms left. Paintings were damaged, destroyed, and saved. He had a hard time selling his paintings and ended up giving many away as gifts or in exchange for food or services.
Harry Burkhart was a friend who helped Bess when he needed it most and ended up with a garage full of paintings. I visited that garage in 1995 and watched as Harry pulled out his stash of Bess canvases.
He hinted that there were others somewhere, and other friends of Bess’s had sto- ries of “undiscovered” paintings too. Now an employee of Harry’s has come forward with fourteen “new” Bess paintings. Some more weather-beaten than others, some framed, some not, but ALL fascinating. I am excited once again.
When I look at the new paintings, I feel the same thrill of discovery that I felt when I walked into my first Bess exhibit at Hirschl & Adler in 1988. It’s a feeling of mystery that begs to be solved. I have never seen any of these fourteen paintings before, and yet they already seem familiar––like friends.
The forest of “tree” symbols on a field of blue in the brilliant Untitled. 106 reminds me of Tab Tied to the Moon Film (1957), one of my favorite Bess paintings, and yet it looks nothing like it. Untitled. 108 brings to mind Here Is a Sign (1970), but has its own mysterious tension. Each of the newly discovered paintings has a uniquely Bessian vibe. A symbolic power. And that’s what a Bess painting is all about. Bess worked with symbols from his unconscious.
Stop. Slow down. Take a good look at these paintings. (Bess suggests at least 20 minutes.) Then, and only then, you too might be thrown back to that Jungian world we all came from—the collective unconscious—where Bess and all dreamers live on.
— Chuck Smith, October 2021
The following is a statement from the owner the paintings, detailing the story of the
paintings’ rediscovery and connections to Forrest Bess:
I began working for Harry Burkhart on Burkhart Ranch in Markham, Texas in October of 1975. I was 19 years old at the time and remained working for Harry on the ranch for almost thirty-six years. I met Harry while I was a student working part-time at the Bay City Country Club. After getting to know him a little, he eventually offered me a job.
In 1977 (the year Bess died), Harry had a log cabin built for me so I both lived and worked on the ranch. Harry and his partner also lived on the ranch a little further down near the barn and cattle pens. In 1987 my wife and I got married underneath the Live Oak trees next to the log cabin. It was a small ceremony, but Harry and his partner were there at our wedding.
I had a long working relationship with Harry Burkhart that began as a job, but over time became much more and Harry came to rely heavily on me and trusted me with many personal errands and details. I was with Harry until the very end of his life and remained working on the ranch until his estate was settled.
Harry owned a house at Carancahua Bay that he and his mama bought after Harry’s daddy died. They loved to spend time there and Harry was at the Bay House with his partner the day he received a phone call with the news that his mama had passed away. This was in June of 1975 and her death greatly affected Harry: he never stayed at the Bay House again. He left the Bay House with all the furnishings, dishes, and personal belongings still there. Harry would have me go out there once a month to mow the yard, read the electric meters and check on everything. Around 1977 Harry and his stepdaddy, James Hite split assets and Mr. Hite kept the big Bay City home- place. Harry rented a U-Haul truck and had me load it with his personal belongings. He had me put some of these items into the house he had purchased in Markham and the rest into the garage at the Bay House.
Unoccupied and with very little upkeep, the condition of the house and the garage as well as the contents in both deteriorated progressively with each year that passed. The concrete floors would sweat and everything sitting on them stayed damp and moldy. I took pictures to show to Harry how badly damaged everything was. The roof on the garage was flat and he had me try and patch it with roll-out roofing and tar, but it was just a temporary fix.
In the late 1980s Harry purchased some white couches and chairs from the Bay City Country Club and wanted to store the furniture at the Bay House. To make room for the furniture, he had me clear out part of the garage and throw away the weather damaged boxes. Many of the boxes were ones that came from the Bay City home-place. The boxes were falling apart but I could see that some of them contained some neat items so I asked Harry if I could keep some of the boxes rather than throw them out. Harry told me I could keep any of them that I wanted. There were some paintings in the rubbish, but they were all water damaged so I threw several of the worst ones away. I re-boxed the things I kept and put them in our personal storage building behind our cabin on the ranch.
When we eventually left the ranch after Harry’s death, we moved the storage building with us. Recently we began going through those stored items and came across the paintings. I really didn’t know anything about them but after laying them out and studying them, a couple appeared to be signed by the artist Forrest Bess. This made sense since Mr. Bess was a good friend of Harry’s. I really didn’t think there would be any interest in them nor did I think they could be worth much since they were in poor condition. I remembered Mr. Hopper from his trip to Bay City when he was asked to value some of Harry’s artwork for the estate and remembered that he was from Dallas. My wife was able to find his website and locate a phone number for Mr. Hopper, so we gave him a call and scheduled a meeting to show him the paintings and get his opinion of them.