A view of the Forrest Bess installation at the 2012 Whitney Biennial (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

I have no business writing about Forrest Bess, what with my Hyperallergic Weekend colleague John Yau being an acknowledged expert on the subject, and so I won’t.

But when I returned to the Whitney Biennial on Sunday, it was Bess’s work that held me in its grip.

As a reader succinctly commented on last week’s post, “part of art is in the thrill of unexpected visual pleasure,” an essential that I had treated cursorily as I examined my impressions of the exhibition’s gestalt.

To walk into the artist Robert Gober’s installation of paintings, photographs and writings by Forrest Bess — a visionary painter and self-described, self-surgically-altered “pseudo-hermaphrodite” — was to encounter art frontloaded with (as the reader put it) “cultural significance while also being visually intoxicating, or mesmerizing, you can choose a description.”

Forrest Bess,“The Hermaphrodite” (1957), oil on canvas, 8 x 11 inches, The Menil Collection, Houston; gift of John Wilcox, in memory of Frank Owen Wilson.

The intoxicating, mesmerizing effect of Bess’s work was not lost on me the first time around, but I didn’t sweep it into my assessment of the show because, well, Bess is dead.

And he’s not among the recently departed like Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose sudden death, apparently a suicide, shocked the art world at the beginning of February (and to whom the Biennial is dedicated), or George Kuchar (1942-1911), another Biennial participant whose excerpts from the film series The Weather Diaries are dated from 1977 through 2011.

Bess (1911-1977) has been dead for almost 34 and a half years. And so his inclusion in a show where the majority of the work was completed between 2010 and 2012 comprises a de facto institutional recognition of his influence on contemporary art (an influence that a generation or two of painters have already taken for granted).

Forrest Bess,“No. 6” (1959), oil on canvas, 17 x 26 inches, private collection.

It should be mentioned that Gober (who also organized the much-admired Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, a traveling exhibition that made a stop at the Whitney in 2010) isn’t the only artist presenting other people’s work (Nick Mauss does as well). But his impeccable hanging of Bess’s paintings in a room of their own, supplemented by documentary materials and clearly written, informative texts, turns a curatorial conceit into a public service.

But Gober’s presentation underscores something beyond Bess’s distinctive use of paint, simultaneously sumptuous and kooky, and resplendent palette, ranging from neon-lit primaries to caveman umbers.

What comes through with exceptional clarity — and what saves Bess’s simple shapes and curious array of personal symbols from mere eccentricity — is the clammy-palmed necessity simmering just beneath each painting’s skin.

Bess made art like his life depended on it, because it did. The same can be said for James Castle, Adolf Wölfli or Martin Ramirez. It’s what is outside about outsider art. Throughout the images conjured by Bess, Castle and the others, you can all but feel their frontal lobes throbbing, ready to explode.

The psychological states bedeviling these artists put them on the extreme end of creativity’s bell curve, the point at which the torch incinerates its vessel.

Pages from Forrest Bess’s thesis found in an undated letter to Meyer Shapiro. Meyer Shapiro papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The paradox of Gober’s installation, which includes a selection of Bess’s extensive writings on his theories of hermaphroditism as well as a Polaroid of the sizable hole he razored into his own urethra, is that it stands out as one of the few oases of luxe, calme et volupté at the Biennial.

Chalk it up to the duality of beauty and savagery — with the one always implicit in the other — that’s been at play since the beginning of art.

It’s something we discerned again and again in the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art’s epochal Willem de Kooning retrospective, which closed in early January. No matter how eruptive the brushstrokes or vicious the caricaturing, the work never managed to lose its classical light and grace.

It was noted during the course of that exhibition that de Kooning doesn’t hang well with his Abstract Expressionist peers. He’s all elbows and knees, talking too loud and jangling everybody’s nerves, instinctively landing art back where eschatologists don’t want it to go.

And from there a narrative unspools that isn’t about the Whitney Biennial or the state of American art. It’s about the corporeal and the spiritual, vaporized boundaries and false dichotomies. It’s about the pellucid and the unknowable, the luminous and the blood-soaked, and why we do what we do. It’s about Forrest Bess.

The 2012 Whitney Biennial continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until May 27.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

3 replies on “Poor Forrest, Dead and Gone”

  1. I can’t wait to see this.  I also wonder how it will look alongside the Bess show at Christie’s. 

  2. I just saw that Arbor Erecta illustration in a show of Sonya Rapoport’s work, “Spaces Of Life” in the Mills College Museum in Oakland CA. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, but luckily many artists can and do.

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