Forrest Bess, “A Star” (1967) (all images via Christie’s)

Editorial note: Part One of Without Elaboration was published last weekend.

In 1981, Bess was reintroduced (or, for many of us) introduced by way of a small one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Barbara Haskell organized the show and there was a small pamphlet available for free. According to the pamphlet, the symbols in Bess’ work were based on “obscure sexual references” and there was something “lurid” about them.

(This is where I first saw Bess’s paintings, which I reviewed for Art in America, and which sent me off trying to find out more about him and his work).

Andrew Masullo was one of the young artists who spent a lot of time looking at Bess’s work. In his “Notes on Forrest Bess,” which is published in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Forrest Bess: 100 Years; Paintings by Forrest and his friends Chris Martin, Andrew Masullo and Chuck Webster (October 1 – 23, 2011, Kirk Hopper Fine Art, Dallas, TX), Masullo stated:

Forrest Bess taught me how to paint. I was very young and impressionable when I first encountered Forrest at his Whitney Museum retrospective in 1981. Walking into that exhibition for the first time and seeing his small paintings scattered across the walls gave me an honest-to-goodness jolt, the kind I’ve never experienced before or since. Thunderous! His paintings felt foreign to me and yet strangely familiar.  My connection with them was immediate and very personal.

I never knew paintings could look the way his looked and never knew paintings could make me feel the way his did. I made many pilgrimages to the Whitney during the run of that show to pour my eyes over them, sit around and shoot the breeze with them, cry and die over them.

A number of young artists echoed Masullo’s sentiments. Amidst all the hoopla about the return to painting, specifically figuration  (and the overheated frenzy about Neo-Expressionism), Bess offered an alternative, particularly to painters interested in abstraction.

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Forrest Bess, “Untitled” (1959) (click to enlarge)

In 1984,  the exhibition I knew it to be so!’ Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen, Myron Stout: Theory and the Visionary, which was organized by Lawrence Luhring and David Reed, opened at the New York Studio School, New York, and traveled to Muhlenberg College, Center for the Arts, Allentown, PA. There was a stapled black-and-white catalogue for which I wrote the text. David and I spent a considerable amount of time together talking about Bess. David had taken out an ad in a Bay City newspaper, to which people responded with photographs of BNess’s paintings, and I examined these photographs with him on at least one occasion. David also bought a small panel painting through the mail, which he then sold to finance the exhibition.

That exhibition included “Dedication to Van Gogh” (1946) and “Homage to Ryder” (1951). I remember going to the show one afternoon and seeing Bill Jensen staring raptly at one of Bess’s paintings.

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Forrest Bess, c. late 1960s/early 1970s (photo credit: Jim Wilford, image via

In 1988, there was a Bess exhibition of Bess at Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.  Its full-color catalog reprinted the introduction written by Meyer Schapiro wrote in 1962 on the occasion of the Forrest Bess retrospective at the Betty Parsons Gallery The catalog also included the first letter that Bess wrote to Schapiro, and an essay that I wrote.

It was while the Hirschl & Adler show was up that I first met Rosalie Berkowitz, and went to her apartment to talk with her, and to see the Bess paintings she owned. I went to the Archives of American Artists to read his letters to Meyer Schapiro, which are permanently stored there. It was also during this time that I began hearing about a cache of Bess paintings that two men in Texas owned and kept in bank vaults. It seemed that they wouldn’t show anyone the paintings, and no one knew how many they actually had. Since most experts believe that Bess’s entire oeuvre numbers around one hundred and fifty paintings, the fact that they might have had as many as fifty suggested there was still a big gap in what we knew of Bess’s work.

The three Bess exhibitions that took place in New York during the 1980s constitute much of what we know about his work and thinking until now. Together, they offered an alternative to both the large-sized paintings of Neo-Expressionism and to the end-game appropriations of those who ironically cited or quoted earlier art.

Bess’s paintings were neither histrionic nor cool. They were unconcerned with fashion or theory.  They stood out amidst the hubbub and hoopla. They inspired at least two generations of artists, including Peter Acheson and Chris Martin.

Other painters who will tell you that they have been inspired by Bess’s work include Chuck Webster and the German painter Norbert Schwontkowski, who rethought his entire approach to painting after he saw a large Bess’s show at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in 1989.

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In 1999, the film, Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle, which was made by Chuck Smith and Ari Marcopolous, was released. It is well researched and offers the best introduction to Bess and his theories, quoting his letters and other writings, and featuring numerous photographs, interviews, and other useful information.

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Forrest Bess, “The Noble Carbunkle” (1960)

At times I would think the story about the two Texans with a cache of Bess paintings was another art world legend, that there was little more that could be discovered.

There are a lot of these legends buzzing around. Somebody in Texas is supposed to own at least a dozen Francis Bacon paintings, which he received in exchange for paying off portions of the artist’s gambling debts, and which the artist’s estate refuses to authenticate.

The story about Bess, however, has proven to be true. The two men were Harry Burkhart and Jim Wilford, a gay couple who were longtime friends of Bess in Bay City. Both of them are now dead, and the paintings were bequeathed to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the facility where the two men died.

Forty of the paintings from the collection of Burkhart and Wilford are in the exhibition, A Tribute to Forrest Bess: A Selection of Master Works by Forrest Bess (1911 – 1977) from The Harry Burkhardt Collection (March 1 – April 3, 2012, Christie’s Private Sales, 1230 Avenue of Americas, on the 20th floor, Manhattan). (I suspect the ones left out of the exhibition are from before his visionary period). The exhibition is rounded out by three paintings borrowed from museum collections, including “Dedication to Van Gogh” (1946) and “Homage to Ryder” (1951). The well-researched, informative catalogue contains astute essays by Robert Storr and Wayne Koestenbaum.

The other exhibition of Bess’s work is Robert Gober’s thoughtful installation of eleven paintings, supplemented by photographs and writings, which is included in the Whitney Biennial (March 1 – May 27, 2012). Compared to Whitney show in 1981, which alluded to “obscure sexual references,” Gober’s installation is revealing, as it presents documentary material, including a Polaroid of what he did to himself in order to become what my colleague Thomas Micchelli described as “a self-surgically-altered “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” Micchelli also made the following observation in “Poor Forrest, Dead and Gone“:

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).”

And then Micchelli gets right to the heart of what has mesmerized those, like Masullo and myself, who keep returning to see his work:

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.

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Forrest Bess, “Untitled (The Void1 )” (1946–47)

Between 1947 and 1952, many Abstract Expressionists wanted to make a painting that was naked, a work stripped down to its essentials. They were in crisis because they wanted their work to go beyond aesthetic issues. Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt all took radical steps during this intense five year span. Although Bess had little to do with his peers, he too wanted to make a painting that was naked, one that could serve as a surrogate for his conflicted mind and body.

The black hills in “Untitled” (n.d.) are the buttocks of a black man that Bess lusts after, but cannot admit to because he is white.  The vertical and horizontal striations in his landscape abstractions compress ploughed furrows, scarification, and flagellation as well as an archaic way of counting time. Pain, pleasure, ecstasy, and revelation are inseparable. That’s the state of nakedness Bess achieved in his strongest paintings. There is nothing stylish or self-deluded about them — that’s what Micchelli means when he writes about “the clammy-palmed necessity simmering just beneath each painting’s skin.”

And yet, we don’t go back to these paintings because they are lurid. No matter how much we learn about Bess, many of his works remain mysterious and full of urgency. They can also be serene, creepy, and weird. In The “Hermaphrodite” (1957), the red shapes extending in from the edges of a white oblong form are wounds. You don’t have to know anything about Bess and his theories for that to come across.

Instead of being reductive or extravagant, Bess connected the dots. He found corroboration for ideas about art in his research into alchemy and aboriginal practices, among other things. He wanted to make a naked painting, and he wanted to be able to put everything into it. This is the conundrum he solves through his visual compressions.  For all of his literalness, Bess was not a literal painter.

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Forrest Bes, “Untitled” (1957)

In the exhibition at Christies, there is an early visionary painting called “Untitled  (The Void 1)” (1946-47). The rectangle is dominated by what looks like a pair of black abstract pair of wings whose top right and left sides extend to the top right and left corners. In the mirroring, off-white gullies formed by the band where the wing-like shape forms taper down, Bess has painted tiny linear symbols, which have an almost cartoony feel to them.

A decade later, Bess divides the composition of “Untitled” (1957) horizontally. The upper half is pinkish along its bottom edge and red above that. In the bottom half, it is bluish gray near the top edge and dark gray-blue below. It could be a red sky above the ocean, but Bess confounds us by painting what looks like a black spine traversed by short, evenly spaced black bars. He has filled the spaces between the black bars with yellow. Starting on the left side and rising up from the bottom edge, the spine runs parallel to the picture plane, but then curves and tilts slightly to the right as it extends diagonally into the painting, diminishing its width on its way to carving out a deep sense of space.

No matter how many ways you take these paintings apart, they snap back together and resist being domesticated by language. That’s because they are their own language. No matter how close we get to them, etymologically speaking, we reach a point where we cannot go any further. We are left with what is in front of us.  And at the heart of these powerful little paintings is the artist’s serene acceptance of the solitariness that he will neither overcome nor escape. It wasn’t the solitariness that haunted him, but the conditions of it. That’s what he sought to change through his work. In order to do so, he had to believe in something.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...