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First retrospective of Forrest Bess's work in twenty years opens in Berkeley
Forrest Bess: The Hermaphrodite, 1957; oil on canvas; 8 x 11-1/4 in.; The Menil Collection, Houston, gift of John Wilcox in memory of Frank Owen Wilson. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

BERKELEY, CA.- The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive presents Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, the first museum retrospective of the under-recognized painter in more than twenty years. A self-described “visionary” artist, Bess (1911–1977) is a singular figure in American art who experienced both significant recognition and painful isolation during his life. Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, the Berkeley presentation features approximately forty of Bess’s works, dating from 1946 to 1970 with an installation of archival materials curated by American artist Robert Gober.

For most of his career, Bess lived an isolated existence in a fishing camp outside of Bay City, Texas. He eked out a meager living fishing and selling bait by day. By night and during the off-season he read, wrote, and painted prolifically, creating an extraordinary body of mostly small-scale canvases rich with enigmatic symbolism. Despite his remoteness, Bess became known throughout the modern art world when he was discovered and championed by the influential New York gallery owner Betty Parsons. Though he never attained the fame of the other artists Parson represented, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, Bess’s distinctive style, methods, and thinking set him apart from his contemporaries.

Bess taught himself to paint by copying illustrations in books and magazines, and later by imitating the still lifes and landscapes of artists he admired, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Albert Pinkham Ryder. From early childhood and throughout his life, Bess experienced intense hallucinations. Beginning in 1946, a vocabulary of biomorphic shapes and symbols that drew on these visions began appearing in his artworks. He would sketch the shapes he had seen on the inside of his eyelids in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness. Influenced heavily by Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, Bess hoped to uncover the universal meaning of these dream-like symbols by meticulously recording and studying them.

Bess eventually formulated a theory, which he referred to as his “thesis,” that the unification of the male and female within one’s body could produce immortality. He not only sent written copies of his thesis to prominent researchers at the time, but also eventually began to test his theory on his own body, performing several self-surgeries meant to help him achieve a hermaphroditic state. Gober’s installation The Man That Got Away brings together a selection of Bess’s artworks, writings, and photographs that illuminate Bess’s thesis and its realization in the artist’s body.

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