Monday, April 30, 2012

Don't Mess With Minimalism: Part 1

I visited my brother in law and his wife in Houston, Texas this weekend.  But before I left NYC I stopped by the Whitney and took a good look at a Texas Gulf Coast artist named Forest Bess (1911- 1977).  I thought maybe I would find some more of his work down here... I missed a show of his in Houston by a month (bummer).  Anyway, Forest Bess' work is pretty darn good but his life story is great.  First and foremost he is a visionary or mystic... his art I think is secondary... which slightly impacts the way that I view his work.  For someone like Forest his art simply is what it is... an offshoot of his larger message.

In a nut shell his bio is something like this... he was born and lived in Texas on the Gulf Coast and worked as a fisherman.  He was educated but he was isolated.  He was homosexual, suffered from mental breakdowns, and was deeply spiritual in his own private way.  He did show his art in his own life time, especially at Betty Parsons Gallery.  He was intrigued by the writtings of Carl Jung and his ideas of the collective unconscious.  Aside from his art he is best known for performing self surgery in which he cut a small hole into the base of his penis making himself a hermaphrodite (he did this for spiritual reasons... as an attempt to unite the male with female aspect of himself).  His art certainly reflects his interest in sexuality.  "The Hermaphrodite" was one of his most striking paintings at the Whitney.

Forest Bess
The Hermaphrodite

But aside from his life story his work is a kind of mystical minimalism.  The small sized canvases are intimate, the rustic wooden frames give his work a home-made feel, the textures are layered and sensual, and his choice of color creates visual tension.  Moreover, his exhibit at the Whitney was tucked away in a small room adjacent to Werner Herzog's video installation "Heresay of the Soul", which played religious music composed of Christian organs and Tibetan monk chanting.  The affect in Bess's exhibit elevated the spiritual character of his work and added to his martyr-like story.  But most interesting about his work is his process.  As the curator of the Whitney Biennial exhibit, Robert Gober says that: Forest "never added to or subtracted from the visions that appeared to him".  To me this seems odd.  Most artists that I know of, aside from conceptual artists, either work hard to perfect a vision they have (and almost always end up modifying it in someway or falling short of realizing it), or they discover their composition by "feeling" their way through the process of creating it.  Off the top of my head I cannot think of an artist who copies onto canvas paintings that have appeared to them in their mind's eye.  Indeed, there is something prophetic and selfless about this way of making art.

Forest Bess at the Whitney Biennial

In 1961 hurricane Carla destroyed Forest Bess' studio and home.  He was devastated.  Many large paintings of his were lost.  Then in 1974 he was placed into a hospital and diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.  He died three years later.  We are left with his wonderful mysterious paintings.  He was an extraordinary example of the heroic power of Modernism and a beacon of authenticity at a time when strategy and concept dominate.  Thank you Robert Gober and thank you Forest Bess.

You can see more of his work at and you can see an excellent video of two Forest Bess exhibits at Loren Monk's "The James Kalm Report" (below).

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