Forrest Bess: I Can Close My Eyes in a Dark Room

West Barn

November 12-December 18, 2021

“Art is a search for beauty. Not a superficial beauty, but a very deep longing for a uniting of all lost parts.”

— Forrest Bess, Letter to Betty Parsons, 1951

The Ranch is pleased to present an exhibition of fourteen recently rediscovered paintings by Forrest Bess––a seismic addition to the hundred known works in the artist’s oeuvre. A standout figure in the canon of American modernism, Bess is admired for his intimate yet charged symbolic paintings. Referred to by the artist as “visions,” the works constellate his repertoire of signs that forge a secret language at once esoteric and accessible. The small-scale paintings on view in this exhibition demonstrate the recurrence of cosmological icons like stars and runes alongside brusque sexual imagery that recollects Bess’s pioneering engagement with fluid gender identity and representation.

Indeed, many of the works serve as a succinct biographies of the artist’s fascinating life––both direct translations of images he pictured in his mind’s eye and isolated symbols that represented episodes significant to his personal history and countercultural philosophic beliefs. Though he rose to prominence as an artist in the Betty Parsons Gallery stable during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, his distinct scale and spirituality differentiated him from his peers. Preferring solitude, the self-alienated Bess developed a theoretical mysticism derived from mythology and Jungian psychoanalysis which posited that the key to immortality was achieved by the possession of hermaphroditic sexual attributes. To this end, Bess performed several surgeries on himself throughout his lifetime to support his thesis. The works on display reveal this quest for duality and restored unity.

Also on view, an extensive selection of letters and photographs from the artist’s archive that maps his exhibition history, intellectual exchanges, and intimate correspondence. 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). Below, 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/fisherman/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 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 stories 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.

“I can close my eyes in a dark room,” he wrote, “then I can see color, lines, patterns, and forms that make up my canvases.” The best of his works come from this deep universal place that is only revealed to us in dreams. 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 depend 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.

For more information, contact: info@maxlevai.com