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Bess, Forrest (1911-1977)  
 
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Beginning in 1947, Bess destroyed many of his earlier works, because he had come to regard them as derivative and uninspired. However, from the available evidence, it seems likely that, throughout the 1930s, he produced portrait subjects, still life objects, and landscapes in a style reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh, who already had become one of Bess's personal heroes because of the earlier artist's isolation and mystical view of the world.

Sweet Potatoes (1934, private collection) probably is typical of Bess's paintings of the 1930s. Among the features that recall paintings by Van Gogh are the flattened spatial perspective; heavily outlined, distorted shapes; thickly applied oil paint, roughly marked by coarse brushes; and the bright, unrealistic coloring. During the 1930s, he also occasionally experimented with abstract compositions.

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Military Service and Other Experiences, 1941-47

In 1941, Bess enlisted in the U.S. Army and initially proved to be a model soldier; he quickly rose to the rank of captain in the Corps of Engineers. He took great pride in the commendation which he received for his camouflage designs, but he felt very frustrated when the army decided to shelve his plans for financial reasons and assigned him to teach bricklaying to new recruits.

In 1946, while still in the army, Bess experienced a series of exceptionally terrifying visions, which left him feeling physically incapacitated, and, subsequently, he suffered a complete mental breakdown. During treatment at the Veterans Administration Hospital (now Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital), San Antonio, a psychiatrist helped to make him aware of the psychological and spiritual significance of the colored shapes that he saw shortly before falling asleep. Near the end of his therapy, he enjoyed working as a painting instructor at the hospital.

Upon leaving the service, Bess set up a small gallery and frame shop in San Antonio, and he became a prominent figure in the local art scene. Nevertheless, in 1947, for reasons that are uncertain, Bess left San Antonio and moved to the site of his family's bait fishing business at Chinquapin (near Bay City) on the Gulf coast in southeast Texas.

Isolation at Chinquapin: Paintings Inspired by Visions

Barely supporting himself by catching fish which he sold as bait, Bess lived in primitive conditions. With the hull of an old tugboat and copper sheets from the hull of a ferry, he built a shack, which he covered with layers of tar and oyster shells for insulation. Although technically a peninsula, the barren strip of land on which Bess resided often was separated from the mainland by water and accessible only by boat. Not surprisingly, these physical circumstances exacerbated Bess's sense of psychological isolation from others. After his father's death in 1954, he had little contact with other individuals.

Bess found the peninsula both frightening and inspiring. Writing to Betty Parsons, he explained: "it has a ghostly feeling about it--spooky--unreal--but there is something about it that attracts me to it--even though I am afraid of it." In the harsh environment of the peninsula, Bess devoted himself to the exploration of the unconscious world, revealed by his visions, which now recurred on a regular basis.

Instead of the complex and often frightening scenes that he had previously witnessed, his visions now were reduced largely to simple, vaguely geometric shapes, which seemed to hover inside his eyes. Until he stopped painting in 1974, he sought to record the images that appeared unbidden to him. He insisted that he made no effort to modify or elaborate his visions in any way. "To do so would be hypocritical and untruthful," he commented. "Many times the vision is so simple--only a line or two--that when it is copied in paint I feel 'well gosh, there isn't very much there, is there?'"

Most of Bess's mature works--such as Untitled no. 14 (1952) and Untitled no. 11a (1958)--consist of simple shapes, such as lines, circles, and crescents, against a flat or vaguely atmospheric background. In some pieces, such as Warrior (1947) and the provocatively named The Dicks (1946), Bess utilizes shapes that seem to have emphatic connotations. Corresponding with his growing fascination with , many of his paintings combine male and female signifiers. For example, in #1 (1951), phallic forms frame a space filled with inverted triangles (a symbol of female fertility in many cultures) and vaguely flame-like shapes.

However, it should be emphasized that one cannot be too precise in interpreting Bess's mature work. Thus, Stuart Preston noted in a New York Times review of his 1962 show at Betty Parsons Gallery: "Any attempt to establish visual or symbolic identifications in the shapes that grow in the inscrutable compositions will come to grief. Better just to respond to them." Even without deciphering all the possible meanings that the shapes may have had for the artist, one can appreciate the intensity of the experiences that inspired the artist to record these images.

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