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Bess, Forrest (1911-1977)  
 
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Contributing to the immediate and powerful impact of Bess's work is the artist's lively and bold handling of paint. Although he generally applied paint heavily and roughly, he occasionally created lush and overtly sensual effects. He usually employed strong, deeply resonant colors, often choosing ones that contrasted strongly with one another. Belying their powerful psychological presence, most of his paintings measure less than a foot square.

Although most of his mature work is abstract, he did produce some highly stylized landscapes. In Seascape with Sun (ca 1947, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), he evoked his profound interactions with the Gulf coast area; he represented the sea as a turbulent mass of black waves beneath an intense red sky with a bright orange sun. In Homage to Ryder (1951, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), he paid tribute to the earlier American visionary painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), through the depiction of a landscape with brilliant light, fading at the horizon.

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Representation by Betty Parsons Gallery

In 1949, hoping to find a broader audience for his work, he sold over forty of his older paintings for ten dollars each in order to raise money to travel to New York to find a dealer. Betty Parsons, who constantly demonstrated a willingness to promote highly distinctive and unconventional work, received his work warmly and agreed to serve as his dealer.

Through her representation of many of the leading figures of the emerging Abstract Expressionist movement (including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman), Parsons had already established her gallery as one of the leading venues for contemporary art in New York during the 1950s and 1960s. Bess's commitment to visualizing the unconscious related his work to that of the leading Abstract Expressionists. However, the diminutive scale and obscure symbolism differentiated his paintings from their monumental and more extroverted works.

In December 1949, Parsons gave Bess a one-person show, as she did again in 1954, 1957, 1959, 1962, and 1967. Helped by the prestige of his association with Parsons, Bess also received solo exhibitions at galleries and museums in other cities (including, among others, Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, 1952; André Emmerich Gallery, Houston, 1958; Stanford University, 1958; Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, 1962).

Despite the good reviews earned by these shows, Bess was able to sell very few paintings, and he had to depend primarily upon his bait business for his livelihood. The time and energy that he had to devote to catching shrimp severely restricted the quantity of his later artistic production. Therefore, from the mid-1940s onwards, Bess produced only approximately one hundred paintings.

Pursuit of Androgyny

During the 1950s, Bess became increasingly preoccupied with the severe split that he perceived in his own psychological makeup. In letters to Parsons, Bess explained that he felt deeply troubled by the conflict between "personality # 1," which he praised as masculine and aggressive, and "personality # 2," which he belittled as weak and effeminate. Most of Bess's acquaintances in Texas assumed that he was a homosexual, unable to do deal with the social stigma then widely associated with this sexual orientation. However, Bess believed that his inner turmoil had other sources.

Through a profound mystical experience in the summer of 1953, Bess became convinced that the shapes that he had been recording in his paintings contained clues to the resolution of the conflict between his two personalities. To enhance his understanding of these forms, Bess corresponded at length with Carl Jung and other leading specialists in the psychological and spiritual significance of symbols in world cultures.

Following suggestions made by these scholars, Bess read extensively in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and world religions. This research helped him to understand that the shapes in his visions and paintings corresponded with symbols for gender identities in many world cultures. Referring to theories developed by various cultural anthropologists, he determined that his visions encouraged the synthesis of male and female.

By the late 1950s, he became convinced that he was the prophet of a new world order based on androgyny. Further, he believed that the physical fusion of genders within his own body would not only relieve his profound anxieties but also reveal the secrets of immortality to the human race as a whole.

Determined to establish the truth of his convictions, Bess utilized surgery to create an opening, or fistula, at the junction of his penis with the scrotum. He believed that the insertion of another penis in this artificially created opening would produce an intense orgasm that would lead to spiritual awakening and, hence, to eternal rejuvenation.

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