Visionary Painter Relied on Dreams

Forrest Bess: Untitled, 1957; oil on canvas; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Adam Kimmel. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, NY/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

A great collection of paintings based on dreams and the artist’s deeply strange theology is yours for the viewing at the Berkeley Art Museum and shouldn’t be missed. Forrest Bess is worth discovering.

Even not knowing the back story – son of an oilfield roughneck; working a bait shop in his home town of Bay City, Texas; an out gay man before it was cool, or safe; a nervous breakdown following a beating; a student of architecture; a devotee of Jung; friends with a famous art historian and shows at a top New York gallery, then back to Bay City – Bess’s paintings are compelling thanks to their tight, great design, subtle use of color, and the way they evoke landscapes, interiors, plants, animals and actions in a dreamlike way.

The show is called ‘Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible,’ and there is a catalog.

It’s not surprising to learn that Bess (1911-1977) painted these images directly from his dreams. And it’s not altogether surprising to find out he had a theory behind his work too – that by transforming ourselves into hermaphrodites we might live forever.

Forrest Bess: Untitled (The Spider), 1970; oil on canvas, 13 ¾ x 16 1/8 in.; collection of Christian Zacharias.

Too much to comprehend, that? Then just stick to the paintings, which suggest the simple abstractions and abstracted landscapes of painters like Albert Pinkham Ryder, a Bess favorite, or a Bess contemporary, Milton Avery.

The exhibit, organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, is on display through September in the original and marvelous Berkeley Art Museum building, designed by Mario Ciampi. Its replacement is being constructed a few blocks away.

Black Eye
Forrest Bess: View of Maya, 1951; oil on canvas; 8 x 8 in.; The Menil Collection, Houston, bequest of Jermayne Macagy. Photo: Paul Hester.

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