FORREST BESS: SEEING THINGS INVISIBLE at the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College

Forrest Bess 1957
Forrest Bess 1957
February 16–May 18, 2014

The only East Coast Venue where this critically acclaimed exhibition will be on view, it features the work of one of the great artists of his generation to work in abstraction with a personal lexicon of symbols.

Beginning February 16, 2014, the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College will present Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, a critically-acclaimed exhibition of the work of Bess, singular American artist, now on national tour. The Neuberger Museum of Art is the only East Coast venue at which the exhibition, organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, will be on view. It is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue, and continues through May 18, 2014.

Forrest Bess includes over 55 objects, 48 of which are extraordinary small-scale canvases, rich with enigmatic symbolism, that the artist said would reveal “the universal unconscious” of memories and experiences. Bess drew meaning for these symbols and motifs – that he said appeared to him in dreams since childhood – from various disciplines such as medicine, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. Menil curator Clare Elliott noted: “In terms of style and their creator’s fascination with Jungian psychology, his paintings can be compared with ... Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, with whom he shared a New York City art gallery in the 1950s. But Bess stood apart from the Abstract Expressionists. Whereas they valued the large, spontaneous gesture, he was determined to reproduce the mystical symbols that came to him in his visions.”

Neuberger Chief Curator Tracy Fitzpatrick said: “We are so glad to be able to present this exhibition of the work of Forrest Bess and are grateful to Menil Collection, Houston, Assistant Curator Clare Elliott and artist Robert Gober for curating such an important show.  Bess is one of the great artists of his generation to work in abstraction with a personal lexicon of symbols, and this exhibition provides significant and important insight into his work.”

Forrest Bess (1911-1977), a unique figure in American art, eked out a meager living fishing and selling bait by day in Bay City Texas, where he was born, while in his free time, he read, wrote, and painted prolifically. During World War II, he suffered a severe beating while serving in the US military after he revealed his homosexuality. On the advice of a psychiatrist, he resumed painting as a form of therapy. He recorded his hallucinations and recurring visions in his works, which included sketches and writings that eventually revealed his “thesis,” that the unification of male and female within one’s body could produce immortality. He used his own body in an attempt to prove it, performing self-surgery in order to turn himself into a self-described “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” He self-identified as an “outsider,” yet he gained recognition in the New York art community, showing his work between 1950 and 1967 with the prominent artist and dealer Betty Parsons.

Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible was organized by the Menil Collection, curated by Assistant Curator Clare Elliott in collaboration with contemporary artist Robert Gober, expanding on a project he created for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. It features a selection of over 40 paintings, along with rare works on paper and selected letters and will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue. At the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College, SUNY, the exhibition is organized by Chief Curator Tracy Fitzpatrick. Support for the exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art, is provided by Helen Stambler Neuberger and Jim Neuberger, the Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, and Purchase College Foundation. At the Menil Collection, Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible was realized through the generous support of The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; The Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation; Ann and Henry Hamman; Bérengère Primat; Nina and Michael Zilkha; Baker Botts L.L.P.; Bank of America; Peter J. Fluor/K.C. Weiner; Christy and Lou Cushman; and the City of Houston.

The following programs and events have been organized in conjunction with the exhibition and take place at the Neuberger Museum of Art:

Open House

Sunday, February 16, 1-3 pm

Free and open to the public


Conversation: The Insider’s Outsider

Thursday, March 13, 6-7:30 pm

Although Forrest Bess intentionally distanced himself for them New York art world and self-identified as an “outsider,” he was recognized by the art establishment, showed his paintings with prominent art dealer Betty Parsons, and regularly corresponded with art historian Meyer Schapiro. Was Bess really an “outsider artist”? These and other questions will be addressed in a conversation between Professor Mary Kosut, Associate Professor Media, Society & the Arts and Gender Studies at Purchase College and Chuck Smith, writer and producer of the documentary Forrest Bess: key to the Riddle, which will screen on Thursday, April 24, at 6 pm.

Free with Museum admission


Tour: Forrest Bess Unraveled

Sunday, March 30, 2-3 pm

Tracy Fitzpatrick, the Neuberger’s chief curator, will lead a walk-through of Forrest Bess: Seeing things Invisible, and delve into the extraordinary life and body of work of this important artist.

Free with Museum admission


Film & Screening and Q & A with Producer Chuck Smith

Thursday, April 24, 6-7pm

Key to the Riddle is a fascinating look at one of America’s most notorious cult visionaries–a man who truly believed that art could save his life. Using Bess’s own hauntingly sincere words (in letters to Betty Parsons, Meyer Schapiro, and others), the book and documentary trace the life and logic of this forgotten artist and explain how a love of beauty and a desire for wholeness lead Bess to self-surgery to become a “pseudo-hermaphrodite and, ultimately, to a mental hospital. Key to the Riddle producer Chuck Smith will introduce the film and answer questions following the screening.

Free with Museum admission

The Museum is located at 735 Anderson Hill Road in Purchase, New York (Westchester).




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