Forrest Bess had his first vision in 1915. He was 4 years old. He kept having them for the next 62 years, often when he closed his eyes to fall asleep at night.
In 1946, when he was 35, Bess began to transcribe his abstract visions into paint on canvas.
He continued the practice until a few years before he died from skin cancer in a nursing home in Bay City, Texas, a little coastal fishing and petrochemical community southwest of Houston. He had lived and painted in a fishing shack in nearby Chinquapin, a sandy blip of land off the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
During his lifetime he had a dozen solo shows in Texas and New York, but never in Los Angeles (or anywhere else). Now 52 of those visionary paintings are on view in “Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible,” a retrospective exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum. A few examples were included in a 2008 group show also at the Hammer, but this marks the first substantive exhibition on the West Coast to focus exclusively on his work.
It is a show of heartbreaking beauty. According to best estimates, it includes between a third and a quarter of his output. Organized by Houston’s Menil Collection, which owns several of his paintings, it has a good long run (remaining until Jan. 5) that will reward repeat viewing. Why it took so long is difficult to say, but we can be grateful that it finally happened.
Like Mark Tobey in the Pacific Northwest and Myron Stout in New England, Bess was an intimist. The Mexican muralists had a profound effect on painters that came to be associated after World War II with the big, publicly scaled canvases of the dominant New York School, but other artists looked to the virtues of the small and virtually hand-held as carriers of artistic power.
Bess was one of them. A few somewhat larger canvases (mostly from the 1960s) are in the show, but none is as compelling as earlier works whose largest side is under 18 inches — and many much smaller.
One of the smallest is 1951’s “View of Maya,” just 8 inches square, composed from irregular rows of curved stripes in vivid red-orange and deep cobalt-blue. Presumably the “Maya” brought into view refers to spiritual duality, illusions and other ideas of consciousness that Bess closely studied. The two clashing paint colors are not applied with sleek precision, but with a sure, strong hand that underscores a unified organic rhythm.
“Sticks,” probably painted not long before, is even smaller. Like a patch of oily sand with some errant, sea-swept flotsam, it juxtaposes a snaky thin line with a cluster of about a dozen fat, thickly painted marks shaped like Popsicle sticks.
Twice as large, but still diminutive given Bess’ predilections, an untitled 1952 painting centers a white spot on a dark, inky field. Crimson lines radiate outward from the spot, recalling cardinal directions on a compass, as does a sprinkling of about six-dozen tiny crosses. The composition seems poised on a razor-sharp edge between expansion and contraction, as if the white orb were the locus of a mysterious celestial power.
Concentration focuses the mind. So does intimate tactility. The size of a Bess painting is important because it must be seen up close.
There, the image fills an entire field of vision — not unlike the sights of shape, line, color and composition that Bess always said he saw on the back of his lids, when he closed his eyes.
Equally important, the requirement of close viewing brings the handmade marks of paint near, giving the vision physical heft. (He usually painted with a palette knife, and the paint is often rather thick.) The abstract signs in a Bess painting never feel fleeting or ephemeral; they are instead laid down for the ages.
The result is paintings whose imagery seems simultaneously vast yet familiar, beyond conscious grasp but known in the skin. They’re as expansive as a landscape, a night sky or the ocean, yet deeply personal and private.
Another way to think of them is as a concentrated union of mind and body. Bess was conflicted about who he was, physically and emotionally (he seems to have repressed acceptance of his homosexuality). He was obsessed with hermaphroditism, believing that immortality was promised by any authentic union of male and female traits in all their material and psychological complexities.
He went so far as to perform surgery on himself to accomplish it, using a razor blade to open a permanent orifice on the underside at the base of his penis.
Did I mention that Bess drank? When he revealed his homosexuality to a fellow Army enlistee during World War II, he suffered a severe beating with a lead pipe, resulting in serious head trauma. It’s easy to romanticize the artist (and his paintings), given such an exotic life story.
But his best work is neither sentimental nor occult. Earthy, straightforward and matter-of-fact, his abstract images were not discovered in the process of being painted. Instead he had his vision, jotted it down in a notebook kept by his bed and then adjusted the drawing as it was transferred to canvas. He took his knife and painted.
Today, art is often made by armies of industrial-strength production teams, underwritten by hedge-funders and shown in warehouse-size gallery and museum spaces, all in an aggressive competition with the Hollywood Dream Factory and glamorous cultural events mounted in various world capitals. Little daubed canvases made by a guy sitting alone in a shack in a nowhere-town exert a powerful contrary appeal.
Like Vincent van Gogh, whose work he admired (the catalog compares the bulbous linear shapes in “View of Maya” to the Dutch painter’s flame-like cypress trees), Bess was convinced of his artistic importance. Ambitious for recognition, he successfully pestered Betty Parsons, whose path-finding New York gallery showed Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and many others, to represent him.
But worries that Bess will become another Van Gogh-style caricature — the lonely, eccentric and misunderstood genius who wandered far afield as a social castaway — are probably overstated. His life story is certainly compelling, but abstract painting just doesn’t have the same general public appeal as vivid landscapes, nodding sunflowers and narrative self-portraits.
Nor is there a dramatic crescendo. Bess’ work began to go flat and descriptive in the 1960s, as if in an unnecessary effort to explain itself. (Increased size didn’t help.) Upheavals in his life may have engendered the advancing shift.
A 1961 hurricane destroyed his beach shack, and all the art that was in it, ending his work as a fisherman and forcing him to relocate inland to Bay City. His mother’s death, first bouts with cancer and an unsuccessful quest to find a doctor willing to complete his yearning effort to become a hermaphrodite interrupted his painting. He stopped around 1974, three years before he died.
The Hammer show, with paintings beautifully installed on dark gray walls like little spots of brilliance glimpsed in a dense fog bank, ends more with a whimper than a bang. Still, the best of Bess’ paintings will pull you into their commanding sphere of influence, where finally you can let go.
‘Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible’
Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
When: Through Jan. 5. Closed Monday
Contact: (310) 443-7000 or https://www.hammer.ucla.edu