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.