A standout figure in the canon of American modernism, Bess is admired for his intimate yet charged symbolic paintings. Referred to by the artist as “visions,” the works constellate his repertoire of signs that forge a secret language at once esoteric and accessible. The small-scale paintings on view in this exhibition demonstrate the recurrence of cosmological icons like stars and runes alongside brusque sexual imagery that recollects Bess’s pioneering engagement with fluid gender identity and representation.
Indeed, many of the works serve as a succinct biographies of the artist’s fascinating life––both direct translations of images he pictured in his mind’s eye and isolated symbols that represented episodes significant to his personal history and countercultural philosophic beliefs. Though he rose to prominence as an artist in the Betty Parsons Gallery stable during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, his distinct scale and spirituality differentiated him from his peers. Preferring solitude, the self-alienated Bess developed a theoretical mysticism derived from mythology and Jungian psychoanalysis which posited that the key to immortality was achieved by the possession of hermaphroditic sexual attributes. To this end, Bess performed several surgeries on himself throughout his lifetime to support his thesis. The works on display reveal this quest for duality and restored unity.