Even now, more than forty years after his death and some seventy years after his first exhibition at New York’s Betty Parsons Gallery, no one really knows what to make of Forrest Bess. The alluring legend of the visionary fisherman painter from Bay City, Texas, always threatens to overshadow his intense and quite inward art...
Everything about the painter Forrest Bess’s life was implausible, from recording his glimpses of immortality in paint, while living in a bait camp in Chinquapin, Texas, to having an extensive correspondence with the art historian Meyer Schapiro, to showing with Betty Parsons and meeting Buddhism scholar Robert Thurman, who was 19 at the time, to having his work shown in a refurbished barn in Montauk. Visionaries live in a universe that might resemble ours, but only in the flimsiest of ways, and the fantastical quality of that exalted domain can sometimes leak into ours, causing incredulity.
The New York Times
A New Vision of a Visionary Fisherman The art of Forrest Bess (1911-77), like that of Vincent van Gogh, may be in danger of being overtaken by his life story. Especially now, when the work of this eccentric visionary painter — who spent the bulk of his maturity as a fisherman on the Gulf of Mexico, living on a spit of Texas beach — is having an especially intense New York moment.
Without Elaboration In 1981, Bess was reintroduced (or, for many of us) introduced by way of a small one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Barbara Haskell organized the show and there was a small pamphlet available for free. According to the pamphlet, the symbols in Bess’ work were based on “obscure sexual references” and there was something “lurid” about them.
The Brooklyn Rail
For 20 years, from 1947 to 1967, a man by the name of Forrest Bess ran a bait camp on a tiny spit of land 100 feet offshore Chinquapin Bayou on the Gulf Coast of Texas. By day, he trawled for shrimp and sold them to fishermen for bait. He had the word “BAIT” painted in big letters on the side of his wooden skiff and fishermen would honk their horns or shout from a small shaky pier. Bess would get in his boat and sell them the shrimp. At night, in the two-room shack he built out of lumber salvaged from the hull of an old tugboat, he painted his visions on tiny canvases, many of them smaller than a sheet of typing paper. He claimed to have had his first vision on Easter morning when he was four years old. He devoted himself to painting them in earnest after his first breakdown when he was 33, and was haunted his entire life by the fear of madness.