DescriptionFORREST CLEMENGER BESS (American, 1911-1977)
Still Life with Pepper, Eggplant and Flowers, 1940
Oil on canvas
16 x 18 inches (40.6 x 45.7 cm)
Signed and dated lower left: Forrest Bess 40
Private collection, San Antonio, Texas.
Forrest Bess explained that "the classification of my work is 'abstract primitive' and 'visionary painter,'" yet ultimately he saw himself as a "painter-fisherman" from Chinquapin Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast (F. Bess, letter to Meyer Schapiro, 1948, Archives of American Art). Much of his professional life, from the 1940s-'70s, Bess spent in relative seclusion, selling shrimp bait at his fishing camp during the day and, in his spare time, creating small but powerful canvases with geometric symbols, or "ideograms," based on his visions in a semi-conscious state. Despite the remoteness of his residence, Bess was well educated, read and wrote voraciously, and befriended sophisticates like the art historian Meyer Schapiro and the New York gallery owner Betty Parsons, who championed his work among her Color Field artists and gave him six solo exhibitions between 1950-67.
Bess's early years were rather conventional given his later increasing eccentricity. The son of a Texas oilman, Bess studied anthropology, mythology, psychology, and literature at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) and at the University of Texas before briefly working for a Beaumont oil company in 1933. During the mid-1930s, he opened his first studio in his hometown of Bay City, taught students and traveled to Mexico, where the colorful murals of Diego Rivera captivated him. Signs of Bess's unsettled personality emerged following his service in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, when he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. The 1950s saw the beginnings of Bess' longtime obsession with the theory that hermaphroditism, in his mind a perfect yin-yang, would lead to immortality and he coded the geometric forms in his paintings with anatomical symbolism.
The dynamic and cheerful Still Life with Pepper, Eggplant and Flowers, displayed in one of Bess' handmade driftwood frames, exemplifies his early representational works influenced by Post-Impressionism, rather than his later visionary abstract paintings. After seeing colorful art on his trips to Mexico in the 1930s, Bess began studying the color techniques of Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Maurice de Vlaminck and his still lifes and landscapes referenced paintings by these artists; indeed, the chair in the present work recalls van Gogh's famous depictions of his ladder-back chair. These early paintings demonstrate not merely Bess' interest in vibrant color and gestural brushwork, but also his experimentation with texture. Here, for example, he juxtaposes the heavy impasto of the vase with the thin wash of the red wall, and the glossiness of the eggplant and pepper with the matte roughness of the table. It is possible that Still Life with Pepper, Eggplant and Flowers is one of the forty realistic paintings that Bess sold for ten dollars each in order to finance his 1949 trip to New York City to seek out gallery representation.
The work of Bess has received new art historical attention in several recent exhibitions, including "Forrest Bess, Seeing Things Invisible," the Menil Collection, Houston, 2013 and "Forrest Bess" the Whitney Biennial, New York, 2012. In addition to these museums, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, feature important paintings by Bess.
Paint film stable and impasto nicely preserved; light surface grime; faint stretcher creasing along top edge; tiny scattered paint chips in white and brown areas of lower edge of table; one tiny chip along lower left edge; minor craquelure in upper right table corner; under UV examination, no evidence of restoration. Framed Dimensions 20.75 X 22.75 Inches
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