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Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible (June 11—September 14, 2014)
FIRST RETROSPECTIVE OF BESS’S WORK IN TWENTY YEARS FEATURES NEARLY FORTY OF THE VISIONARY AMERICAN PAINTER’S WORKS, AS WELL AS AN INSTALLATION OF WRITINGS AND PHOTOGRAPHS THAT ADDRESS HIS UNCONVENTIONAL PHILOSOPHIES
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Berkeley, CA, May 8, 2014 — The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) presents Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, the first museum retrospective of the under-recognized painter in more than twenty years. A self-described “visionary” artist, Bess (1911–1977) is a singular figure in American art who experienced both significant recognition and painful isolation during his life. Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, the Berkeley presentation features approximately forty of Bess’s works, dating from 1946 to 1970 with an installation of archival materials curated by American artist Robert Gober.
For most of his career, Bess lived an isolated existence in a fishing camp outside of Bay City, Texas. He eked out a meager living fishing and selling bait by day. By night and during the off-season he read, wrote, and painted prolifically, creating an extraordinary body of mostly small-scale canvases rich with enigmatic symbolism. Despite his remoteness, Bess became known throughout the modern art world when he was discovered and championed by the influential New York gallery owner Betty Parsons. Though he never attained the fame of the other artists Parson represented, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, Bess’s distinctive style, methods, and thinking set him apart from his contemporaries.
Bess taught himself to paint by copying illustrations in books and magazines, and later by imitating the still lifes and landscapes of artists he admired, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Albert Pinkham Ryder. From early childhood and throughout his life, Bess experienced intense hallucinations. Beginning in 1946, a vocabulary of biomorphic shapes and symbols that drew on these visions began appearing in his artworks. He would sketch the shapes he had seen on the inside of his eyelids in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness. Influenced heavily by Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, Bess hoped to uncover the universal meaning of these dream-like symbols by meticulously recording and studying them.
Bess eventually formulated a theory, which he referred to as his “thesis,” that the unification of the male and female within one’s body could produce immortality. He not only sent written copies of his thesis to prominent researchers at the time, but also eventually began to test his theory on his own body, performing several self-surgeries meant to help him achieve a hermaphroditic state. Gober’s installation The Man That Got Away brings together a selection of Bess’s artworks, writings, and photographs that illuminate Bess’s thesis and its realization in the artist’s body.
Thursday, June 12, 2014; 7 p.m.
Clare Elliott “Forrest Bess: Fisherman, Painter, Philosopher”
Clare Elliott, assistant curator at The Menil Collection and organizer of Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible, explores the diverse influences on Bess’s paintings, from alchemical texts and aboriginal initiations to the writings of Carl Jung. Elliott will also situate the compelling artist within the larger context of twentieth-century American art. The exhibition gallery will be open following the program.
George Gund Theater.
Admission is free.
Sunday, September 14, 2014; 3 p.m.
Gallery Talk by Andrew Masullo
Andrew Masullo offers an artist’s perspective on Forrest Bess, who, along with Joseph Cornell and Florine Stettheimer, has been an inspiration to him. His gallery talk promises personal perspectives and insights born of a longstanding love of and affinity for Bess’s work.
Masullo’s own art--described as ”pure painting” in the New York Times and as “non-objective” by the artist himself--is featured in the BAM/PFA’s concurrent exhibition Color Shift; thirty-four of his paintings were included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial.
Included with museum admission
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible is organized by the Menil Collection, Houston, curated by Assistant Curator Clare Elliott, and coordinated at BAM/PFA by Lucinda Barnes, chief curator and director of programs and collections. At the Menil Collection, this exhibition was realized through the generous support of The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; The Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation; Ann and Henry Hamman; Bérengère Primat; Michael Zilkha; Baker Botts LLP; Bank of America; Peter J. Fluor/K.C. Weiner; Christy and Lou Cushman; and the City of Houston.
Support for the BAM/PFA presentation is provided in part by Rena Bransten; Kate and Adam Clammer; Patricia W. Fitzpatrick; Beth Rudin DeWoody and the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc.; Charles Kremer; Tecoah and Tom Bruce; the Robert Lehman Foundation; and Laura and David Perry.
Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, published by the Menil Collection, and includes an essay by Claire Elliott, assistant curator of the Menil Collection and organizer of the exhibition, and a contribution by Robert Gober. (Hardcover, 112 pages with 71 color illustrations; $60)
Founded in 1963, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) is UC Berkeley’s primary visual arts venue and among the largest university art museums in terms of size and audience in the United States. Internationally recognized for its art and film programming, BAM/PFA is a platform for cultural experiences that transform individuals, engage communities, and advance the local, national, and global discourse on art and ideas. BAM/PFA’s mission is “to inspire the imagination and ignite critical dialogue through art and film.”
BAM/PFA presents approximately twenty art exhibitions and 380 film programs each year. The museum’s collection of over 19,000 works of art includes important holdings of Neolithic Chinese ceramics, Ming and Qing Dynasty Chinese painting, Old Master works on paper, Italian Baroque painting, early American painting, Abstract Expressionist painting, contemporary photography, and video art. Its film archive contains over 16,000 films and videos, including the largest collection of Japanese cinema outside of Japan, Hollywood classics, and silent film, as well hundreds of thousands of articles, reviews, posters, and other ephemera related to the history of film, many of which are digitally scanned and accessible online.
Location: 2626 Bancroft Way, just below College Avenue across from the UC Berkeley campus.
Gallery and Museum Store Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Open L@TE Fridays until 9 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Information: 24-hour recorded message (510) 642-0808; fax (510) 642-4889; TDD (510) 642-8734.