Lying somewhere near the graveyard of art criticism is Madder Lake (ahem) Editions, where twisted tales from the artworld are told. This week JAMES MERRIGAN takes the plunge into the murky depths kissed red-red at the shore with his 'Manhood' review of a book about Forrest Bess 💀
He relished the darkest things, deeply,
Poring over his novel day and night in
A bare room with the shutters closed and blue
Humidity souring the walls and pages
Opened onto ochre skies and rain forests,
Flowers uncurling into their starry flesh,
Vertigos, holocausts, pandemonium!
—All the while the neighbourhood clamour
Blared below—he was still alone, stretched
Across unbleached canvas, weltering caravel!
The last stanza from Arthur Rimbaud's The Seven-Year-Old Poets.
The old man was dreaming about the lions.
The last sentence from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, 1957.
WET dreams, wet fantasies, our childhood bedroom was the damp room in the house; you know, the one with the dog-eared wallpaper. The bedroom window looked out onto a flat, felted roof. The felt was balding and grey like an old man. At night, patches of stubble caught the moonlight to form constellations, timeless and virile.
One night the bedroom window gave birth to a shadow. It was my brother, 6 foot, 12 stone, 17 years of him; gravity rather than will dragging him head first into the yin-yang moonlight. As a practised window diver I could feel the window fastener dig into bone and drag at skin. The big gorilla was squeezing through an ass crack. But he was drunk. So bones and muscles poured through the window, laxative relaxed.
The same brother read books aloud to me at bedtime. The one book that stayed the course to manhood was Ernest Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea (1951). As my brother read – our heads swimming, our laundry inside-out, our beds islands shored on the fizz of youth – the earth gradually regained its foolish flatness.
The book seemed to represent the age of man or a philosophy of manhood that was too fast, too soon for a boy, for me. The tug and release from boyhood to manhood and what a young boy might innocently call 'heroism' if he had the words; or with old age might critically call ambition.
In the eyes of a seven year old, however, heroism is not coupled with age. My brother (the hero) was as old as my father (the hero) was as old as the fisherman (the hero). A lifetime is an eternity for a seven year old. But tides of sadness barrelled over me as the weathered Old-Man-Santiago became my father.
Thing is, we all fear our parents dying. But what we fear more is the monument to mortality that our parents represent, leading us to hate to love and love to hate. And we love and hate our parents for that. In my boyhood mind both my father and the fisherman had caught some disease that my brother and me were immune to. We would stay like this forever, ageless, in this bedroom with dog-eared books and wallpaper.
Who knows why the past erupts into the present like this. Sometimes you go searching for it; other times you turn a corner and there it is, waiting on a book shelf. The odds were stacked against me keeping the wallpaper from my past pasted in place. 24 hours earlier a sickness hit me the way childhood sickness hits, quick and violent and through both ends. Cosy sick, I instinctively groped a book like a good breast from a stack of unread and half-read books in my bedroom: Forrest Bess: The Key to the Riddle.
For those painters who perform DJ with the B-Side of art history, Forrest Bess represents the ignored outsider artist come good in the afterlife. Bess ended up becoming a bait fisherman on a spit of land that was only reachable by boat. The camp was something he circumstantially inherited from his father which, from his prolific letter writing, was more of a blessing than a burden.
Although remotely attached to the world, both physically and psychically, Bess had friends and supporters in high places for his painting. New York gallerist Betty Parsons, who represented Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, was one such supporter, giving him his first solo show in New York in 1947. But you discover reading his letters to Parsons that he didn't much fit into the bar scene bravado and machismo of the New York art scene. Before taking on his father's bait camp Bess left a studio and framing nixer in San Antonio, Texas, evidently relieved to escape the babble of talk-talk artists.
Bess' life after moving from the city to the sea was marked by fishing by day and painting by night, when he would faithfully paint his dreams and visions. Day and night are feverish and fluid in the retellings of the quotidian routines of this complex man. But beneath the dreaming and the drudgery Bess was terrified that his paintings were sequela of a brutal assault. More terrifying was the thought that his faith in Jungian individuation and desire to become a pseudo-hermaphrodite (not born with but surgically altered to have two sexes) was nothing but sexual perversion.
In his paintings Bess didn't muck around. The vision came. He immediately drew the vision down. Then he painted the vision. Tadpoles of paint coalesce to form leaden suns; lidded eyes flirt in stelliferous nights; spider legs form a marching cornfield beneath a sun with flaking eyelashes. Unlike my metaphors, Bess was recording not trumpeting. His paintings are minimal but emotional; direct but layered; small but larger than life; sacred but humane.
But Bess' paintings are one thing and the motivation to paint them is quite another – quite other. Especially when you consider the burden of desires that undergird them, laid bare in his correspondences with friends, artworld professionals, psychoanalysts (Carl Jung included) and medical doctors.
Bess was gay. He kept that secret, until the war, when a drunken pass toward a fellow soldier left him with a "caved-in skull". Before and after the attack Bess was a painter who experienced visions; art and fantasy was something his mother fostered from early on. But he was worried as a boy and a man that he had inherited the "bad blood" of his grandmother, who ended up painting "fantastic canvases" in an insane asylum.
Up to the point of the assault, Bess had come to terms with the local community's taste for provincial pastoral – derivative Van Gogh and Matisse can be distilled from the suppressed stylisation of his early work. After the attack, Bess' commitment to the 'truth' behind his visions led him to the larger process of "integration", a form of meditative completeness with his work. In essence, Bess' work was the present compass and future ruins of a vision quest to become complete as a pseudo-hermaphrodite.
Beyond androgyny, beyond painting, beyond the sexual and aesthetic plain, Bess' ultimate drive was to achieve immortality through the sexual act of full penetration with another man through an incised hole at the base of the penis. Over the course of 15 years of correspondences with his New York gallerist, Betty Parsons, and art historian, Meyer Shapiro, Bess shared explicit details of his botched self-surgery, followed by detailed accounts of successful surgeries by a local medical doctor.
Bess was schizoid-social: making friends was a means to uncovering the highest form of individuality, immortality. In one letter to the same doctor who performed the surgery, Bess confesses to being sexually active with a string of curious and willing partners: tongue and groove sexuality will always find its groove and tongue. But Bess never sounds like a victim in his letters; he is the flame not the moth.
The life-long research behind Bess' theories on androgyny and immortality bred a 'thesis', which by some accounts was a scrapbook that confirmed only one thing, confirmation bias. Even though Bess' thesis was rejected by his respected 'teacher' Meyer Shapiro, Bess subsequently proposed to Betty Parsons in 1958 could he display the thesis alongside his paintings in his next solo show at the gallery. Parsons politely refused, wanting to keep the show on the "aesthetic plain". The book's author claims that this was a "ground-breaking artistic move" obstructed on the part of Parsons.
After wrestling with the nature of nurture and the nurture of nature for a lifetime – a storm ends up destroying the bait camp that had become his home – Bess, like Hemingway’s fisherman, experiences the "salao" (isolating bad luck) that Santiago exhausted in his pursuit of the marlin. Although Bess’ last exhibition while alive took place in a small town in Texas far far away from New York, and was organised by a group of ladies from a small arts organisation, we are told by the author that he seemed happy. Unlike Santiago, however, Bess doesn't end up dreaming of lions.
His last journal entry dated 7 October, 1974: