Forrest Bess (1911 – 1977) / Untitled [Three Figures]

oil on canvas
Circa: 1946
Size: 16" (w) x 14" (h) (sight)
In 1946 Forrest Bess found himself as a painter. Although Bess had produced works in the 1930’s, it was not until 1946 that Bess, at the urging of his psychiatrist had he began to record the colorful visions that were troubling him. The visions were likely brought on from the trauma he suffered from being beaten by a fellow Army mate as a consequence of his homosexuality. In this year, Bess produced a wide range of work; representational, abstract and symbolic paintings. About this period, Bess expressed to his dealer, Betty Parsons, “Only by painting the goddamned thing out have all my symptoms of anxiety disappeared.” It was these works that got him through his PTSD and on his way to the visionary painter he would become.

Bess’s paintings were an integral part of his being which was heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s thoughts on symbolism, Australian aboriginal initiation rites and the belief that the hermaphrodite was “the desired and intended state of man.” His commitment to this philosophy culminated in the self-surgery on his genitals in the late 1950’s.

Among the works created in 1946 are three related figural works. The painting herein, one from the esteemed Harry Burkhart Collection, and another in a private collection.

The three works were likely produced in quick succession, one after the other. They each have groups of solidly painted figures that define the space and foreboding environments. The moody works are punctuated with blocks of primary and secondary colors—they are surely direct responses to the colorful visions and trauma that Bess had discussed with his therapist.

In the untitled work herein, two figures have cornered a third—it feels like an act of violence is about to occur. The reddish figure appears defensive and raises his left arm to push away the two blue beings closing in on him. Though flatly rendered the figures have a keen sense of form and movement.

Though Bess would become widely known for his visionary works and show at the Betty Parsons Gallery alongside Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, it was through the figural works of 1946 that allowed Bess to free himself and explore his symbolic work.

Forrest Bess was the subject of a retrospective at the Hammer Museum in 2013/2014 and was featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, as well as "Outliers and American Vanguard" at The National Gallery. And more recently, The Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, Germany held a major retrospective in 2020. His work is part of numerous museum and private collections, including the Menil Collection, Houston, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Provenance: Kirk Hopper Fine Art, Parrasch Heijnen Gallery.

Exhibitions: "Forrest Bess" at the The Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, Germany, 2020.


Condition: Excellent. Custom made frame.

Price: please inquire

References: See video below and visit the National Gallery of Art's website.