Dialogue 1: Forrest Bess

GLS: Robert Gober seems nice.

RMW: [Crosses the room. Fills a glass of water.] The Neuberger Museum was interesting. Their permanent collection surprised me: that early Guston, Night Children, the big Diebenkorn you pointed out, the Hartigan with all the lamps and vases.

GLS: Do you remember which Forrest Bess work belongs to the museum’s permanent collection?

RMW: No, I don’t, but I hope it’s the one with the thick curving line that looks like a highway with the yellow dashes turned horizontally. (Or is it a reticular snake-tail gently poking a Steelhead Trout-hued horizon?) Which do you think it is? [Flips a coin, holds it covered on the back of her left hand.] Do you remember how Neuberger acquired it?

GLS: It’s the long one, Before Man: strong horizon; black ground, white sky; eight upright forms— skeleton keys, totems, telephone poles— arrayed across the composition, bilaterally symmetrical, reversing hue, white to black, as they meet the horizon.

No, I don’t know the specific circumstances of its acquisition, but you’ll recall that Neuberger acquired the Pollock from Betty Parsons, who was Bess’s dealer. But provenance feels less relevant. This work needs an origin story.

[Stands up. Seems to consider a stool across the room. Sits back down.]

Do you have the iconographic chart? Can you decipher it?

RMW: I see intervals, relations between odds and evens: four black triangles spanning the canvas horizontally, two colors dividing it vertically. Eight figures in the foreground in three groups of two, four, and two—with four large and four smaller figures altogether: verticals with equal segments of black and white reversed against the hue of the ground; a terminal circle at each end, and just before the circle, the line crossed perpendicularly with four shorter lines. (Skeleton keys? Sure, everything as you said, though yours so much more succinctly.) The two innermost figures have diamonds where the others are crossed with short horizontal lines. The diamonds are divided into four segments of four smaller diamonds colored in three colors: blue, pink, blue again and yellow in the upper diamond; orange, green, orange again and purple in the lower diamond. Also, the way the figures meet the horizon at the seam-like reversal of black and white, just touching there and then pulling off it.

[Draws a diagram that features multiple arrows.]

The painting has a kind of music in its measured intervals, rhythmic tensions, color accents— something about it feels electronic. The composition as an instrument, a synthesizer keyboard with triangular black keys? Or the triangles as pyramids, as mountains, as the teeth of a saw blade, or a comb. The figures in the foreground maybe as another kind of key: double-headed keys for old Soviet locks in East Berlin? They could be people, too. The white half of the people-keys seem planted head down in the earth. Uncanny doubles, future ghosts, dead root stock. The ones with the horizontal cross bars could be female and the ones with colored diamonds, male. Or neither, or both? The painting’s called Before Man, so I guess my anthropomorphizing impulse could be way off-base, but it’s such a temptation. The verticals seem, at least, to portend Homo erectus. And, according to the Ancient Greeks, “before man” there lived a race of giants. So maybe these are the giants, as tall as the mountains.

[Pulls a laminated 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper from the top drawer of a writing desk.]

Here’s what the cheat sheet says. It doesn’t give much insight, but I found a few symbols that could be relevant:



= to cut sharp, like a rock




= the circle, a hole




= to move back and forth, masturbation, coitus




= moon, moon set, hermaphrodite, the hole is both male and female


The painting is from 1953. Did we ever hear how Bess came to know Betty Parsons? My memory is not so good though I think I remember Bob Gober saying Bess felt slighted by most of the artists who showed with Parsons except for Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly.

The frame is very nice. I remember lots of the frames being nice. Straightforward constructions of weathered wood.

GLS: Also, definite Black Lodge / White Lodge vibes.

[Chalk in hand, adds several more arrows to the diagram.]

I thought of reverse shadows rather than subterranean extension. Also, I’m not sure about the invocation of music: the representational space seems too strong. Of course, you can always question the self-evidence of the putative landscape. For me, it then becomes rather rug-like. Overall, I remember this work as something of an outlier: in the regularity of those intervals, in the strength of its order. So much otherwise is skewed or offset. But I don’t want to resort to a caricature of his work— or of him— as more or less “quirky.”

I don’t know the circumstances in which he met Betty Parsons. I took a quick look at his Wikipedia page, which suggests he exhibited first in San Antonio and Houston.  Which is how it goes: Texas, then New York. More broadly, the biography is so interesting and so awkward. I think back to the question you put to Robert Gober: something like, “What is the relationship between his ‘thesis’ and his painting?” The text on the Neuberger’s website suggests that the visions he received, which were the source of the works’ imagery, were likewise the basis of the ideas in his thesis. As we’ve been told, he himself wanted these things exhibited side-by-side. I find the backstory fascinating, but I admit, I balk at considering the works in its light; I don’t really want to consult the cheat sheet. What to do?

RMW: Yes, my question did go something like that, although I was finding it difficult to give it the right thrust and (in fact) am still finding it difficult. It’s as if in asking the question I foreclose the possibility of a satisfactory response. It’s a funny feeling, like there really is a right response, and I would know it if I could just hear it. Anyway, what is the relationship between Bess’s paintings and his thesis was meant as a provocation.

The way Gober talked about it, it was like he was wary of overemphasizing the place of the thesis—making it seem too much as of a piece with Bess’s work as a painter—while at the same time he wanted to make a claim for the thesis as integral to the work. Gober was clear on one point: in his curatorial role in the 2012 Whitney Biennial he felt it was important to make an effort to realize Bess’s desire to exhibit his thesis alongside his paintings (…a wish Bess once expressed in a letter to Betty Parsons). Since the thesis was lost some decades ago, Gober has had to make do with fragments. This fact, and Gober’s persistence in the face of it, tends to emphasize the atmosphere of the possible-impossible and the real-unreal that pervades Bess’s work.

My question, to get back to it, was really a question about the triangulation between Bess’s thesis, his paintings, and his visions. The way Gober told the story, Bess started out having visions, which he then began to paint, and then he later began working on his thesis, which was a scientific, historical and mystical research project into hermaphroditism and its relationship—if I’ve got it right—to a kind of transcendental physical and spiritual state that held the possibility of immortality. The complication I see in the relationship between visions, paintings and thesis research/writing is this: First, that both the paintings and the thesis resulted from the visions and were, at least in a partial sense, records of the visions. But then, secondly, that the thesis was also an ongoing investigation that developed apart from the visions, and which proceeded according to certain disciplinary norms (i.e., forms of empirical research, historical data-gathering, physical and psychoanalytic self-experimentation) in order to produce a kind of “positive” knowledge of a different order than the mystical “insight” attained through the dream-visions. So, when I asked this question, e.g., what exactly is the relationship, etc., and when Gober brought us to No. 6, 1959, and proceeded to explain the significance of the color and forms and volumes in terms of Bess’s symbolism, it wasn’t satisfactory, even if it was very interesting. The explanation seemed to reduce the painting to a kind of reiterative function. What I wanted to ask was if the paintings were a kind of investigation on their own terms, in the same way the thesis seemed to be. Did the paintings produce a kind of— I’m at a loss for words here. A kind of knowledge? Not visionary, not empirico-scientific, but something else? The obvious answer would seem to be yes. Yes, but yes what?

[Flicks coin, so it spins, like a top, across the desk.]

There’s probably no way to answer this question. A question I’m still unable to articulate. Which is why Gober’s response was, in fact, the only appropriate response. Let’s go look at the paintings. Let’s go point at them: These paintings that point back, or point elsewhere.

When I look at No. 6 I still see two fingers with painted red fingernails. Gober suggested legs, spread open to a Freudian lack— or at least he mentioned that someone else had suggested such a reading. But I don’t want to talk about psychoanalysis. I don’t want to talk about visions or symbolism or about the thesis anymore.

There’s so much space in these paintings, even (especially?) in the smallest canvases. I thought by now you would have brought up Albert Pinkham Ryder, or that you would’ve said something perceptive about paint handling or some such thing; [coin stops] won’t you?

GLS: [Abstracted, obliterating diagram by filling in the chalkboard completely with arrows.] In terms of your question (as originally posed and as elaborated here), I’m not sure the paintings were, for Bess, an investigation. Instead I think that they were a record: both a preservation of the vision and the means of communicating that vision. If we accept this supposition, then the paintings only produce knowledge upon their reception. It’s an interesting contrast. Both the paintings and thesis have this strong communicative function, but the thesis, as you point out, synthesizes active research and analysis; the painting, I think, purports to be a clear, direct expression of inspiration.

The handling, though, begins to suggest something else. The designs are not strongly linear; they’re not particularly tonal or subtly glazed. They do not, in other words, look like paintings that were executed. Instead, they’re painterly, with thick, matte paint, often in flat hues, often applied with a knife. Perhaps it’s just the times: they’re modernist works, after all. Regardless, they bear the hallmarks of paintings that were found through the process of their own making. Perhaps painting the visions was like remembering a dream: the general sense was there, but particulars had to be re-discovered.

RMW: [Drinks.] One thing we haven’t addressed is the sense of humor (or maybe I should call it “playfulness”) in these paintings. But you’re the expert on humor. And, though it doesn’t necessarily make sense to read this back onto Bess’s paintings, you did once write about humor in Andrew Masullo’s work, and Masullo is so clearly influenced by Bess.

I admit I find these paintings very funny. Not all of them in the same way, but almost all of them in some way. And the perceived sense of humor colors the way I receive Bess’s biography, which feels somber in isolation but complicated by the shifting, prismatic mood of his pictures. Maybe that’s a superfluous remark. Maybe more important to think about is the way humor relates to the painterly, as you call it: to the sense of discoveries being made in the process of making, to the element of surprise that inheres in the record of discovery, surprise that is a colored shape—a yellow lozenge, a white triangular mass, a red bear’s claw—so comfortably there, both sudden and casual.

GLS: I think that’s quite good: humor and painterliness. These are humorous. Or anyway, considering them as such seems to free them up a bit.

By the way, what’s a bait fisherman’s favorite color?

RMW: ?

GLS: Hooker’s green.

RMW: Har har. But I think you’re avoiding saying too much.

GLS: Well, we’ve discarded biography, psychoanalysis, symbolism… Formalism, the obvious remainder would seem inadequate and stubborn. (This exhibition introduces too much context.) In many ways, that seems to be the take-away: the difficulty of saying anything about these works: delightful as they are, they’re too elusive for these pat narratives.

Irregular sets of blue and orange stripes, slightly bulging, fill a small square composition. A red-and-white pill shape, fragmented like a tortoiseshell, slants across the edge of a smooth black expanse, which is set against a textured black expanse. White lines describe a flower against a red background; this painting is Spider. A black eagle, something like a totem or a fighter plane, as ridiculous or awesome as either of these, ascends.

What do we have to say about any of these things?

More: two white rectangles on a black background; the right rectangle pukes fuschia, which streaks toward the painting’s margin. Bits of red and yellow hover above and behind a white glyph, which stands at the top of a black peak. A red ovoid hangs near the bottom of an unsavory rectangle of hazy green and orange; below, a trident of thick black lines branches upward through a pebbly, matte gray.

A blue-yolked fried egg of a sun hangs above a zig-zag field.

RMW: [Sighs.] And such continual reworking of ideas, concepts, forms, images. The struggle to put something concretely. To be articulating the thing and searching for it at the same time. To be enunciating and listening at once. The same that can be said of many others— of most whom it would be worth saying anything about. A place they bring it to, suddenly leaving off. Leaving us to stutter after. I think we’ve gone on long enough, don’t you?

GLS: Long enough for the ineffable. [Exeunt.]



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