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Forrest Clemenger Bess


Untitled (The Dicks)

Oil on canvas
15.5 x 17.75 x 2 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

One of the earliest known visionary canvases by the Texas painter/ fisherman Forrest Bess, Untitled (The Dicks) depicts a repeating pattern of biomorphic ovals in ocher, orange, and yellow against a black background. Small areas of unprimed, unpainted canvas remain visible between the black paint and the patterned areas, indicating that the artist applied the background after completing the pattern.

Bess, who taught himself to paint by copying illustrations from books and magazines, began to record his visions at the suggestion of a psychiatrist in the mid-1940s, following an intense nervous breakdown that ended his service in the United States Army. He had experienced these visions since childhood. They typically occurred as he was falling asleep or shortly after waking. Bess kept a notebook by his bedside and would attempt to make a simple pencil sketch of the vision as soon as it occurred. If he was able to capture it in a drawing, he could recall the image with clarity; if he could not, it would be lost. He attempted to record each vision as faithfully as possible, with no embellishment. His method produced a body of paintings, like The Dicks, that are unexpected, unpretentious, carefully crafted, and radically straightforward.

Bess refused to elaborate the appearance of his visions, because for him the painting was never an end in itself. According to his understanding of Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, the shapes and forms that appeared to him were ancient symbols common to all civilizations that, if decoded, would reveal universal truths. His paintings were often mysterious even to himself, and he only discovered their meaning after a period of careful study. Several concerns predominate in Bess’s interpretations of his visions—the body, nature, his own homosexuality, and hermaphroditism—which he communicated only to those whom he trusted. The Dicks is unusual in that the phallic shapes and fleshy colors are far more overtly suggestive than most of Bess’s judiciously coded images.

Clare Elliott

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