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One Year Later: Clare Elliott reflects on Forrest Bess and Seeing Things Invisible

Clare Elliott –

One year after its opening at the Menil Collection, Houston, Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible has made its third appearance, at the Neuberger Art Museum at SUNY, Purchase. In between Houston and New York the exhibition was on view at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, and following its presentation at the Neuberger it will travel to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives at UC Berkeley. It was never my ambition to be the final word on Forrest Bess, and in fact, I hoped for the opposite. My aim was to reveal this under-recognized artist and to expose his work and his interesting life the next generation of artists and art historians. For that reason, the exhibition’s tour to three university museums seemed to me the perfect fit.

I continue to learn more about Bess and would like to take this opportunity relate some additional information that I have acquired since the publication of the catalogue. In that essay I state, “In 1986 the Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston presented a selection of Bess’s paintings from 1934 to 1970, organized with painter Terrell James. A native of Houston, James was familiar with Bess and had worked with the files of his correspondence at the Smithsonian” (p 20). I’d like to expand a bit on that story, to give James and those with whom she worked the credit they deserve.

Terrell James was hired in 1980 to work with Sandra Jensen on what was called the “Texas Art Project.” Launched by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art (AAA) the project sought to “recover manuscript collections of artist, art galleries, and art organizations in Texas since 1875.” (www.mfah.org/research/archives/archives-texas-art/ ) James discovered, read, processed, and organized letters from Bess that had been found in Meyer Schapiro’s papers at the AAA.

Both James and Jensen were well acquainted with the artists Jim Love and Roy Fridge. Love and Fridge had known Bess well, having met him in Houston in the 1960s through Jermayne MacAgy and John and Dominique de Menil. Both admired the painter’s singularity of vision and spent time at Bess’s fishing camp looking at his paintings and listening to his theories. Fridge even emulated Bess’s decision to live in isolation. Referring to himself as “an amateur hermit,” he moved to the small town of Port Aransas, TX, where he could better concentrate on his art. Fridge and Love provided Jensen with the names of people they knew had been in contact with Bess during his life. Jensen was then able to locate and preserve correspondence that otherwise might have been discarded.

As I mentioned in the catalogue, Terrell James was crucial in organizing the exhibition of Bess’s work at Hiram Butler’s gallery in 1986. During his lifetime, a number of Bess’s works were acquired by knowledgeable collectors, but many others were given or sold locally to friends, or exchanged for goods and services. With family from the Bay City area, James was able to call on contacts and establish trust within that tightly knit community. She was thus in a unique position to discover works that the normal dealer/collector/museum circuit could not have. I have since also learned that James was subsequently engaged by Hirschl & Adler Modern to help them locate additional paintings for their Bess-focused exhibition that opened in New York in 1988 and then traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. This was essentially the same exhibition that was picked up by the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, the next year. It is fair to say that without James’s participation in both of those exhibitions many of the paintings from those Bay City collections would have been lost to time, and we would not have as full a picture of Bess’s work as we have today.

It is an unfortunate part of the story of Forrest Bess that those closest to him, who were in the best position at the time of his death to protect and extend his legacy, did not do so. Luckily, that is only one part of the story. Although he felt the outsider throughout his life, Bess touched a number of people deeply enough that his work lives on.


Clare Elliott is assistant curator at the Menil Collection.

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