Bess, Forrest Clemenger (1911–1977)

By: Kendall Curlee and Rebecca H. Green

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: September 8, 2016

Forrest Bess, artist, the son of Arnold and Minta (Lee) Bess, was born in Bay City, Texas, on October 5, 1911. His father was an itinerant oil worker, and Bess spent his childhood in various oil towns throughout Texas and Oklahoma. Probably inspired by the fantasy painting of his maternal grandmother, he became interested in painting at an early age. In 1924 he took his first art lessons from a neighbor in Corsicana. In 1929 he entered the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University), where he began to study architecture. He became interested in English literature, Hinduism, Greek mythology, and the works of Darwin and Freud. In 1931 he transferred to the University of Texas. After dropping out of school in 1933, he worked for a short time as a roughneck in various oilfields to earn money to go to Mexico. There he began to paint in a style that he identified as post-impressionist, modeled upon that of Vincent Van Gogh and Maurice Vlaminck. He returned to the United States in 1934 and set up a studio in Bay City. He had his first exhibition in a Bay City hotel lobby in 1936. During World War II he served with the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the camouflage division and received a commendation for his services. In 1946 he suffered a mental breakdown; after spending some time in the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Antonio (now the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital) he obtained a job giving art lessons there. A few years later, when his father's health was failing, he returned to Bay City to manage the family bait camp in Chinquapin. He lived there the rest of his life selling bait, building frames, designing visual aids for the public school, giving private art lessons, and occasionally selling his paintings.

In 1948 he made a trip to New York City, where he met Betty Parsons, a prominent New York City gallery owner who represented leading Abstract Expressionist and Color Field painters Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Parsons mounted the first major exhibition of Bess's work in 1949; it was followed by shows in 1954, 1957, 1959, 1962, and 1967. Critic Meyer Schapiro championed Bess's work and wrote an essay for the 1962 retrospective exhibition of his paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Bess's work was included in the Corcoran Gallery Biennial (1939), and he was featured in solo exhibitions at the Witte Museum in San Antonio (1938, 1967), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1951), the Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City (1951), the André Emmerich Gallery, Houston (1958), the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston(1962), and the New Arts Gallery, Houston (1963), among others. His work was featured at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco (1958), and in 1962 some of his works were included in "Wit and Whimsy in 20th Century Art," an exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts in New York.

Bess was a visionary abstract artist whose small oil paintings featured personal symbolic images, such as crescents, eyes, crosses, lines, and simple geometric forms, which he saw in his dreams. He kept a notebook by his bed in which he drew the visions. He claimed to have had his first vision, a Dutch village guarded by a lion and a tiger, in 1915, and he later recorded this in one of his paintings. He was inspired by Carl Jung's theories to study mythology, alchemy, archeology, and religion; he became convinced that his ideograms, as he called them, could end human suffering, including death, by aiding the physical transformation of the male and female bodies into an androgynous being. Bess wrote to several psychologists and anthropologists, including Jung, and kept a notebook of sketches, clippings, and quotations to develop his thesis. In 1960 he had himself surgically altered in an effort to become androgynous.

During the 1960s his work attracted the interest of Texas artists Jim Love and Roy Fridge and such collectors as Dominique and John de Menil, Nina Cullinan, Stanley Marcus, Houston architect Howard Barnstone, and New York architect Philip Johnson. Bess's theory on hermaphroditism alienated many, however, and his career waned after his last show at Parsons's gallery in 1967. During the 1970s Bess became increasingly eccentric. In 1974 he suffered a mild stroke and was admitted to the San Antonio State Hospital, where he was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. Later that year he entered a nursing home in Bay City. At that time he stopped painting. He died in Bay City on November 11, 1977.

The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a solo exhibition of Bess's paintings in 1981, and in 1987 a retrospective of his work was exhibited at the Butler Gallery in Houston. In 1988 a solo exhibition of his work was organized by the New York gallery Hirschl and Adler Modern, and the show subsequently traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Bess's paintings were also shown at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, in 1989. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Menil Collection. His correspondence has been collected by the Houston branch of the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Art.

Michael Ennis, "His Name was Forrest Bess," Texas Monthly, June 1982. Barbara Haskell, Forrest Bess (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1981). John Money and Michael De Priest, "Three Cases of Genital Self-Surgery and Their Relationship to Transsexualism," Journal of Sex Research 12 (November 1976). Vertical Files, Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

  • Education
  • Educators
  • Art and Architecture
  • Visual Arts
  • Painting

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kendall Curlee and Rebecca H. Green, “Bess, Forrest Clemenger,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

November 1, 1994
September 8, 2016