Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle


By Chuck Smith
Foreword by Robert Thurman

Art / Life Alchemy / Pseudo-Hermaphrodistic Studies
Hardcover
8.5 x 11 inches
168 pages
ISBN: 978-1-57687-622-0
$40.00
$46.00 CAD

Available June 2013
ORDER NOW

Painter, fisherman, pseudo-hermaphrodite-Forrest Bess lived his life in obscurity at an isolated bait camp off the east coast of Texas. From 1949 through 1967, Bess showed at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City, alongside superstar artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Rediscovered after his death in 1977, Bess’s small visionary paintings are now prized by museums and collectors for their primal beauty, and can fetch over $200,000 apiece.

Bess’s treasured canvases were only part of a grander theory—based on alchemy, Jungian philosophy, and aboriginal rituals—that proposed that hermaphrodism was the key to immortality. As an artist, Bess could never equivocate, and in 1960 he underwent an operation to become a pseudo-hermaphrodite. For the first time ever in print, Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle combines the beauty of Bess’s art with the drama and tragedy of his personal life. Using Bess’s own hauntingly sincere words (in letters to Betty Parsons, Meyer Schapiro, and others) the book traces the life and logic of this forgotten artist and explains how a love of beauty and a desire for wholeness lead Bess to self-surgery and, ultimately, a mental hospital. Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle is a fascinating look at one of America’s most notorious cult visionaries—a man who truly believed that art could save his life.


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Chuck Smith s a New York based producer, writer, and filmmaker who has directed numerous documentaries and series for the National Geographic Channel, Discovery, and TLC. Prior to his work for cable TV, Smith was a producer for CBS News and Michael Moore’s TV Nation. In 1997, Smith and photographer Ari Marcopoulos, author of Transitions and Exits (powerHouse Books, 2000), produced and directed the award-winning documentary Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle, which features actor Willem Dafoe as the voice of Forrest Bess. Smith’s short films and video interviews with artists such as Agnes Martin can be found on YouTube at chucksmithNYC.

Robert Thurman is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University,President of Tibet House U.S., and President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies. He has BA, AM, and PhD degrees from Harvard and has studied in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India and the United States. The New York Times recently hailed him as “the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.”

Bess Book Promo from Chuck Smith on Vimeo.

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