NARRATOR: Forrest Bess’s painting—called Drawing—presents us with five forms. Each is framed within the composition, isolated to emphasize its unique symbolic importance. Bess was literally a visionary painter. His works are based on visions he would see when he closed his eyes.

Bess supported himself—barely—as a fisherman on the Gulf coast of Texas. But he was a sophisticated artist, and savvy in his dealings with the New York art world. He showed his work at Betty Parsons Gallery—also the dealer for artists such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. But there were aspects of his work that Parsons found too extreme to put on view. Over many years, Bess assembled what he called his “medical manifesto”—a scholarly and art-historical examination of hermaphrodites. Most radically, the manifesto included documentation of Bess’s experiments on himself. The artist believed that if he could become a hermaphrodite, he could self-impregnate and achieve immortality. Over the course of his lifetime, he operated on himself twice in order to achieve his ideal. In the end, he believed that he failed only because he couldn’t find a doctor willing to undertake a third, more thorough operation.

Forrest Bess (1911–1977), _Drawings_, 1957. Oil on canvas, 8 x 28 in. (20.32 x 71.12 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Betty Parsons 82.6. Photograph by Geoffrey Clements