The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

All Issues
APRIL 2022 Issue

Richard Hawkins: The Forrest Bess Variations

Richard Hawkins, <em>The Celestial Body</em>, 2022. Oil on canvas on board and artist's frame, 36 1/8 x 41 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali.
Richard Hawkins, The Celestial Body, 2022. Oil on canvas on board and artist's frame, 36 1/8 x 41 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali.

On View
Greene Naftali
March 11 – April 23, 2022
New York

As an artist, Richard Hawkins is pretty vers. One can never be certain what to expect stylistically or in terms of his medium, but his artistic practice seems to always be motivated by his own fandom, excessive research, and a thorough engagement with the visual and corporeal pleasures of gay culture. For his Forrest Bess Variations, Hawkins created a series of abstract paintings in vibrant colors that are, as the title indicates, mediations on the late Forrest Bess (1911–77), a gay painter from coastal Texas, who is known for translating his mythical visions onto canvas and who Hawkins acknowledged, in a contribution to a recent Bess retrospective at the Fridericianum in Kassel (2020), as the greatest inspiration for a “fledgling little bookish fag” who was growing up in rural Texas half a century after Bess.

One of the first works one encounters inside Greene Naftali’s ground floor gallery is Legend (2022), a collage that combines reproductions of works by Bess, which served as the basis for Hawkins’s variations, with an annotated color palette, attributing certain characteristics or body parts and fluids to distinct colors: yellow represents “piss” but can also stand for piss’s passageway into the world, the “urethra,” whereas pink designates the figure of the “hermaphrodite.” These color codes are not Hawkins’s own invention, but part of an elaborate lexicon of symbols that Bess recorded in his journals and communicated in letters to the art historian Meyer Schapiro or his gallerist Betty Parsons. Besides the interpretation of colors (red represented, for example, the male, whereas white stood for the female), Bess interpreted a number of basic geometric forms: a circle with emanating lines symbolizes the “golden star,” a.k.a. the “anus,” an obelus, stands for “death—undilated bulbocavernosus urethra,” and parallel lines imply a “back and forth” movement, thus signifying both “masturbation” and “coitus.”

Richard Hawkins, <em>The Penetration</em>, 2022. Oil on canvas on board and artist's frame, 31 1/4 x 41 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali.
Richard Hawkins, The Penetration, 2022. Oil on canvas on board and artist's frame, 31 1/4 x 41 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali.

Bess believed that these ancient symbols, which appeared to him in his visions, had derived from what the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious,” an allegedly transhistorical repertoire of knowledge and imagery shared among all of humanity. By studying the combinations of symbols in his paintings, Bess hoped to perceive, in the tradition of Goethe’s Faust, “whatever holds / The world together in its inmost folds.”

In his Variations, Hawkins experiments with modified color schemes, rearranges these allegedly arcane symbols and moves them between paintings. What further connects many works in the exhibition is the word “Dionysius” that the artist has scratched into the surface of most paintings. It is, as Hawkins elucidates in his short essay for the exhibition, a reference to a letter in which Bess asserted that the “creator behind me may be the Devil or it may be Dionysius.” The latter was, Hawkins speculates, perhaps the sixth century Greek theologian, whose writings profoundly impacted Jung’s theory of analytical psychology. However, Bess could have also misspelled the name of another, more ancient Greek figure, the demigod Dionysus, who is traditionally depicted as either an old, bearded man or an effeminate youth. Thus, Dionysus’s divine ambivalence regarding his gender representation can be seen as a further element in the theme of hermaphrodism, which seems to permeate Hawkins’s exhibition as it manifests in the frequent use of pink, in the repeated juxtaposition of red and white, as well as in the recurring oval symbols from Bess’s 1957 painting The Hermaphrodite.

Richard Hawkins, <em>Dionysius, Black Moon Gets Bigger</em>, 2021. Oil on canvas and artist's frame, 12 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali.
Richard Hawkins, Dionysius, Black Moon Gets Bigger, 2021. Oil on canvas and artist's frame, 12 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali.

In fact, the figure of the hermaphrodite ran like a golden (or dare I say: yellow) thread through Bess’s paintings and theories. After his extensive study of alchemy, mythology, and art history, Bess concluded that through hermaphrodism eternal life might be possible. And, as almost every account on Bess explicates in an often pathologizing manner, the artist himself actualized these assumptions on his own body. In the early sixties, he surgically created an orifice at the base of his penis to create a direct pathway into the bulbocavernosus urethra, which could then, if sufficiently dilated, receive another man’s penis. In this context, the reference to Dionysus makes a lot more sense, since he was the only demigod who was granted what Bess, by becoming what he termed a “pseudo-hermaphrodite,” hoped to achieve: immortality.

But Hawkins’s show seems to offer a different perspective on Bess’s experiments in self-creation. Take a look at The Penetration (2022), which, according to Hawkins’s Legend, descended from a unification of Bess’s The Penetrator (1967) and Untitled No. 2 (The Penetrated) (1966). While this painting might, at first, appear as just another reference to hermaphroditism (recalling the century-old isomorphism between activity as male and passivity as female), the corresponding symbolism is missing entirely. Instead, the antenna-like structure from Bess’s The Penetrator pierces the dented hemicycle of The Penetrated, which resembles the glans of a penis. And then there appears the Greek name again and I am reminded that Dionysus was not only associated with winemaking, insanity, or religious ecstasy, but he was also one of the gods of pleasure. Against this background and recalling Bess’s obsession with all things urethra, Hawkins’s Penetration emerges as an abstract representation of a particular form of masturbatory self-penetration: an erotic practice known as sounding, in which a thin object is inserted into the penis for the sake of momentary pleasures, which can derive from the insertion itself but also, if one sounds just deep enough, from the stimulation of one’s prostate.

Hawkins’s Variations of Bess’s visions make me wonder whether his surgery was, perhaps, also a very practical way to enhance his sexual pleasures; a way to, so to speak, cut out the middleman—his penis—and achieve urethral orgasms through penetration by another man. In this sense, Hawkins’s Forrest Bess Variations might be concerned less with uncovering some hidden truths about immortality and rather with the real corporeal possibilities of intensifying worldly pleasures; a colorful meditation on prostatic instead of prophetic revelations.


Christian Liclair

Christian Liclair is an art historian and completed his PhD in the research group “Aesthetics of Desire” at the Freie Universität Berlin. His monograph on Sexually Explicit Art, Feminist Theory, and Gender in the 1970s is forthcoming.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

All Issues