Frank Walter, Hitler Playing Cricket (with Antiguan Men), c.1980, oil on card, 23 x 45.3 cm.
Copyright Barbara Paca Enterprises, LLC
This exhibition of work by Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), Forrest Bess (1911-1977), and Frank Walter (1926-2009) presents three unique and uncompromising figures from the story of 20th century art. Each worked in isolation, outside the conformity of their respective societies: in Cornwall in the 1920's; Texas in the '50's and Antigua in the '70's, but only two of the three (Wallis reluctantly and Bess enthusiastically) have been absorbed into the written and recorded histories of the last hundred years. The work of the third, Frank Walter, is being presented here for the first time.
The account of Alfred Wallis's discovery in 1928 by the eager young modernists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, and of his disinterest in their attempts to entice him into their artistic world, has long been part of the story of British art, yet 85 years later his magnificent paintings of boats and the sea continue to stand for the power of the so-called primitive, and to reject easy classification. They are at once na´ve and sophisticated: unremittingly raw and direct in approach, painted on scraps of card in a limited palette of marine paints, yet lovingly rendered with the intensity and depth of a lifetime's experience.
The combination of untrained hand and a ferocious inward gaze links Wallis's works with the equally potent visions of the Texas shrimp fisherman Forrest Bess, although, unlike Wallis, Bess cared more for the attentions of the wider art world, sending his works into its very heart through the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Parsons first exhibited his work in 1949 and continued to do so throughout the 1950's and '60's, at a time when she was more famous for working with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. But what she didn't exhibit, despite Bess's requests that she should (and which remained effectively hidden until the sculptor Robert Gober revealed them in The Man That Got Away, a curated project for the last year's Whitney Biennale) were Bess's extraordinary writings and photographs documenting his theories of hermaphroditism as a means to immortality: a thesis that he attempted to prove through a series of grotesque, self-inflicted operations.
The third corner of this unlikely triangle is formed by the Antiguan artist and writer Francis Archibald Wentworth Walter, self-designated descendent of Charles II; Franz Joseph of Austria; and the Dukes of Buccleuch, and self-styled 7th Prince of the West Indies. Walter was a delusional genius who tasted success young, aged just 22 in 1948, as the first man of colour to manage an Antiguan sugar plantation, and who then toured Europe seeking new skills and following his own increasingly convoluted genealogical meanderings. His undoubted gifts in almost every field were the product of an exceptionally fertile, but fragile, mind and he spent the last twenty five years of his life in an isolated shack on an Antiguan hillside, surrounded by his writings, some 25,000 thousand closely-typed pages of history, philosophy and autobiography, and a roomful of tiny paintings that speak with an unmistakable and visionary voice.
These paintings, shown in this exhibition for the very first time, range in subject from miniature landscapes and abstract explorations of nuclear energy, to portraits both real and imagined, including Charles and Diana as Adam and Eve and a quite brilliant depiction of Hitler playing cricket. Painted with a rare immediacy, on whatever material first came to hand, they announce the discovery of one of the most intriguing and distinctive Caribbean artists of the last 50 years.
A monograph celebrating the life and work of Forrest Bess, by Chuck Smith, will be published in April 2013 alongside the exhibition Seeing Things Invisible at the Menil Collection, Houston (19 April - 18 August 2013). A monograph devoted to Frank Walter will be published in collaboration with Barbara Paca by Ingleby Gallery in 2015.