A Crossover of a Different Colour by Kristine McKenna

Taken from 29th July 1990 Los Angeles Times. Later appeared in an edited form in December 1993 Mojo Magazine under the title ‘Run Paint Run Run’

Once known as avant-garde musician Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet has quickly won the art world’s attention as a painter

The art world tends to regard popular entertainers with a peculiar mix of infatuation and disdain. Though artists, musicians and movie people amiably rub elbows on the cocktail-party circuit, artists bare their teeth when actors or any of that ilk seek legitimacy as practicing visual artists. Maybe it’s jealousy or territorialism, or maybe they figure the commitment required to create good art makes it impossible to simultaneously maintain a second career. There are, however, occasional exceptions to what we’ll describe here as the Red Skelton Clown Painting Syndrome, and Don Van Vliet may be one of them. Better known as Captain Beefheart, the avant garde composer whose brilliantly innovative approach to music seems as revolutionary today as it did when he introduced it 25 years ago, Van Vliet has made remarkably swift progress in the art world since 1982 when he closed the door on his music career to devote himself to painting.

With the assistance of his pal Julian Schnabel, a fan who admired the drawings Van Vliet had done for his album covers and contacted him to purchase one, Van Vliet officially launched his painting career at the trendy Mary Boone Gallery in New York in 1985.

“I hadn’t shown a new artist in three years when I decided to show Don,” Boone recalls. “The artists I’ve always liked are the ones who have enough courage to question accepted rules, and for the past 20 years Don has been doing figurative painting based on a consistent vocabulary of his own forms and images. For me, that made his work important and worth showing.”

Van Vliet’s debut exhibition was followed by shows at the Leslie Waddington Gallery in London and the Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne, West Germany. Werner, who played a central role in developing the career of Anselm Kiefer, is seriously committed to Van Vliet’s work, and has been busily arranging exhibitions around the world, including a one-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Art last year. With prices for his paintings hovering at the $25,000 mark and reviews of his work turning up in serious tomes of high culture like Artforum, Van Vliet may have succeeded in leaving his past behind.

“There are no other painters in America anything like Don,” says Werner in explaining his admiration for Van Vliet’s work. “The way he handles space, the content of the work-the whole approach is unique, and he truly stands alone. He’s not connected with any school or movement and he never looks at paintings, so in a sense he’s an outsider artist. Some of his work has a fragmentation and a crazy sense of space that reminds me of the drawings of Antonin Artaud, but mostly his work exists in a different universe. For me, that’s what makes him so important.”

John R. Lane, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, concurs with Werner for the most part. “I see Don as modernist primitivist,” he comments, “and for me, his paintings are intended to express psychological, spiritual and magical forces.”

Los Angeles will get its first look at Van Vliet’s art when an exhibition opens this week at the Fred Hoffman Gallery in Santa Monica. Though Van Vliet is pleased to have his paintings on view, his attitude toward the art world is much like his attitude toward rock ‘n’ roll (a scene he always found thoroughly repugnant); he has no interest whatsoever in what others make of his work, because he does it for himself.

“I don’t care where I fit into history or whether I’m part of this or that school,” says the reclusive 48-year-old artist from the Northern California home he shares with his wife of 20 years, Jan. “I paint for the simple reason that I have to. I feel a sense of relief after I do it.”

In talking with Van Vliet, one is pleasantly surprised to discover that he is one of a rare breed-a famous person who is interested in discussing things other than himself. A dazzling conversationalist and superb storyteller, he has an extraordinarily original mind, and talking with him is a memorable experience.

Van Vliet describes the creative urge as “a feeling like sandpaper on a shrimp,” and the burning drive that makes him paint clearly manifests itself in his wildly emotive canvases. At a glance, one is apt to describe his work as Abstract Expressionism; he handles paint with the bold bravado of Franz Kline, and invests nature with a hallucinatory ecstasy evocative of Van Gogh.

And, like Van Gogh, there’s a good deal of anguish in his work; the torment of consciousness trapped in a casing of decaying flesh can be felt as a subtext in many of his paintings. Van Vliet describes his paintings as “making the sounds of shadows breathing on themselves,” an observation that links his work with the brooding interior landscapes of Mark Rothko. Traces of Expressionism are definitely detectable in this work, but ultimately Van Vliet conforms to no established style or school. Though he’s friends with German artist A.R. Penck, admires the work of George Baselitz, and has a German dealer, you can’t lump him in with the Germans either. In his startling use of color, his playful approach to pictorial space, and his hermetic vocabulary of private signs and symbols, he is above all else an American primitive, and the mythologies of this country-rusted and twisted beyond recognition-are at the heart of his work.

Though dealer Michael Werner would have it that Van Vliet creates in a vacuum untouched by external influences, in fact, he’s a well traveled, highly literate man who knows a good deal about a wide array of things. During his years on the road as a musician he had encounters with everyone from Malcolm X to Duke Ellington, and he’s well versed in the works of several writers (Shakespeare, the poet Phillip Larkin and Vladimir Nabokov, to name a few), filmmakers (he loves John Huston and David Lynch) and visual artists.

“I like dead people mostly,” he says. “After seeing Man Ray, anyone who wants to call himself an artist better get busy. And, I’ve seen Van Goghs that were no bigger than baby-size that were just outrageous. There’s one he did in 1890 of his postman’s daughter called `Baby Marcelle’ that really knocks me out. The last time I was in New York I saw his painting `Starry Night’ and I looked at it a lot. It’s really good. And I like the way Franz Kline handles space. It’s pretty easy to breath in the universe he paints. I also like Mondrian-his paintings are clean and sloppy at the same time. They’re pretty sentimental. Modigliani, Leger and Matisse are good too. Matisse did this thing called `Rose Marble Table’ that I really like. God, what are they doing in that painting? I just couldn’t get over it when I first saw it.”

During his years in rock, Van Vliet came to be shackled with an inaccurate persona that was a colossal pain for him. Often cast by the press as an idiot savant who worked in a completely instinctual, non-intellectual manner, he came to be worshipped by fans who saw him as some sort of oracle, and inflicted themselves on him in an adoring way he found deeply annoying. He seemed to attract zealous fans who obsessed on his music and struggled to decode it, believing that the answers to the mysteries of the universe were locked up in the lyrics of his songs.

“The most widely held misconception about me is that I’m a mystic,” says Van Vliet. “I’m not. I believe in black and white, I believe organically.” Van Vliet’s affinity with things of an organic nature has always been central to his aesthetic, and though he stresses that his paintings “are not `about’ anything,” animals turn up repeatedly in his paintings, as they did in his songs. And, in Van Vliet’s scheme of things, man is the most ignorant and dangerous animal of all.

“When I was 3 years old I was very disappointed to open a dictionary and read: the Great Auk-extinct. Now that didn’t leave me with much faith in humanity. The dictionary illustration of it is pretty good too, and we’ve killed them off! That gorgeous bird! What the hell! The passenger pigeon is gone, the snail darter is gone-we won’t ever see one. These things really bother me.”

Born in Glendale in 1941, the only child of Glenn and Sue Van Vliet, Don began showing artistic talent at a young age, but his parents were none too keen on having an artist in the family . In an effort to keep their son traveling the straight and narrow path of clean living, the Van Vliets relocated to the Mojave Desert, an isolated, brutal environment guaranteed to bleach the creative juice out of anybody. Van Vliet’s drive to translate the world into art only intensified, however, and it came to a head in 1966 when he introduced himself to the world as Captain Beefheart.

Beginning with his debut LP, “Safe as Milk” and continuing through 11 subsequent albums, Van Vliet tossed conventional approaches to language and music out the window and replaced them with a startling system of his own design. His music marries rural folk tales, voodoo, ecological propagandizing, punning and free association to a spectrum of sound that stretches from Charles Ives, Stravinsky, jazz and delta blues, to the organic sounds of animals and the elements. A free-wheeling saxophonist, Van Vliet has a five-octave vocal range that allowed him to slip into diverse characterizations as he ruminated on his pet themes; the wonderfulness of women, nature, man’s stunning stupidity and spiritual sloth, and the splendor of every damn thing in the galaxy from Halley’s comet to a rusty nail.

Worshipped by his fans but dismissed by the industry as a charming eccentric, Van Vliet never fared too well in the music marketplace, and though critical accolades rained down on him throughout his years in music, the mass audience always seemed to prefer his musical innovations after they had been adapted and diluted by other artists. Numerous performers cite Van Vliet as a central influence, and his musical thumbprint is evident in works by artists ranging from David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and PIL, to Tom Waits, Was Not Was, and rap music.

“Part of why I stopped doing music was because it was too hard to control the other people I needed to play the stuff and I’d had enough animal training,” he says of the difficulty he had in teaching his unorthodox music to other musicians. “When it comes to art I have a real streak of fascism. I want it to be exactly the way I conceive it, and if one line is changed it’s like hey, the hell with it, I don’t need it. As far as my career in music, I think I’m in pretty good stead and that I did what I wanted to do-which is not to say I’m finished with music. The only thing that stops a composer from thinking about music is rigor mortis and I still compose all the time. I work on my paintings and while the paint is drying I’ll write a song. But I have no interest in making records any more-I’m finished with that for good.” Asked to describe a typical day, Van Vliet says “I usually don’t go to bed until 4:30 in the morning, then I get up at 5:30 because I like to see the sun and the moon together in the sky. Occasionally I eat breakfast. If I could find a town I’d go in to it now and then. They had towns in the 1930s, but they all seem to be gone now. Like Lightnin’ Hopkins said, they’re gone like a turkey in a storm. There’s nothing happening now and town has become a matter of going into yourself. We can live inside and they can’t do anything about that! Occasionally, like a gopher coming out of its hole, I go somewhere for provisions. I always hope I’ll make it back because I really don’t like to drive. Hell, I could see a butterfly out of the corner of my eye and drift right off the road! So, I spend my time reading, writing music and watching television. That’s about it, other than Jan and I dance. And, of course, painting. That’s the drive that’s dominated my life from the very beginning.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but I was painting consistently throughout the ’60s and ’70s, but I never showed my work then because I didn’t feel like it. I’m happy to show it now though, because the art world is providing a better life for me than music did. It helps not having to deal with fans, and I’m much better off now. I’m just up here painting and getting beat up by my cats. I paint everyday. Painting is a color straight-jacket and I look forward to putting it on in the morning.”

Though the art world is providing a better life for Van Vliet financially, he doesn’t expect much from the art audience’s capacity to understand his work.

“Most people are so damned stupid they can’t even see what artists are doing, and if they’re appreciated at all during their lifetime, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. It makes no difference whether the audience is there or not because I’d do what I do regardless of whether anyone takes notice. It helps when people appreciate what you do, but I’m an artist, so thanks for the hand, but don’t touch me.”

© The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1990

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *