An exclusive review for two Don Van Vliet exhibitions from 1998 and 1999.

By Who & By What Is One Enlightened Or Deceived? Is it possible to judge with an uncritical eye as if Captain Beefheart never existed?

Don Van Vliet – New Work

11th November – 5th December, 1998
Knoedler & Company
In association with Michael Werner Gallery
19 East 70 Street
New York, New York
10021 USA

Don Van Vliet – Works On Paper

28th January – 26th March 1999
Michael Werner Gallery
21 East 67
New York, New York
10021 USA

Captain Beefheart combed out his showbiz mane and became, after 20 plus years on the stage, Don Van Vliet: citizen of the respectable and overall tame art world. The audience is limited; sales ebb, flow, rise and fall with the daily closing of the stock exchange. Even for the wealthy art remains a luxury. A serious conversation piece for those with disposable income. Recouping ones investment can only be passed off as a fabulous pipe dream. To what end will a Gallery/Agent/Broker justify the intrinsic value of a particular piece of art? Is Don Van Vliet sold in a hush-hush tone of his musical past? Or is the past strictly detrimental? Do art journals ever contain a negative review of an art show? Is the unspoken rule that all High Art has worth, great advances are to be made, that the artist shows promise and will surely develop so one had best jump on the evening stage while the price is good? In a field dependent upon pseudo-rumour and sham-faced promotion it is of little mystery that a contrived prudery exists in that ‘uncomfortable’ universe of bread-and-butter economics. When the butlers’ tight white glove frees a film of dust from atop a frame, what should be an indication for a junkyard sale becomes, in this skewed world, reason for celebration. Why? Because the artwork has magically become a rarity. There is no such thing as unsold product. There is only ever-more valuable Art. The modus operandi being to keep past (meaning future) patrons picture-hooked, secure in the belief that they haven’t been played the sucker.

The picture itself is interchangeable; it is the signature that matters; law dictates all must be of equal value.

God forbid if the chips are down. Try unloading that priceless painting and breaking even. It’s back to the gallery one bought it from. Aesthetics fall by the wayside. Watch out for the dorsal fin. You’re swimming in dangerous waters. Used cars, fuller brush, ad space, art. HOW MUCH!!!???

The Art World is a scary place. Like a vagabond street peddler hawking disposable utensils, one takes two steps backward and runs for their life. It is the startup business of choice for trust fund babies. The proud employer of snooty department store perfume-counter graduates. Peddlers of High-Brow horror and terribly shoddy goods. High ceiling white column. Welcome to New York. From the low-rank unwashed hippie-punk east village to the tourist-friendly suntan salon of Soho all the way uptown to the museum hangover world of 57th Street and Madison Avenue. All the necessary groundwork is in place. All We Need Is Art.

Don Van Vliet came from Art World obscurity straight into the Big Time. Why? You know why. He’s Captain Beefheart of course. It’s been said that he’s a musical genius. Collaborated with Frank Zappa and gave it all up to focus on his art. He’s a child prodigy, you know. Self-taught. There’s an angle to work with here, boys. And besides, he wears the beret really well. A baffling fellow. Beyond rationalisation. Like the art world. SOLD!

(At this point the author implores the reader to read on. This story does have a happy ending and contains glowing praise of Don Van Vliet’s work!)

A Van Vliet painting sells for approximately $15,000.00 American. A work on paper: $5,000.00. This reviewer asks: would he spend the money if Don Van Vliet were not Captain Beefheart? Is his judgement clouded by the fact that this is a work by Captain Beefheart? How can a sketchbook (but one in a series) that contains a single hasty page covered in infantile chicken scratches and has an asking price of five big ones bring anyone closer to anything but disgust? Is someone enjoying a prank? Was “New Work” needed to fill the holes for a show entitled “New Work” that was glaringly devoid of “New Work?” The only explanation for this outrage is that the childlike Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, is the victim of yet another “record” company. This time around it is known as Michael Werner Gallery.

A fan of Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band cannot begrudge Don Van Vliet for making a living. It is rumoured that he is sick. It is believed that he collects little if no royalties from his recordings. Over the years his artwork, gracing many a Magic Band album, whetted the appetite of his admirers. His work has cut through countless style. Seemingly dark and primordial; humorous and playful; often appealingly careless and disposable (as in a freebie to a fan to cherish). Prior to his ‘discovery,’ coming across a Van Vliet always proved a treat. Be it in a rock ‘n roll magazine, artsy journal or an oh-so-precious album cover the carefully disseminated artwork stirred ones sense of greed for the supposedly vast output of Don Van Vliet.

Enter A.R. Penck, a German artist of severely dubious talent, represented by Michael Werner Gallery. This man knows how to work the ropes. He befriends Beefheart. Beefheart is signed to Werner. Don Van Vliet is born.

KNOEDLER & COMPANY, established in 1846, is New York’s oldest art gallery. They have been housed in their current location for the past 25 years. It is a beautiful, pristine late 1800’s era building one block east of Central Park. Step into the foyer and greet a modern well-designed interior that manages to break the space up into three rooms without overly oppressive separation. The gallery consists of two floors. Van Vliet deservedly takes the ground and a side room reserved for smaller works. Sixteen oil-on-canvas paintings are in evidence (ranging from 64 x 51 inches down to 28 x 24). Ten works on paper – india ink, pencil, gold ink, gouache, zinc white, gold, etcetera (all roughly 20 x 14 ). And the aforementioned series of sketchbooks, under glass, dated August – October, 1998.

The paintings are titled Dirty Champagne; Ten Thousand Pistols, No Bumblebees; Bat Day In The Night; Pointed Satchels; Full Grown Babel, Curve In the Dirt, The Drazy Hoops, No. 1; No. 2; No. 3; etcetera. Completion dates begin in 1993, slip to five works in ’97 and peter out with two in 1998.

Ones first impression is that the paintings are too large for the content within. The dominantly white canvas is blinding. One could easily dismiss them as cave painting facsimile. And everyone knows that that has been done to death. And so I must ask: If this were not the work of Captain Beefheart would I even afford them a second glance? I am afraid I must answer with a humbling NO.

But as these are the paintings of Captain Beefheart and I want to like them I must dig deeper.

The paintings are loosely figurative; the usual recurring subjects: plantlife, wildlife, rocks, sun-baked apparition (the desert). Earth-tones. Brown, black, yellow, green. Two peculiar, largely white canvas with near-neon fucia and limegreen patches. There is no depth perception; there is no discernible brush-control; there are no ‘mistakes.’ The paint slips and slides forming painful, arthritic floating shapes; a world wherein all subject elements battle and live in harmony. The layers of paint employed is impressive (though to what purpose is anyone’s guess). This is painting for painting’s sake. The process (release) is more important than the result.

“I’m just trying to turn myself inside out onto the canvas.”

And Van Vliet has succeeded. In many an instance triumphantly. The paintings are genuinely spooky. One can sympathise with them (to empathise would be madness). To stare into this batch of Vliet paintings is to find oneself lost in the desert – a terrain that does not welcome human beings. A Vliet painting will never be mistaken for a petting zoo. Is it possible that the odd, unidentifiable paint stroke which surround the figures may be interpreted as human remains? I like to think so–it makes the trip to the gallery worthwhile.

The works on paper date from 1989 to 1992. They are untitled; they are executed in a variety of abstract style; they are of marginal interest. They leave absolutely no impression beyond the feeling that the artist is breaking in his pencils.

The sketchbooks are not what is formally known as a sketchbook. In this case, the book itself is the frame as only one page has been ‘customised’ to surely help justify an exhibition originally entitled “Recent Paintings” and later changed to “New Work.”

It is a pity that the sixteen paintings did not satisfy the Art Establishment. It would have been a decent, tight show. But five thousand for a phoney new work? Sounds unconditionally guaranteed to me.

MICHAEL WERNER GALLERY, New York & Cologne, treats NYC to “…the first exhibition in the United States to focus exclusively on Van Vliet’s works on paper.” He is also, and this is stretching it, referred to as “…the avant-garde composer, musician and poet.” (These quotes and the following are taken from the official press release.) The show is made up of 21 pieces, all untitled. Dates range from 1986 to 1990. Sizes range from 20 x 14 inches up to 30 x 22. India inks, gouache, pastel, pencil, crayon, silver & gold. The exhibition was to include a series of early works from the late Seventies but these were not available due to their rarity.

“While he often takes months and even years to finish a painting, reworking the thickly impastoed surface, his works on paper are prolific, free-form and loosely rendered.”

It is too bad only the rich can afford one.

Witness a sampling: a black female figure with nipple erect coiling man coiling snake. Two-faced man men black buddah hands held overhead in tan red and grey. A Vliet spider monkey with blue flower pot. Two black charcoal torso spooks one with chin beard and hipster sunglasses. Scary black gold silver inverted swastika upside down crucifix. Loose black white tan mess. Goose and giant snail head. A porpoise bird. Abstract mustard. Pilgrim hat space ship floating in sky. Emmet Kelly with big white mouth and bow tie. Longhaired man-monkey and horse on rocks outlined in hard jagged pencil – truly staggering tan brown green.

Van Vliets’ work on paper is not pretty; it’s not really ugly either. It could pass for ‘outsider art’–the work of the mentally ill. Yet it is not. Van Vliet is far too clever. He knows what he is doing. And yet he is at the mercy of the image/transmission. If this were not the work of Captain Beefheart would I even give it a second glance?

I answer with a resounding YES. But I’ll pay no more than a thousand dollars or less.

– Peter Warner, Summer 1999

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