The Knoedler & Company press release:

Don Van Vliet

Recent Paintings

November 11 – December 5, 1998

One senses that Van Vliet doesn’t see these images so much as receive them. They rise up in him, like dreams which seem to arrive from some remote and mysterious place, and they emerge on the canvas. – John Yau (1)

Knoedler & Company, in association with Michael Werner Gallery of New York and Cologne, is pleased to present an exhibition of the recent work of Don Van Vliet.

Don Van Vliet (b. California 1941) was a critically recognized underground composer, rock musician and author in the mid-1960s, under the name Captain Beefheart. Although he has worked as a visual artist since childhood – and was recognized as a prodigy – in 1982, Van Vliet left the world of music to concentrate exclusively on painting and drawing. His first one-man exhibition was held in Cologne and New York in 1985.

Van Vliet’s paintings have been described as “painterly transformations of the natural world into visionary views” (2) – frequently interior landscapes peopled by flattened and stretched, gravityless figurative shapes. In the idiosyncratic “metamorphosizing realm” (3) of his pictorial spaces:

The forms, images, abstract squiggles, pictographs, and painterly passages evoke a non-hierarchical world in which insects and shadows are articulated with the same intensity as a man in a boat or a floating circle. (4)

John R. Lane, former Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has described Van Vliet as a “modernist primitive. ..an artist whose remarkable intuitive gifts and love of nature have combined to create highly charged paintings that are at once jolting as well as lyncal.” (5) In the artist’s own words:

Actually, what I try to do is turn myself inside out on canvas, to freeze the moment so that the person seeing it can observe what I froze. I try to turn what is going on in me into a still life of that moment. (6)

Van Vliet – who is self-taught – usually works on a warm white ground in a palette of yellow and brown ocher, green, reddish brown, and black, colors reminiscent of the Mojave Desert, where he lived for several years. In his painting, the artist appears to draw upon his experience in other media – for instance he feels a particular affinity between his art and the Blues. His has been an incredibly varied odyssey of creative discovery. As he has remarked:

Talking about different art-forms is like counting raindrops: there are rivers and streams and oceans, but it is all the same substance… (7)

His music and his painting seem linked in both form and content:

The recognizability of the motifs; the unpolished handling of instruments; the crude ambiguities, constructions, and riddles in the narratives; the transparency and the density: All of this is similarly put together, in close reference to the human body, with all the subtle and crude vibrations of its energies, and to one individual: it traces a world on the borderline of the familiar and the private, and outlines a per-sonal narration in colors and figures whose language can never be completely under-stood, even though everything in the picture is simply and comprehensibly laid out. (8)

In 1989, Don Van Vliet had his first solo museum exhibition, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; in 1994 a museum retrospective traveled to the Bielefelder Kunstverein, Museum Waldhof in Germany, the Kunsthallen Brandts Klcedenfabrik in Denmark and the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in England.

  1. John Yau. “Introduction,” Don Van Vliet exh. cat. (New York: Michael Werner; 1991) n.p.
  2. Yau.
  3. Yau.
  4. Yau.
  5. John R. Lane. Don Van Vliet: New Work exh. cat. (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1988- 89) n.p.
  6. Don Van Vliet quoted in Luca Ferrari. “Pearls before Swine. Ice-Cream for Crow. On the Relationship between Music and Painting in Captain Beefheart’s Work” in Stand Up To Be Discontinued: The Art of Don van Vliet exh. cat. (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag, 1993) 26.
  7. Artist’s statement, unpublished.
  8. Roberto Ohrt. “Don van Vliet” in Stand Up To Be Discontinued: The Art of Don van Vliet exh. cat. (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag, 1993) 40-1.

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