The terse, succinct, even programmatic formula enunciated by Don Van Vliet alias Captain Beefheart, is both peremptory and cryptic: “Stand up to be discontinued!”
When a person makes an utterance, [s]he also gives something of [her/]himself- a fact that makes every statement into a miniature sample of a personality. When a person says something, [s]he usually also wants to make something happen. Don Van Vliet is said to be no lover of straight-line thinking, but a creative conversationalist, who makes unexpected conceptual leaps, and who possesses a wide mental horizon, a wild sense of humor, and a good memory.
“Don Van Vliet is happiest talking about the grand old men of the electric blues. In jail, they say, Howlin’ Wolf took a man’s head off with a rake and then successfully pleaded self-defense. Later, when Howlin’ Wolf was dead, Beefheart, who can imitate many blues singers’ voices at the drop of a hat, crept backstage during rehearsals for a concert by Howlin’ Wolf’s long-time guitar-player, Hubert Sumlin. While Sumlin was sitting with his guitar across his knees to tune it up, Beefheart crept up behind him and addressed him in the voice of the dreaded Wolf. Sumlin jumped several feet in the air and begged Beefheart in a trembling voice never to do such a thing again.” (Diedrich Diederichsen, Von Captain Beefheart zu Don Van Vliet, 1985)
“Stand up to be discontinued”. Is it an adequate interpretation of Don Van Vliet’s slogan to say that in life (and in art) breaks, accidents, discontinuities, and human actions must never be neglected in favor of established continuities, attitudes, and structures?
The principal themes of the songwriter and sometime desert dweller, Captain Beefheart (he lived in a camper van in the Mojave Desert for six years), were these: nature, and its spoliation by man; abnormal behaviour patterns; and social outsiders. The verbal jokes in his lyrics give pleasure even when you don’t understand everything.
“Stand up to be discontinued”. Can this utterance of Don Van Vliet’s be -interpreted as an allusion to the discontinuity between man and nature? Does it tell us that we are not part of nature but live in relation to nature? That we do not inhabit the earth but live in our own transgression of the earth? That the desert is our native element, because there our instincts took shape? That this is why green fields start to pall on us, why owning things wearies us, and why we often feel a familiar home to be a prison? Is existence, for Don Van Vliet, unthinkable without transcendence? Does life define itself for him, as much through alienation from the earth as through intimate closeness to it?
“Stand up to be discontinued”. In life (and in art), there are no clear crite-ria, no absolute guidelines, only doubts. A decision is wrong only when it -is regarded as the only right one. Don Van Vliet argues for a life and an art in which exclamation marks are replaced by question marks. This does not at all mean that asking questions makes action impossible.
A Taste for Zoos and Museums of Prehistory: Biographical Note
Don Van Vliet was born in Glendale, California, on January 15, 1941. His first artistic achievements date from an early age. Beefheart still clearly re-members: “I could whistle when I was two and refused to talk until I was three and a half.” Inspired by many zoo visits, the youthful genius attemp-ted to fashion all the animals in the northern continents out of wet soap; then he embarked on the fauna of Africa.
By the time he was thirteen, he could make a full range of aquatic crea-tures out of soap. That this was something more than a juvenile modelling craze was proved by a TV appearance along with a Portuguese sculptor, and by a six-year art scholarship that was awarded to him at thirteen but blocked by his parents. Their stated reason: all artists were “poofs.” Don thereupon shut himself away for weeks at a time, made sculptures, and refused to go to school; not even his parents’ move to the Mojave Desert made any difference. There, in 1959, he left school at eighteen. with a pass in art.
Ten years later, in 1969, with support from his old school friend Frank Zappa, he brought out his double album Trout Mask Replica (which Rol-ling Stone called “the most astonishing and most important work of art ever to appear as a record”). At this time, interestingly, Beefheart was already seeing himself primarily as a painter and sculptor, then as a wri-ter, and only lastly as a musician.
On Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart, blues-saturated anarchist and radical par excellence, methodically built up new sound structures out of the elementary particles of style – an aesthetic technique closely related to the collages and montages of the Dadaists. He carried the same anorganic musical conception over into his recording technique. On the track ‘The Blimp’, the Captain sang his vocal line not into a studio microphone but a telephone mouthpiece. He also avoided dubbing and multitracking, finding that acoustic methods yielded all the alienation devices he needed. On the track ‘China Pig’, for example, he sang in one room and put the microphone in another, behind a closed door, which his powerful, four-and-a-half-octave voice penetrated with ease. In 1970 Beefheart dedicated the record Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which he produced himself to the whales: a sign of the continuing taste for zoos and museums of pre-history that is also reflected in his lyrics.
By 1972, at his own estimate, he had in reserve 15,000 poems, 40 plays, 10 novels, 600 paintings, and dozens of albums of the length and quality of Trout Mask Replica. In 1981 he admitted to having 8,964 compositions in his head, admittedly still in need of arrangements. Despite a tempting offer from a record company, Don Van Vliet’s last musical offering dates from 1982.
Shaman, Magician, Artiste maudit, Ecstatic, Existentialist?
Don Van Vliet now seems to have largely lost interest in music. He now lives quietly in a house in Trinidad, California, devoting himself to his greatest passion, painting and drawing. “I don’t paint according to any hard-and-fast rules,” he told Kristine McKenna. “I just explode. Vegetation inspires me, but I like the desert too … don’t listen to music when I’m painting. It’s completely quiet, and there’s only the music that is playing in my head. There’s always music in my head, I can’t turn it off. Maybe I wouldn’t want to turn it off”.
Don Van Vliet’s imagery is inseparable from his musical past as Captain Beefheart. Although the Captain disowns that past, the themes of his visual works are taken specifically from his own lyrics, and from compositional elements of his music. As Diedrich Diederichsen rightly says, “it is impossible to discuss any picture sensibly without knowing Van Vliet’s history”
A glance back over his earlier career not only reveals important inner connections with Don Van Vliet’s pictures but at the same time helps to undermine a number of legends – at the risk of simultaneously adding new growths to a teeming jungle of myth.
In 1985, at the age of forty-four, Don Van Vliet made his public debut as a painter with simultaneous exhibitions in New York and Cologne. From being a ‘private preoccupation’, as John R. Lane puts it, his painting be-came a ‘public presentation’, leading a German art journal to come out with the overhasty headline, ‘Captain Beefheart Goes Art’. As the rock journalist Detlev Reinert has shown with a wealth of highly revealing – if anecdotal – evidence, the painter has always taken precedence over the musician, the artist over the composer.
As Diederichsen says, to speak of Don Van Vliet the painter seduces one into singing the praises of lunacy, of solipsism, and of the hermetically isolated madman; all this, he observes, is the eternal story of the ancient and ineradicable bourgeois concept of genius, which ascribes creativity not to intelligence and consciousness but to the other, the obscure, the unknown.
The simplistic and very American artistic distinction between “modernism and madness, creativity and craziness” leads only to an idealization of the role of the artist. What ultimately, is an artist? Saint? Hero? Mountebank? Fixer? Possessed, or inspired? Prometheus? Daedalus? Midas? Narcissus? Revolutionist? Rebel? Role model? Champion? Guru? Prophet? Educator? Explorer? Inventor? Engineer? Self-advertiser? Charlatan? Shaman? Genius? The case of Don Van Vliet’s favourite painter, Vincent Van Gogh – the artist to end all artists – exemplifies every historical task or role ever allotted to or assumed by artists, rolled into “one legendary person and one oeuvre of genius … the seer, the teacher, the guide to living, the seeker after knowledge and truth, the mystic, the revivalist preacher, the giver of enthusiasm, the inspirer; the nature-worshiper, even the nature-healer; the humble lay brother of St. Francis and the thunderbolt-wielding illumi-nate; the artist of revelation and of annunciation; the traditionalist and the innovator; the rebel, the artiste maudit, the revolutionist; the fighter for the underprivileged and for a better world, the moral insurrectionary; the explorer of landscapes and cosmic ecstasies; the artist-existentialist; the aesthete and individualist, avid for reality; the primitive and the intellectual rolled into one; the universalist and the magus, also the recor-der of the soul; the quintessence of creative potency and mental lucidity.” (Paul Nizon, Der Heilige Vincent, 1990)
As Paul Nizon has pointed out, all of these roles and tasks now belong, once and for all, to the past: for no artist can ever again unite these funct-ions in his[/her] own person, or attain such superhuman, humanistic significance. Don Van Vliet is a classic late twentieth-century artist. Like practically all the artists of this century, he inhabits the outer world, the fringes of society; for in today’s world the artist in general plays a marginal role – he is the outsider par excellence.
Don Van Vliet has nothing to do with the Art brut of Jean Dubuffet and his like; nothing to do with the rough, ugly art that springs from fevered moments. As an artistic outsider, he owes no allegiance to any dominant trend, but cuts clean across contemporary reality – or not as chance decrees. He will therefore start no artistic school or group; nor will he show the way to any successors. As an outsider, paradoxical though it may seem, he is both the exception and the rule.
Chaos and Creation
In his paintings of nature in the abstract, as in those of human and animal figures, Don Van Vliet has the ability – shared with very few contemporary artists – to recreate and to visualize pre-human worlds.
John Yau has observed that the increasingly abstract paintings of the 1990s invite the viewer to enter a zero-gravity space – to which, at the same time, their flat-seeming form, their abstract tracks, their pictogra-phic signs, and their allusive imagery, block all entry. “We look and we look and we look,” writes Yau, “and nothing we see need ever be the same again.” Don Van Vliet’s paintings put viewers into a “constantly shifting state”, and confront them with the flux of everyday life. In short: these paintings present discontinuity.
Discontinuity, as explained by Alain Cueff, means that the work relates to reality neither through the mode of denial (‘This is not a thing, this is art’), nor through the mode of sublimation (‘This looks like a thing, but it really art’), nor through the mode of nominalism (‘This is not a thing, because it is art’), nor through the mode of emulation (‘This is art, by vir-tue of its transcendental likeness to a thing’), but as discontinuity: ‘This is not a phenomenon, and not necessarily art.’
The perceptual scope of Don Van Vliet’s art extends to the fringes, to the borderline cases and gray areas; the trajectory of his interest is defined by the visionary, the transitory, the peripheral, the marginal, and the tangential. His painting is at home in the interstices, the in-between areas of life, including excavations, caves, holes, and deserts.
Don Van Vliet’s art is far-ranging, unfinished, but always inventive; it is a latter-day archaeological trace painting – Spurenmalerel – which pursues no intention, but animates and espouses its own unrest sensibility, and intensity. Associations are the only way into this painting. In Don Van Vliet’s works we observe the transition from line to plane, from plane to image, from order to disintegration, from sedimentation to fluctuation, from continuity to discontinuity. As a painter, Don Van Vliet is chaotic, and therefore creative.
– Paolo Bianchi