The Painting of Don Van Vliet by Roberto Ohrt

[alert_box type=”info”]Taken from the Stand Up To Be Discontinued exhibition book.[/alert_box]

In the early 1970s the voice of Don Van Vliet, alias Captain Beefheart, was a signal and a proof that something else is possible -that nothing has to stay the way it is. His music came out of a space in which the power of existing laws was broken. It expanded the framework of the imaginable, for the members of a generation whose own attitudes and ideas embodied a radical aspiration, but who had let their own lives be defined by a set of descriptions and signs over which they had virtually no control. The music of Don Van Vliet revealed how far that generation had grown away from any truly playful and secure way of handling either their instruments or their voices, how little grasp they had of their own melodies, and how little they knew how to manage the signs of their own cultural rebellion. He showed how close everyone might be to his or her own means of expression: he combined playful insouciance and precision, openness and weaknesses; it was an achievement that was to stand alone for years to come.

Strange though that music sounded, its origins were evident to all. The figures in its source images did not disappear. Distorted, strung out, overlaid, outlined in a scrawl or stripped down to the bare melodic skeleton, they were present as material to play with, as the object of a bewildering, astonishing virtuosity – but a virtuosity that never became an end in itself. Don Van Vliet was able to attract some highly professional musicians; but when he played with them their abilities were led in a new direction. Many-layered and complex though it was, his music always came across as something very simple and universally accessible: transparent, wedded to the human body, to individual faults, to a coalition of weaknesses and passions.

Don Van Vliet is self-taught. He neither expects allowances for the amateur’s lack of dexterity nor permits any technical deficiency on his own part to limit his scope. Nobody’s understanding or forbearance sets limits to what he does – any more than does the fear of going wrong. The lacerations, transgressions, and awkward moments that he introduces are unpredictable, as is their duration; when he takes the figures that confront him and tugs them out of shape, he simultaneously tugs himself out of shape – and out of his own limitations. He has created a space that lies beyond styles, because it is out of reach of the ingrained habits or predilections that prevail in styles: it totally escapes their notice. On the contrary: perception has been drawn outward, sensitised by uncertainty and vulnerability, and redirected to affect its own point of origin – just as Don Van Vliet’s voice has absorbed the stimulus of every possible technical manipulation, which it echoes by the exercise of its own virtuosity, missing and at the same time transcending each effect.

In that generation – and even more so at the end of the 1970s, when the experimental possibilities pioneered by Don Van Vliet came into much wider use – music was always more accessible than art. It was a generation that regarded painting, in particular, as anachronistic, outworn, even decadent. Both concert goers and record collectors accepted and practiced a degree of musical specialisation that outsiders often found positively grotesque, while any comparable degree of fanaticism applied to painting or to art in general was dismissed out of hand. Whoever would have tolerated people knowing by heart – singing along with – lines, breaks, quotations, and distortions, if painting instead of music had been the stimulus? And I am not talking about familiar, catchy tunes but, on the contrary, a delight in the deceiving of expectations, an enjoyment of the crooked and the spare, which caused all manner of grimaces and contortions on the enjoyers’ part. This obvious disparity of esteem between music and painting survived essentially unchanged through the 1980s; and I stress it although I am well aware of the point of principle that music – more collective in its production and consumption, and always more of an event – has a social meaning entirely different from that of painting.

For some years now, Don Van Vliet has worked exclusively as a painter and has issued no musical compositions; but this must not be taken to mean that he has deliberately taken sides. It is not our business to account for this irrevocable act of choice between music and painting. It is, however worth noting that, when Don Van Vliet switched from music to painting, he did not take either the interest or the acquired trust of his own public with him. For those on the music scene, there seem to be barriers, hard to explain, that block access to the later Captain Beefheart. Among the post1970 generation, in particular, these barriers are no longer even perceived as such: perceptually, they seem to have become second nature. No wonder Don Van Vliet so firmly defined his relationship to this whole context in an interview in 1986: “The only thing that stops a composer from thinking about music is rigor mortis and I still compose all the time. I’ve been writing some pretty wild stuff too. But I’m definitely finished with the rock star scene – although I never thought of myself as a rock star for a minute. Many people tried to turn me into one but I fooled ’em.”

Don Van Vliet’s painting is not at all typical of his generation – or of the Hippie and Freak cultural milieu, to which he did not belong, but through which he became famous. With their cult of nature, the Hippies regarded themselves in some degree as opposed to the fashion-conscious culture of urban Pop, with its week-by-week succession of new crazes; but this does not mean that Pop elements were absent or discounted in their own culture. Everywhere, in the details of their dreams, between the stitches in their sewn-on patches and in their droll accessories Pop pops up again: prefabricated patterns, flowing plastic-soft lines, blossomy soap-bubble typography, garish colour contrasts, geometrical effects.

The succeeding generation supplies even fewer clues to Don Van Vliet’s artistic position. This was a generation that believed only in direct political action; its members were as casual as possible about clothing or any other cultural signs. Fashion decoration, art, were all despised and indeed attacked at every opportunity.

In the libertarian subculture of his time, Don Van Vliet was an outsider. If we seek precedents for his painting, we have to go back beyond the beginnings of Pop to those American artists against whom Pop reacted, and whom succeeding generations increasingly forgot: the artists who lived in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Arshile Gorky – whose late landscapes, though far more delicately and affectionately drawn, have a similarly transparent, light, and appealing colour- or Jackson Pollock, whose work possesses a similar dynamism and a comparably idiosyncratic and enigmatic narrative background. Don Van Vliet himself mentions only one New York School artist: Franz Kline, who died in 1960 just as he was reintroducing colour into his painting.

Kline makes an unexpected prototype. His painting was entirely dominated by the megalopolitan reality of New York, by its traffic and by the colours of its industrial landscape; whereas you never even get to Don Van Vliet except by crossing the American continent from east to west, discarding as you go all memories of its cities, its technology, its modernism, its topical concerns, and its contemporary history. All that remains, clearly, is the painting. Decidedly painterly in their expressiveness, Don Van Vliet’s paintings may well be close to that New York based generation that began to make its mark world-wide in the early 1950s; but they develop an entirely different relationship with their society. Whereas Pollock, De Kooning and the others positively paraded their avant garde status, the painting of this West Coast hermit seems to make an equal parade of its antimodernism.

AlI of this has really more to do with our perceptions – the construct of our prior knowledge, the mental horizon against which his art now makes its appearance – than with Don Van Vliet, or with his paintings. That we know him as our own contemporary really comes as a surprise: this is a construct. Seen in his retreat on the edge of the desert, where he has spent a part of his life, or above the Pacific beach, where he now lives, he might remind us of the American myth of the frontiersman and the explorer. Like the frontiersman, he turns his back on civilisation, trusts in his knowledge of nature, and seems at first to be a spinner of unintelligible, wild and fantastic tales. But Don Van Vliet’s retreat lacks both the paranoia of the old frontiersmen, who were trapped in their own constant quest for a hiding-place, and the arrogant presumption that gave rise to that paranoia. His position is free of the chronic restlessness that blurs every movement and makes it impossible to find one’s bearings.

What has all this to tell us? Leave the construct aside; rather than try to bring the painting closer to us through a succession of increasingly unverifiable anecdotes, let us look at the end product the painting itself. These paintings make no allusion to any knowledge available within our present day social space. They contain everything that is of importance to them.. They have no need of a context in order to be understood – unless, that is, we were to be let into the secret of the narrative, that elusive aspect that was evidently built on individual imaginative ideas and experiences; and then, of course, we would still be far removed from the societal constructs that modernism fights against.

Seen thus, in opposition to the modern world, Don Van Vliet brings us back to the one and only European artist who meant a thing to the New York artists of the 1940s: to Jean Dubuffet, or – to be more precise, by naming once again the less accessible, the half-concealed area to those artists whom Dubuffet assembled in his Compagnie d’arf brut, such as Gaston Chaissac. The affinity here does not reside in any pictorial configuration, so much as in the remote, self-sufficient, rural world of Chaissac’s art: people, gardens, animals, spirits, coexisting and swapping attributes. On that remote territory Chaissac carried forward his own art and, without realising it, the art of his time. Chaissac’s world is more protected, more confined, less free, than that of Don Van Vliet; but he is equally nonchalant – and equally inaccessible to all those who find no meaning in his world and its inspirations and sensations. The two artists also share their spontaneous, ready access to the work of art; but Chaissac sought to confine its presence and its impact to his own rural habitat, whereas Don Van Vliet knows the routes that his paintings travel across the world, and occasionally travels with them.

In all of Don Van Vliet’s fairy-tale narrations, not one single detail alludes to the cities in which his art meets its public. There is no echo of those gigantic high-tech structures in North American cities that have redefined the image of Megalopolis. From the members of the New York School, even so, he has absorbed insights that were first evolved in the big city, his own evolution has taken place – in the early days, at least – in relative independence of the history of art.

After Jackson Pollock arrived in New York from his native Wyoming in 1930, the dimensions of the new, urban environment gradually transformed the organic life of his painting. Initially freighted with myth, Pollock’s figurative conflicts eventually gave way to abstract networks of form that were light and fluid, mobile and unpredictable. There emerged images of the dynamics of energy in collective structures, or of the organisation that would be necessary for the free shaping and animation of urban constructions – and, in this sense, these are truly ‘ghost paintings’.

One early painting, Ghost Red Wire, 1967, is an exemplary display of Don Van Vliet’s points of affinity and contrast with Pollock. A coloured image, not black on white – as with Pollock – or in tones of the black-and-white scale, but red as the bloodstream of an otherwise diaphanous ghost, this is a pulsating, animated drip painting, and yet as figurative and representational as it could be; its title suggests a little scene, an anecdote. Pollock’s idiom, bound up as it is with modernist aspirations, is here (whether deliberately or not, does not matter) split right down the middle, along the once well-guarded fault-line of the legibility of figure and colour – the degree of clarity or discreteness, of simplicity or straightforwardness, that the idea has or is permitted to have.

Don Van Vliet’s relation to Kline is marked by a similar contrast. Kline, too, had in his mind’s eye the complexity of city life, its spatial dynamism of moving and unmoving masses, as he transferred his black ink drawings from their sketch format to large canvases and suddenly, in simple black brushstrokes, captured the shadows of skyscrapers or of freeway intersections against the sky. Don Van Vliet similarly chooses large formats as a matter of course; what Kline gave him, above all, was probably encouragement to enjoy the spontaneous motion of black lines and signs, as found in Chinese calligraphy, and to pursue their inexplicable and delightful obviousness, the pleasing dynamism with which they seemed to trace their own outlines and to unleash a ceaseless, airy play of motions and meanings (Untitled, 1969).

When Don Van Vliet looks at his own handiwork, in the shape of these black signs on the canvas, he does not see cities but birds, not traffic arteries but individual flight movements, not endless torrents of din but the cawing of a crow. On his large canvases he records small encounters between animals, hybrid creatures, and human beings, whether powerful, forlorn, or dangerous: their cries and their struggles define the shape of the image; the hunger scattered across black signs and coloured camouflage orients possibilities in space.

In Don Van Vliet’s work the only echoes of a manmade world are linguistic. The titles of the paintings are an invitation to visualise the weirdest creatures and materials. These are syntheses, syllabic games that undermine a world-view; in their every chord, the inexplicable manifests itself in juxtaposed colours and forms, revives perceptual faculties overtaxed by the obvious, and counterbalances the oppressive weight of reality. Here, as in his songs, Don Van Vliet evolves a language that plays with abstractions and paradoxes; but the colour and material presence of his paintings always chimes with that of nature, as if this were the only place for the imitation game. The latest paintings, in particular, look as if camouflaged. Tough and scaly – like hide or flesh, like rind or daubed dirt – their surface texture recalls the variations in a breathing, protective skin that shades off into shifting vegetable colours and earthy tones, mysteriously eluding discovery.

Any attempt to fit Don Van Vliet into the historical grid of art, to see his painting as rooted in the stratifications and metamorphoses of artistic epochs, is misleading. It would be legitimate only if analogy could be used to crystallise out the specific quality of his work. I use a makeshift formula for the sake of its convenience, and because it puts off the moment when what is seen must be translated into words. I start out by observing the phenomenon from outside; for history offers us a ready-made, familiar language, whereas freshly seen art – and Don Van Vliet’s in particular, though not because it is unmediated by history – resists quick comprehension. And so my trip through history, via Pollock or via Kline, is like a card -game in which I play the same card over and over again. It could go on for ever, because the card fits none of the combinations set up for it, and no one points out that it belongs to a different deck. On one hand, I say this because all too often a historical or contextual construct serves only to endow the phenomenon or utterance in question with a social relevance, a justification, a meaning, that is not and cannot be deduced directly from the object itself, being either unperceived or unwanted – or else not being there in the first place. On the other hand, I know how little this artist cares for the history of art, or for the evolution of art today.

The obvious resemblance between Don Van Vliet’s painting and that of the COBRA artists Constant or Asger Jorn cannot, for instance, be explained by supposing that Don Van Vliet knew the work of both artists and consciously referred to it. However, provided that the intention is not to create a legend, or to divert attention from the problem of the paintings themselves, the connection may legitimately be made; for both Jorn and Constant expressed their rooted hostility to society through a simple and readily accessible pictorial idiom and a childlike technique, unburdened by social discipline. Both trusted to their own experience with painting; both relied on its immediate impact, as something impossible to achieve or reproduce in any other medium; and both proclaimed the social importance of this as a function unique to the artist. This was a practical assertion on their part, and they made it good in the face of a contemporary world that paid no more than lip-service to art. Don Van Vliet and his work are part of the same debate, though he found his way to the same position without relying on historical knowledge or historical models. A few hints were enough; a Van Gogh exhibition, for example, or the line of evolutionary descent from Munch via the German Expressionists, gave him all the information he needed.

Don Van Vliet had an unconventional upbringing. He never had to go to school; he was regarded as an oddball. Even as a child, he was equally interested in music and in painting and sculpture. The fact that he began his career, and became known, as a musician was not the result of any conscious decision on his part: it was just that the social climate was far more propitious for music than for visual art. All his life, he has drawn caricatures of the people he meets. His visual art, like his music, has strongly caricatural features; imitation, exaggeration, violence, and absurdity are intrinsic to it; but it is free of the shorthand of spite. It snatches no easy effects. His evolution – as his voice and the sound of his instruments makes clear – has been based on a different interpretation of the comic; he presents oddity in his own person, with a tragic sense of the intractability of the situation. It is a fatality that does not hamper his progress but drives him on; and it has finally, miraculously, saved him. The drama still seems to be in progress, transforming laughter into joy and preserving, without concessions, the brusque charm of disarray.

At the outset, I described the effect of his music – perhaps too sweepingly – by saying that, through it, we can see the way his painting is put together. The recognisability 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 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 personal narration in colours and figures whose language can never be completely understood, even though everything in the picture is simply and comprehensibly laid out.

On canvas, Don Van Vliet’s painting generates a unique bodily presence both from within and from without, upfront and way back. This belongs to the canvas as a whole, and extends to every element on it: it resides in the monochrome surface – the space around the figure – just as it does in those localised areas that distinguish a figure with limbs and face from its background. This ubiquitous figuration stems from the way the paint is applied. We can observe how a colour field has only gradually taken shape and acquired a density, a figurative definition of its own – or else how it has been achieved more rapidly and has correspondingly become both more transparent and more vehement, with a vehemence that is perceived in its turn as a bodily state.

At their edges and all across their surfaces, the areas of colour reveal that their precise placing on the canvas has emerged only in the course of painting; their material presence shifts back and forth between volume and plane, between figurative definition and an almost fluid consistency. Once arrived at, the form never looks final. A head might even now edge out from some unexpected quarter and turn the whole body around, showing it from behind or making it go the opposite way. Where no gaze is defined on the canvas, we look for one by trying to interpret unexplicit contours, trying to read the shifting picture plane in body terms.

The figuration of the monochrome surface flows without a transition into the surface quality of the individual figure. There it perpetuates itself in the distortions and stretchings that distinguish Don Van Vliet’s figures from their models. Discontinuities, discrepancies, contradictions, and blunders are not corrected but accepted and interpreted as constituents of the painting. They do not add up to a generalised attitude – as do the imitations of children’s drawings in the work of Karel Appel – or to a unified formal language, like that of Max Beckmann after World War I. In one place Don Van Vliet will operate like a child; in another he will try to capture the figure approximately as an academically trained person might aim to do – even if all that is achieved is the correct drawing of a silhouette. He makes no attempt to overcome these inconsistencies in his approach to the figure, or to space; this is what gives his painting its idiosyncratic rawness, and consequently its range of possibilities.

In painting, as in his music, Don Van Vliet clings to his idiosyncrasies. His voice never merely interprets a tune; it gives reality to the most important part of his music, one that is impossible to record in musical notation. The corresponding feature of his painting is the way in which both his material and his own ability hold out against all ease of manipulation. The surface of the painting – sounding-board and performance space rolled into one – deploys this resistance and makes it visible.

The same resistance permeates the figures and the spaces, where it is perceived as their pull or ‘tug’. In the painting Copper Diver, 1985, this tugging and pressing force has shaped the brownish-red area in the centre into a sculptural form, seen from all sides, that looms out into the pictorial space, like a vase; beneath it the same tug can be detected in the bulky legs of some dark, indefinable animal, which seem to offer themselves to be grasped. In Crepe and Black Lamps, 1986, the converse takes place. Here the space turns around the figure: the blue woman who stretches her great head forward, as if in a dance, suggests to us that we are looking at her from below and from above, simultaneously. She sprawls at an angle to the picture, and the ‘tug’ that runs through the picture appears all around her, as if the space itself were in flight.

The relatively clear definition of figure or ground areas is countered by their tendency to dissolve. Ghosts – wraithlike apparitions, or diaphanous and well-nigh dematerialised phantoms like the crouching devil in Ghost Gait, Ghost Gate accompany the disintegration of the figures to the point where they are totally assimilated into the ground against which they move, so that virtually no sign of any finite body remains (Black Twig, 1991). Ultimately, the picture plane is reduced to a field covered with tracks; the painting seems to have been dismantled, so that its elements retain only a loose association. No cautious quest here: all is movement, energy, bursts of light. All of the details belong within this play of colour, in which the existing world looks around to find itself newly put together: harsh, vigorous assertions of meanings that spring from active observation of the world.

One astonishing phenomenon in Don Van Vliet’s painting is his use of white paint. The white areas are not bare canvas, as one might have expected, but are painted and modelled with as much variety of impasto as the coloured parts of the paintings. We have observed the energy and bodily presence of his surfaces and figures, and have traced them to the point of dissolution. With Don Van Vliet, therefore, a lack of spatial or figurative definition can never lead to a vacuum, whether of space or of energy: a smooth, whitewashed canvas. Where other American artists have sought neutrality and have created purity, Don Van Vliet looks for something more than surfaces that will reflect the motion and temperature of his colours. He seeks a definition of matter and a quality of energy that will mix well with objective motion or even transform itself into local colour.

The white gleams like snow, and one might imagine all the paintings to be set in snow-covered landscapes, especially as Don Van Vliet uses white so often and, of late, more and more conspicuously. But that would be too objective a reading of the colour, based solely on the way the white emphasises the freshness, brightness. and clarity of the colour range. With equal clarity, white casts a cold shadow across the paintings and creates a misty light; it is as if memories of bones and skulls were to encompass the entire space, even rubbing the gloss off the outlines of dancing human beings.

Don Van Vliet’s painting brings up an old prejudice. The reproach most hurled at him, and at all art of this kind, is that of its patent simplicity of means. In unsought alliance with all the conservative and populist adversaries of modernism, the modernist critics proclaim that this utopia of insouciant, of childlike sensuousness, this cosmos that excludes the laws of social life and of work, cannot be real and must not affect us. It lacks, or so they maintain, any awareness of the more complex mechanisms of modern life: of its new media, materials, and technologies.

Many theorists are equally suspicious of the accessibility of the work of art. They become highly suspicious and talk as if the artist were simply bringing in fruit that was his for the plucking. There is plenty of evidence that this is far from the truth; but those who reject this kind of art have rid themselves not only of illusions of their own making but of their own capacity for fascination. They confront the works with no point of reference to hand, and see them primarily as a commodity, equipped with marketable attributes.

Adherents of the more serious concepts of art have never yet succeeded in keeping admiration for the works that they favour entirely separate from a degree of quiet respect for technical skill: the outward gloss of an object without a pedestal. Nor can they ever really tell which factor impresses them more strongly: is it respect for the craftsmanship, or admiration for the idea?

Simple painting leaves no room for this initial reflex of respect. It offers the unprepared eye no such hierarchical certainties; indeed, the first thing it tells us – wrongly, but that is beside the point – is that anyone could paint such a picture. This is painting that addresses perception and its experiences directly; it touches the viewer in a way so immediate as to resist all qualification or proof. Painting does this more successfully than other art, and certainly with more impact, supplying an instant utopian payoff – and prompting an equally prompt, spontaneous, and unmotivated rejection. Most experts are adept at this. Sooner than they themselves – in a revolutionary age – might wish, they allow their ignorance or uncertainty to flip over into irritation; they pass a verdict that has the effect of releasing them from the embarrassment of having to stand in front of the painting. In such cases the critical phase, in front of the painting, still exists: it guarantees one instant of openness, through which the painting seeks to make its effect.

There is much talk of the freedom inherent in this simplicity; people often take fright, some because they fear their own desires (or, to judge from some of the things they say, because they fear their children’s desires) and others because they feel it wrong to have things too easy. But this freedom – or freedom in any cliched, conflict-free sense – is neither present, nor intended, nor detectable. This, too, is evident from the paintings of Don Van Vliet. First and foremost, these are paintings of conflict, struggle, and attack. They are about elements of joy, and also about the menaces, both trivial and deadly, that are implied by the presence of any animal in another’s space. This is painting that transforms itself: painting that holds itself in the viewer’s visual field without instantly being known and vanishing away.

– Roberto Ohrt

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