Published  05/01/2024

Don Van Vliet: Standing on One Hand

Don Van Vliet: Standing on One Hand

An exhibition of oil paintings by the artist formerly known as Captain Beefheart has a strange allure, as long as you don’t think too hard

Don Van Vliet: Standing on One Hand, installation view, Michael Werner Gallery, London, 23 November 2023 - 17 February 2024. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

Michael Werner Gallery, London
23 November 2023 – 17 February 2024


In 1980, gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs found Don Van Vliet (1941-2010) living in a trailer in the Mojave Desert. The 39-year-old musician, better known as Captain Beefheart, had fallen on hard times. But maybe the times before had not been particularly good. He was already a cult icon. His records, in particular the 80-minute-long magnum opus Trout Mask Replica, were passed around with hushed admiration, music to blow your mind. But his distinctive style – part blues-based rock, but cut with free jazz, atonal modern composition and Van Vliet’s incantatory, free association vocals – was several miles from the mainstream. He alienated his Magic Band with despotic behaviour and unpaid wages.

Don Van Vliet, Ibex, 1986. Oil on canvas, 214 x 153 cm (84 1/4 x 60 1/4 in). © The Estate of the Artist. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

Hope sprang from the desert. Before he was a musician, Van Vliet had been an artist (or so he claimed – his biography is tangled up in self-mythology). He said he had begun to paint and sculpt at the age of three, locking himself in his room and forcing his parents to feed him through the door. His sculptures of animals attracted particular attention, winning competitions and landing him a spot on TV – again according to Van Vliet himself. He even claimed to have become a lecturer at an art school when he was 13. Things shifted when he met Frank Zappa as a teenager. The pair would listen to records together. The rest is avant garde rock history.

In 1982, he retired from music. Having exhausted his musical ambitions, Van Vliet turned to art, although he had never really stopped. The cover of his 1978 album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) features a painting similar to those he would produce in the following decades. His transition from musician to painter was smoothed by his numerous art world admirers. By the mid-80s he was represented by Michael Werner, whose London gallery now hosts an exhibition of his oil paintings. One story has it that Werner himself convinced him to retire Beefheart for good and devote himself to painting. It would prove a financially prudent decision. Painting ended Van Vliet’s years of precariousness and took him out of the trailer.

Don Van Vliet, Feather Times a Feather, 1987. Oil on linen. 162 x 130 cm (63 3/4 x 51 1/4 in). © The Estate of the Artist. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

The art establishment was less convinced that this outsider musician should be a painter. A 1988-89 show at San Francisco MoMA was received with hostility. Its curator, Jack Lane, recalled: “The local art community said, ‘Well, why did you do that show? It’s terrible. We hate this work.’” Many artists, on the other hand, responded well to Van Vliet’s work. It chimed with the neo-expressionists, whose German branch Werner did much to promote. AR Penck and Julian Schnabel were noted fans. The admiration was mutual.

It is not difficult to see why his work proved so divisive, even beyond the snobbery over the idea that a rock musician could metamorphose into a serious artist. He dropped out of an art course at community college after one year, and you can tell: his paintings are the opposite of technically rigorous. He often depicted animals – in continuity with his childhood sculptures – in a manner that resembling cave painting. They seem to have the illogic of dreams. There is seldom a clear perspective, but instead a tangle of figures, objects and patches of apparent abstraction. They are messy, with some patches of the canvas heavily worked over and others left bare. An unkind critic could call his work the epitome of “my child could do that” painting, smeary and naive.

Don Van Vliet, Crow Dance a Panther, 1988. Oil on canvas, 72 x 62.5 cm (28 1/4 x 24 1/2 in). © The Estate of the Artist. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

Van Vliet was no outsider artist or idiot savant. Art saturated his life and occupied his mind. When Bangs phoned him to talk about his new record, he instead started praising the Guggenheim’s hang of Franz Kline’s Painting No 7 (1952). His own work does not have the suggestive depth of the best abstract expressionism, where one’s mind can be subsumed into the spatters and splotches of paint. Nor does it have the painterly sophistication of many neo-expressionists, whose rawness often belied their technical proficiency.

Nevertheless, there is something striking about his paintings. They are not only interesting because of the music that came before. Though there are deliberate echoes – China Pig (1986-87) shares the name of a track from Trout Mask Replica, to name just one. And some of his paintings contain the same sort of surrealist juxtapositions that inform his lyrics. There might be a parallel, too, in the way Beefheart’s music mushed and reformulated American music into a hare-brained burlesque. Van Vliet presents the Mojave landscape, with its coyotes and cacti, as a phantasmagorical mirror to its real self – although that hardly explains the presence of non-native wildlife such as ibex, monkeys and sloths.

Don Van Vliet, A Bride for Wallah, 1986. Oil on canvas, 213 x 122 cm (83 3/4 x 48 in). © The Estate of the Artist. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London.

For the San Francisco MoMA show, Lane linked Van Vliet to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s uncorrupted savage: “Van Vliet advocates embracing nature and relocating man in a position that stems from natural order rather than an imposed hierarchy.” Perhaps. They do certainly seem to remove the hierarchy between observed things and those from the subconscious. Ultimately, Van Vliet’s painting resists easy analysis just as Beefheart’s music has proven inscrutable to generations of music writers. “As reviews over the years have proved it’s always difficult to write anything that really says something about Don Van Vliet,” wrote Bangs. And perhaps it is its inscrutability that gives his art a strange allure.

Correction: A reference to captain Beefheart threatening people with a loaded crossbow has been removed as it was incorrect. In fact, Beefheart himself was threatened with a crossbow by a disgruntled band member.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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