Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band,1972
French radio interviewer in 1972: “In your music—and even if you don’t agree—there are a whole lot of influences from blues and free jazz. Do you listen to people like Albert Ayler or Sun Ra?”
Captain Beefheart: “No. I myself am an artist too, you see. I’ll tell you once again: I have i-ma-gi-na-ti-on…. It isn’t polluted, and believe me, people have always tried to put labels on me…. What’s the story with that? ‘Blues’ and ‘jazz’? The more often people say it, the more difficult it gets for me to come here. It took five years to play here in Europe, because the critics had written I was sort of avant-garde, jazz, blues and such. It’s wrong. I am an artist; just like Albert Ayler is one, like Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. i know John Lee Hooker and even in my boldest imagination, I can’t see myself using the music of Hooker, Ayler or anyone else. Why should i do that, when I have so much myself? You have heard it tonight—so why all those classifications? Tell it to the Rolling Stones, to the Beatles, the Jefferson Airplane—but not to me!”
The late Don Van Vliet, the artist who was formerly known as Captain Beefheart, was always an extremely prolific visual artist from a very early age. By the age of ten he was already being recognized regionally in Southern California for his life-like clay sculptures of animals, and was considered a bit of a child prodigy. He was still creating art throughout his career as a musician, and many of his paintings and sketches have appeared on his album covers. In the early 1980s Van Vliet gave up music entirely and concentrated on making fine art until his death in 2010.
The Michael Werner Gallery in Manhattan has a new exhibition of Van Vliet’s works on paper. The exhibition of smaller work—drawings and paintings on paper from the 1980s through 2000—is the first solo showing of Van Vliet’s art in New York City for a decade.
The artist’s bracingly stark and decidedly naive primitive style of abstract expressionism (as opposed to a more sophisticated abstract primitivism represented by the likes of say, Jean-Michel Basquiat) was highly influenced by the landscape, plants and animals of his home in the California desert. The earliest pieces in the show are abstracts rendered in watercolor and gouache, while work from his later years tends to leave the paintbrush behind for colored pencils
Whereas I’m a huge fan of Van Vliet’s massive paintings—and have seen them in person several times—I’m less sold on these smaller works. His large canvasses are absolutely awe-inspiring and have an oddball power to them. They are huge and they are as weird as they are huge. These works on paper are simply less impressive than their gigantic counterparts, if admittedly I am judging them off a computer screen. If some of these were nine feet tall, and slathered with paint and texture, then I’d say yeah.
Still, some of them are quite interesting, even if, as it would appear, most of the really good Van Vliets have probably already been sold a long, long time ago. The show is open through September 9th at the Michael Werner Gallery.
“Untitled”, 1987, India ink, gouache on paper 30 x 22 1/2 inches
“Untitled”, 1985, India ink, gouache on paper, 10 x 7 inches
“Untitled”, 1985, India ink on paper, 7 x 10 inches
“Untitled”, 1986, India ink, gouache, watercolor on paper, 16 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches
“Untitled”, 1985, India ink, crayon on paper, 10 x 7 inches
“Untitled”, 1990, India ink, gouache, gold pigment on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 inches
Gallery installation view
Below, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band on France’s ‘Pop2’ TV program in 1972