After Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart retired from music in the 80s, he concentrated on his newfound career as an internationally recognized abstract painter and gradually became more and more reclusive. One of the few glimpses of Van Vliet during the ’90s is in Anton Corbijn’s 13 minute poetic 1993 documentary, Some Yo Yo Stuff, which features features him talking about life, philosophy, music and art. Van Vliet’s mother and David Lynch make appearances in the film as well.
“Don Van Vliet ( born Don Glen Vliet; January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010) was an American singer, songwriter, musician and artist best known by the stage name Captain Beefheart.
Throughout his musical career, Van Vliet remained interested in visual art. He placed his paintings, often reminiscent of Franz Kline’s, on several of his albums. In 1987, Van Vliet published Skeleton Breath, Scorpion Blush, a collection of his poetry, paintings and drawings.
In the mid-1980s, Van Vliet became reclusive and abandoned music, stating he had gotten “too good at the horn”and could make far more money painting. Beefheart’s first exhibition had been at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Gallery during the Magic Band’s 1972 tour of the UK. He was interviewed on Granada regional television standing in front of his bold black and white canvases. He was inspired to begin an art career when a fan, Julian Schnabel, who admired the artwork seen on his album covers, asked to buy a drawing from him. His debut exhibition as a serious painter was at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York in 1985 and was initially regarded as that of “…another rock musician dabbling in art for ego’s sake”, though his primitive, non-conformist work has received more sympathetic and serious attention since then, with some sales approaching $25,000. Two books have been published specifically devoted to critique and analysis of his artwork: Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh: On The Arts Of Don Van Vliet (1999) by W.C. Bamberger and Stand Up To Be Discontinued, first published in 1993, a now rare collection of essays on Van Vliet’s work. The limited edition version of the book contains a CD of Van Vliet reading six of his poems: Fallin’ Ditch, The Tired Plain, Skeleton Makes Good, Safe Sex Drill, Tulip and Gill. A deluxe edition was published in 1994; only 60 were printed, with etchings of Van Vliet’s signature, costing £180.
In the early 1980s Van Vliet established an association with the Michael Werner Gallery. Eric Feldman stated later in an interview that at that time Michael Werner told Van Vliet he needed to stop playing music if he wanted to be respected as a painter, warning him that otherwise he would only be considered a “…musician who paints”. In doing so, it was said that he had effectively “succeeded in leaving his past behind”. Gordon Veneklasen, one of the gallery’s directors in 1995 described Van Vliet as an “incredible painter” whose work “doesn’t really look like anybody else’s work but his own”. Van Vliet has been described as a modernist, a primitivist, an abstract expressionist, and, “in a sense” an outsider artist. Morgan Falconer of Artforum concurs, mentioning both a “neo-primitivist aesthetic” and further stating that his work is influenced by the CoBrA painters.The resemblance to the CoBrA painters is also recognized by art critic Roberto Ohrt, while others have compared his paintings to the work of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Antonin Artaud, Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh and Mark Rothko.
According to Dr. John Lane, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in 1997, although Van Vliet’s work has associations with mainstream abstract expressionist painting, more importantly he was a self-taught artist and his painting “has that same kind of edge the music has”. Curator David Breuer asserts that in contrast to the busied, bohemian urban lives of the New York abstract expressionists, the rural desert environment Van Vliet was influenced by is a distinctly naturalistic one, making him a distinguished figure in contemporary art, whose work will survive in canon. Van Vliet stated of his own work, “I’m trying to turn myself inside out on the canvas. I’m trying to completely bare what I think at that moment” and that, “I paint for the simple reason that I have to. I feel a sense of relief after I do.” When asked about his artistic influences he stated that there were none. “I just paint like I paint and that’s enough influence.” He did however state his admiration of Georg Baselitz, the De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian, and Vincent van Gogh; after seeing van Gogh’s paintings in person, Van Vliet quoted himself as saying that, “The sun disappoints me so.”
Exhibits of his paintings from the late 1990s at both the Anton Kern and Michael Werner Galleries of New York City received favorable reviews, the most recent of which were held between 2009 and 2010. Falconer stated that the most recent exhibitions showed “evidence of a serious, committed artist”. It was claimed that he stopped painting in the late 1990s. A 2007 interview with Van Vliet through email by Anthony Haden-Guest, however, showed him to still be active artistically. He exhibited only few of his paintings because he immediately destroyed any that did not satisfy him.
After his retirement from music, Van Vliet rarely appeared in public. He resided near Trinidad, California, with his wife Janet “Jan” Van Vliet. By the early 1990s he was using a wheelchair as a result of multiple sclerosis. The severity of his illness was sometimes disputed. Many of his art contractors and friends considered him to be in good health. Other associates such as his longtime drummer and musical director John French and bassist Richard Snyder have stated that they had noticed symptoms consistent with the onset of multiple sclerosis, such as sensitivity to heat, loss of balance, and stiffness of gait, by the late 1970s.
One of Van Vliet’s last public appearances was in the 1993 short documentary Some Yo Yo Stuff by filmmaker Anton Corbijn, described as an “observation of his observations”. Around 13 minutes and shot entirely in black and white, with appearances by his mother and David Lynch, the film showed a noticeably weakened and dysarthric Van Vliet at his residence in California, reading poetry, and philosophically discussing his life, environment, music and art. In 2000, he appeared on Gary Lucas’ album Improve the Shining Hour and Moris Tepper’s Moth to Mouth, and spoke on Tepper’s 2004 song “Ricochet Man” from the album Head Off. He is credited for naming Tepper’s 2010 album A Singer Named Shotgun Throat.
Van Vliet often voiced concern over and support for environmentalist issues and causes, particularly the welfare of animals. He often referred to Earth as “God’s Golfball” and this expression can be found on a number of his later albums. In 2003 he was heard on the compilation album Where We Live: Stand for What You Stand On: A Benefit CD for EarthJustice singing a version of “Happy Birthday to You” retitled “Happy Earthday”. The track lasts 34 seconds and was recorded over the telephone”