Don Van Vliet—better known as the late, great rock singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Captain Beefheart, who collaborated with the equally gifted guitarist and composer Frank Zappa in the 1970s—made visual art even as he was establishing himself as one of the most experimental and inspired musicians in rock and roll. He turned exclusively to drawing and painting in the 1980s (gallerist Michael Werner has shown Van Vliet’s work from that time until the artist’s death in 2010).
Spanning works on paper made over a twenty-year period, this excellent exhibition is Van Vliet’s first New York solo show in a decade. Like his wild and ecstatic music, these drawings and paintings—mostly raw, disorderly aggregates of sprawling lines and patches of color—communicate an intensity that borders on the hostile. But this aggression—and renunciation of good taste—deepens the art. Van Vliet’s work relates to both a history of American gestural abstraction and to outsider art but is reducible to neither. It would be hard to place Van Vliet within any mainstream body of American art. Ever since the rebellious achievements of the Abstract Expressionists, American art has maintained a cult of expression for its own sake. Van Vliet is an American original in this tradition, even if he is too sophisticated be considered a naïve artist.
An untitled work from 1986, made with India ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper, is a pure abstraction composed of colors sitting atop each other: red upon white upon black upon red. It is simple yet powerful and emotive. A later work, from 1999, again untitled, is a chaotic mess of scrawls spread across the page (one is reminded of Cy Twombly). In the background, there is a formless mass of brown lines, on top of which are black scribbles that seem arbitrarily imposed on the inchoate patches beneath. It is hard to judge the achievement of a work like this. On one hand, Van Vliet’s almost anarchic expressiveness crowds out any sense of a measured decision-making, approaching a field of free movement. On the other, its disorganization seems a conscious choice rather than an extemporaneous outpouring of feeling. Regardless of the artist’s conscious or unconscious intent, he is a poet of unconstrained energies.
Van Vliet’s compositions tend toward the embryonic and atmospheric, but the exhibition also includes some primitive treatments of people that are all the more moving for their rough candor. There is a beautiful black-and-gray study of a head and truncated body, a small India ink and gouache on paper from 1985 that shows a round face descending into an angular chin. The face is mostly painted black, with a gray outline painted behind it. The body, seemingly seated or even crippled, is painted black and brown. Though its primitivism might be dismissed as mannered, it is an extremely simple and direct painting, without preciousness or affectation. Another very good untitled work from 1985, done with India ink on paper, shows a black figure with white eyes and a white slit of a mouth. The left arm is raised above the head, while the right arm, torso, and legs converge in a muddle bordering on abstraction. Ghostlike despite being black in color, the personage resonates in ways that elude conscious reason.
It can be argued that art like Van Vliet’s repudiates historical culture in favor of direct communication and uncultivated transcendence. This is a stance beloved to American artists even today, when such posturing no longer carries the weight that it once did. There is by now a tradition that rejects historical culture in favor of spontaneity, improvisation, and feeling. As Van Vliet’s work reveals, this type of studied wildness can result in art of genuine achievement.