Captain Beefheart / Don Van Vliet

active between 1965 and 1985


Don Van Vliet

born 1941 as Don Glen Vliet in Glendale, California; died 2010 in Arcata, California

Active as a musician between 1965 and 1982 under the artist’s name Captain Beefheart (and His/the Magic Band)

Active as a painter from circa 1985 with numerous solo exhibitions (for example in the Michael Werner Gallery)

Visual Arts and Music

Visual Arts and Music

Don Van Vliet once said that painting should »hug and shake« its beholders. And: »If a painting does not disturb me, I scrap it.« When he said this in 1991, Van Vliet had long since given up his career as a musician under the pseudonym Captain Beefheart, in favor of a far more lucrative career as a painter. His last music recording had appeared in 1982, and he entered the art business around 1985.

This quotation indicates an attitude that underlies his work in all media—be it music, painting, or poetry (song lyrics). Listeners and beholders should be touched physically, transferred into exalted states, even experience convulsions—this was the artistic approach that Beefheart’s deconstruction of blues and rock had vehemently taken since the mid-1960s. At the same time, this attitude also denoted Van Vliet’s »discomfort« with the world of the fine arts, whose frequently inconsequential products he wished to counter with his own strongly gestural painting.


Van Vliet did not shift his attention from music to painting consecutively, as if the hoped-for (and achieved) success in the one medium were a compensation for the lack of acceptance in the other. He had always worked in both media simultaneously, although for a long time his public persona was completely defined by his role as a musician. Occasionally, his distracted drip paintings were used on LP covers, such as an abstract bird-like insect on the back of Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), ruffled portraits of his band members on The Spotlight Kid (1972), and two pink and wild-headed animal-human hybrids on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978).

Looking back, sometimes the differences between the two forms of art practiced by Van Vliet are emphasized, but the criteria used—which see the one form (music) as composed according to strict rules and thus conceptual, and the other (painting) as spontaneous and thus intuitive—do not stand up to scrutiny. It is rather the case that this apparent opposition between the conceptual and the intuitive is found in both Van Vliet’s music and his painting. He explained the inherently contradictory nature of his painting as follows: »I’m trying to turn myself inside out on the canvas. I’m trying to completely bare what I think at that moment, yet I put a lot of thought into what I’m doing . . . it sounds like a contradiction, but . . .« This turning himself inside out, which is not about some kind of authentic inner self, this complete openness, which is also highly intellectual, can be seen as the common and characteristic principle in Van Vliet’s painting, music, and poetry. That music and painting are seen to dominate different periods in Beefheart’s/Van Vliet’s life is probably due to the readiness of the two fields to accept his work, rather than any profound media-specific distinction.

Author: Christian Höller

In the Exhibition

In the Exhibition

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

Cannes, beach opposite Hotel Martinez, 2nd Midem Pop Festival, 1968, with Captain Beefheart (voc.), Alex St. Clair Snouffer (guit.), Jeff Cotton (guit.), Jerry Handley (bass guit.), John French (dr.), 3:41 min.

In its second edition in early 1968, the Midem music fair, founded in 1967, was brave enough to allow Captain Beefheart to perform on the beach at Cannes, opposite the Martinez hotel. Under the ironic title »Cœur de bœuf sur le sable,« a recording was made for the French TV show Bouton Rouge, and this recording survives today. The Magic Band played two songs from the first Beefheart LP Safe as Milk (1967), Electricity, and Sure ’Nuff ’n Yes I Do, with their highly accentuated and syncopated jumpy blues parodies, while the Captain, wearing his signature top hat, masterfully mistreats the syllables, elongating them in all directions. »Eeelectriiiciiitiiie«—with his onomatopoeic and hacked poetry, Beefheart’s voice tries to woo the audience on the beach promenade. Chewed through and through, and thoroughly shaken up, the soundbites drop like pastose drops of oil paint onto a canvas whose surface is illuminated by the sun.


Christian Höller