Circles Don't Fly, They Float

The art of Don Van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart


The Californian-born artist Don Van Vliet (1941-2010) first started exhibiting professionally in the mid-1980s, however the world had already had a glimpse of his abstract expressionist style on the album covers released under his stage name Captain Beefheart.   


As a singer, songwriter, poet and multi-instrumentalist, Captain Beefheart recorded 13 studio albums alongside a rotating line-up known as The Magic Band between 1967 and 1982; often with frankly weird titles such as Trout Mask Replica (and its memorable album cover), Big Eyed Beans from Venus, and Old Fart At Play.  Despite having only limited commercial success, his unique blend of blues, jazz and rock rhythms along with outlandish lyrics sung in a loud, rough voice, would attract a devoted fanbase and be a major influence on recording artists as diverse as the Clash, DEVO, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey and  John Lydon of The Sex Pistols.  



Van Vliet's first love however, was visual art; a passion which he had held since early childhood when he was a prodigal sculptor of animal figures and was awarded several scholarship offers (which his parents declined).  Thankfully, he never lost his interest in art, and returned to the form professionally after abandoning music (and his stage name) in the 1980s.  Unsurprisingly, his work was eccentric and hugely influenced by nature; in particular, the wild desert areas of California to which he retired.   He was highly prescient with his concern about environmental issues, particularly animal welfare.  




Our 15th March Twentieth Art & Design auction includes a lot which comprises a collection of Van Vliet exhibition catalogues, books and ephemera, spanning the artist's works from the mid-'80s through to just a couple of years before his untimely death from complications with multiple sclerosis in 2010.  It is a fabulous compilation including rare and limited edition pieces as well as a catalogue for his first UK exhibition at London's Waddington Galleries in 1986 signed 'Terry & Jan love Don' (thought to be his cousin Terry Van Vliet and partner Jan Keller).  Many of the catalogues and invitation flyers are from the Michael Werner Gallery, which remained Van Vliet's gallerist and champion throughout his life, and whose London venue has very recently held an exhibition of his early works entitled Standing on One Hand. 


Our vendor, an avid fan who has collected the pieces over many years, states that: 

"Before I was aware of Don Van Vliet the artist, the music of Captain Beefheart entered my world like a deafening freight train.  I was captivated by the energy, the outlandish lyrics and the gruff vocals that went anywhere from raw emotion to screeching mayhem.  What appealed most was the sense of freedom.  It felt no need to conform to any particular music style or to musicality itself or indeed to contain any music at all.  It represented the pursuit of artistic endeavour, not the pursuit of billboard success.  For me, the art of Don Van Vliet delivers much the same; another facet of the same artistic mind.  The screeching is replaced by calmer blobs of colour.  Don Van Vliet the artist is unconstrained by style or by representation or by anything much.  His art goes beyond, it questions what people are looking for when they observe art, and why.  I have been collecting Don Van Vliet art ephemera from all over the world, because the importance of his works demands it.  It needs to be understood in the context of the great artists and the art movements of the 20th Century. "


Van Vliet's reputation as an artist has grown considerably over the years and his works are now garnering serious attention removed from his musical persona of earlier decades.  This collection is an incredible overview into the artist's career and allows a real deep-dive into not just his visual art, but also his poetry and biography, as well as the deserved appreciation which his unconventional work now achieves.  As the man himself once said: "I'd never just want to do what everybody else did. I'd be contributing to the sameness of everything."


The auction will take place on Friday 15th March, with viewing on Thursday 14th 10am-7pm.  Full catalogue available from the beginning of March. 


Lot description: 

Don Van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart (1941-2010) - a collection of exhibition catalogues, books and ephemera, to include limited editions and rare out of print examples, comprising;

two catalogues for Don Van Vliet 1986, his first UK exhibition at London's Waddington Galleries in 1986, one hand-inscribed to the first page 'Terry & Jan love Don' (thought to be his cousin Terry Van Vliet and partner Jan Keller);

a limited edition hardback copy of Stand Up To Be Discontinued with CD, published by Cantz 1993, ISBN 3-9801320-3-X;

a framed card invitation to the private view of Stand Up To Be Discontinued: The Art of Don Van Vliet at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery Friday 2nd September 1994;

two copies of the exhibition brochure for New Work in association with Michael Werner Gallery, November 11th - December 5th 1998, Knoedler & Company, New York;

a framed folded paper invite to God’s Empty Socks and Other Paintings, Michael Werner Gallery, New York, 25th January - 18th March 1995;

a paperback copy of Paintings and Poems for Anton Kern Gallery, New York, and Michael Werner Gallery, Cologne and New York, 2007, with introduction by Polly Jean (PJ) Harvey;

a paperback copy of DON VAN VLIET 1986/89 (in German) for Galerie Frank Hänel of Frankfurt/Main, 1990;

a small hardbook exhibition catalogue Don Van Vliet for Michael Werner Gallery, New York, 1991, with introduction by John Yau;

paperback exhibition catalogue for Don Van Vliet Paintings and Drawings, Fred Hoffman Gallery, Santa Monica, 31 July – 8 September 1990;

a paperback copy of Skeleton Breath, Scorpion Blush, a selection of paintings and poems, with introduction in German by A.R. Penck (Ralf Winkler), published by Verlag Gachnang & Springer, Bern & Berlin, 1987, ISBN 3-906127-15-X;

five folded paper art work exhibition flyers in corresponding Galerie Micheal Werner stamped envelopes, the flyers being of Castfat Shadows for Bilder und Zeichnungen (1991), Parapliers the Willow Dipped for Neue Arbeiten (1988), White Crepe Boat for Neue Bilder 1988-1990, Ohne Titel for Bilder 1985-1987, and A.R.Penck, 1985, Filzstift for Bilder und Zeichnungen; together with one flyer lacking envelope of Circles Don't Fly, They Float 1 (1993 exhibition);

card exhibition invitations from Galerie Michael Werner (1993, 1996 and 2007) and another folded image of Crepe and Black Lamps for Anton Kern Gallery (2007);

two framed exhibition flyers from Galerie Michael Werner, being Castfat Shadpws for Bilder und Zeichnungen (1991), and Circles Don't Fly, They Float 1 (1993 exhibition)

paperback volumes comprising Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh: On the Arts of Don Van Vliet by W.C. Bamberger, Alap Editions, second printing 2000, ISBN 0-917453-3-52; Captain Beefheart: The Man and His Music second revised edition by C.D. Webb, Kawabata Press, 1989, ISBN 0 906110 61 0; Fast & Bulbous – The Captain Beefheart Story by Ben Cruikshank, Agenda, 1996, ISBN 1 899882 25 1; Captain Beefheart Tin Teardrop by Ken Brooks, Agenda, 2000; and Captain Mask Replica Vita e are di Don VCan Vliet / Captain Beefheart by Francesco Nunziata (in Italian), arcana, 2017 (this printing 2022), ISBN 978-88-6231-453-4

Estimate £700-900


Sign up to hear about forthcoming auctions, news and featured lots


Please be assured that we will never pass your details on to third parties and you can unsubscribe at any point.