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I Am Drugs: Mati Klarwein’s art for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew casts a long, strange spell

BY MIN CHEN


For all the hallucinogenic, kaleidoscopic quality of his canvases, for an artist that thrived during the acid rock heyday between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the late Mati Klarwein never once painted while on psychedelics. His polychromatic landscapes and surreal images sprung directly, it seemed, from the man’s own fervid imagination, if not his multicultural background (born in Hamburg, he grew up in Palestine). On this, he was wont to quote his acquaintance, Salvador Dalí: “I don’t take drugs. I am drugs.”

Viewers of his art might concur. Klarwein painted sweeping fever dreams where myth, meaning, race, religion, gender, heaven, and earth are collapsed into phantasmagorical scenes that bespeak revolutionary liberty and desire. As he once stated, “The esoteric and cosmic consciousness is a powerful antidote to the crass mainstream consumerism that is drowning us all.” His name-making Crucifixion (1963-65) was a hypnotic feast of unearthly delights, and the intoxicatingly divine air of 1961’s Annunciation so struck Carlos Santana that he very much had to have it on the sleeve of his million-selling 1970 hit Abraxas.

Abraxas by Santana, 1970, featuring Annunciation by Mati Klarwein, 1961.

But if there was a sound to match the scope of Klarwein’s work, it was Miles Davis who supplied it. At the turn of the ‘60s, the bandleader and trumpeter was in the process of dismantling the organs of jazz, and fusing them with elements of rock and psychedelia to birth a form untethered from stricture or tradition. No one had an appropriate label for the explosive results of Davis’ experiment. Drummer Lenny White ventured, “African-American classical music—a combination of the harmonic language developed in the West over several hundreds of years, played from an African-American perspective, with an African-American approach to rhythm.” Miles simply called it Bitches Brew (with the subtitle, “Directions in Music”) and Klarwein, commissioned to paint its cover, duly supplied the visual equivalent.

His piece defied both simplification and explication. Made up of multiple planes, the work seems to divide or unite black and white, land and space, man and nature. The ocean roils, lightning strikes, a figure in tribal garb sneers, a clump of petals burns in the center of the canvas, and a young man broods in a serene corner.

Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, 1970, art by Mati Klarwein.

The whole thing is so arcane and impenetrable that to attempt to apply significance to it is as futile and silly as classifying Davis’ outing or untangling the mysteries of the cosmos. “I like to paint images that are forever receding from so-called objective discourse,” Klarwein claimed; and with Bitches Brew, he succeeded in outrunning serious critique (his art has never been acquired by museums or institutions, but it resonates throughout Afrofuturism and in a recent example, on Kamasi Washington’s latest sleeve). Instead, the work’s implications and meaning, like any drug experience, requires an entirely subjective effort.

Ultimately, what his painting does best here is thoroughly represent the unrepresentable contents and spirit of Bitches Brew, requiring in its viewer the same receptive consciousness as the album—with its discordant rhythms, wayward abstraction, and disparate styles—asks of its listener. “Some visual artworks are made to be talked about more than to be seen, others are made to be seen more than to be talked about,” said the artist. “I think I belong in the latter category.” And so, we continue to see.

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