Growing up in Glendale, California, Van Vliet gained notoriety as a sculptor of life-like animal forms depicted in clay. He would continue to draw, paint and sculpt throughout his life, and in later years painted works which could be compared to Georg Baselitz and Jean–Michel Basquiat. In the early 1960s music became his main passion. Performing under the stage name Captain Beefheart, together with his Magic Band Don Van Vliet produced a number of highly unconventional blues- and rock-inspired albums.
He also collaborated with Frank Zappa a friend that he attended high school with. Van Vliet ultimately secured a place in music history as one of the most original recording artists of his day. After two decades in the spotlight, as an avant-garde rock composer and performer, Don Van Vliet turned his back on the music industry and from the early 1980s devoted his creative efforts to painting. He fused naturalistic imagery with lush, painterly passages of vivid abstraction; the paintings of Don Van Vliet defy simple categorization.
As his fellow artist and long-time admirer A.R. Penck once observed: Deep from the sphere of sub-consciousness appear images of the demonic animalist of man. They oscillated between classic seriousness and a detached ironic view of the ego’s dependence upon instincts. The works employed broad gestures, bold and uncommon colours and an imaginative subjectivity reminiscent of mid-century New York School abstract painting and the CoBrA group of artists. Don Van Vliet injected those legacies with his own unique vision, a kind of homespun surrealism born of the lore of the American desert and the artist’s own inspired visions, alternately whimsical and nightmarish. He passed away from complications thought to have been Multiple Sclerosis related, spending his last years in a house with attached studio on the Pacific Ocean at Trinidad, California, which he shared with his wife, Jan, whom he married in 1970.