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Lurid Imaginings

Mati Klarwein

Autumn Whitehurst

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/25/2002

It is one of the classic discovery anecdotes, all the better for apparently being true. In 1960, jazz pianist Yusef Lateef received a painting from a fan calling himself Abdul Mati. The painting--a protopsychedelic portrait of the musician immersed in flowers--impressed Lateef, who wrote back to the artist with compliments and offers of space on future album covers. When Abdul Mati finally approached Lateef after a performance in New York, Lateef studiously ignored the painter's attempts to introduce himself, shunning him entirely. It seems that the pianist was unprepared for the notion that the Abdul who had put all that exotic soulfulness on canvas in his honor was, in reality, a skinny white German guy, born Matthias Klarwein.

While the promised Lateef album-cover gig never materialized, others did. There was something about Klarwein's colorful cosmic fantasias, where images and symbols of all the world's cultures cavort across the picture plane, that captured the all-embracing, outward-bound musical zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Klarwein's work ended up decorating several of the most popular (and memorable) album covers of the era. The black odalisque recumbent amid Klimt-like detailing on the cover of Santana's Latino-psych classic Abraxas. The mysterious Afro-centric tableau that spans the exterior of Miles Davis' fusion landmark Bitches Brew. The pregnant space-age tribeswoman sharing space with a J. Edgar Hoover-lookalike in Lewis Carroll drag on Davis' Live-Evil sleeve.

Despite his Teutonic heritage, Klarwein came by his extravagant one-world imagery honestly. Born in 1932 in Hamburg, he soon fled Nazi Germany with his parents and landed in Palestine, where, as he later described, he grew up "in three different cultures--the Jewish, Islamic, and the Christian." (Hence the brief "Abdul" affectation.) As a young man living in France in the '50s, the fledgling artist fell in with a wealthy older lover/patroness who escorted him on a seven-year jaunt around the globe, including stops in Tibet, India, Indonesia, Cuba, and North Africa. By the time he finally settled in New York in the early '60s, he had already formed an idiosyncratic vision that had little to do with the trends then sweeping the arts capital.

Klarwein's father was an architect, and, as Klarwein once recalled to an interviewer, "We had nothing but abstract paintings on the wall, and Bauhaus magazines around . . . for me abstract art was old hat." Instead, Klarwein pored over Italian and Flemish Renaissance masters and studied with Cubism pioneer Ferdinand Léger. But the work that resonated most with his own burgeoning ideas came from super Surrealist Salvador Dali and, most especially, Viennese Surrealist torch-bearer Ernst Fuchs, both of whom would serve as personal mentors to Klarwein at different points in his life.

The vibrant, obsessively detailed works of ur-culture Neo-Surrealism he came to produce could hardly have been more out of step with Abstract Expressionism or Pop. In fact, the display of his large-scale painting "Crucifixion," which depicts a multi-ethnic orgy in some psychedelic Eden, allegedly provoked an enraged art lover to attack Klarwein with an axe. But the visual dazzle and trippy air of his paintings appealed plenty to gallery-goers who didn't know much about art but knew what they liked. And when the likes of Carlos Santana or Miles Davis personally chose his work for their albums, it put his paintings in front of millions of sets of eyes who couldn't find Manhattan on a map.

The fact that Klarwein was smart, articulate, good-looking, and highly social didn't hurt his career either. He befriended a panoply of the late 20th century notables spanning Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jimi Hendrix, and Jackie Kennedy, often winning commissions along the way. In fact, after the subcultural mood darkened in the mid-'70s and his record-store-bin omnipresence waned, Klarwein turned his exquisite technique loose on portraits of the rich and famous while still devoting time and pigment to capturing his own lurid imaginings, aka "inscapes." He moved to the Spanish island of Majorca in 1984 and lived there until his death on March 7 at age 70. But even in his old age, he still found time for visual mischief, buying thrift store paintings for a pittance, quickly "improving" them with some of his signature touches, and reselling the results for exponential profits.

While he will be extremely lucky to merit even a sneer in the art-history texts of the 22nd century, the fact remains that Klarwein probably once was, as he quipped, "the most famous unknown painter in the world," and the use of his art on key album covers probably did as much to open minds to the countercultural revolution as the music contained within. But despite his arguable status as the premier painter of psychedelia, he painted the way he did well before he started dropping acid. No less an authority than Timothy Leary told him he didn't need psychedelics; when he did take them, he found he couldn't work while tripping. "It's like what Dali once said," Klarwein remarked in 1992. "'I don't take drugs. I am drugs.'"

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