words about jh | article

​​lush life | mati klarwein
​rob young | ​the wire | ​1998

rob young | ​the wire | ​1998

This interview first appeared in The Wire

Issue 167, January 1998

​The great visionary painter Mati Klarwein died in March 2002, aged 70. Several of his paintings adorn Jon Hassell’s record sleeves: Earthquake Island, Dream Theory in Malaya, Aka-Darbari-Java and Maarifa Street.

​From Salvador Dali to Miles Davis, from Jimi Hendrix to Jon Hassell and beyond, artist Mati Klarwein makes the connections between surrealism, African-Americanism, hippydom and the Fourth World.

​IN 1960, AN artist called Abdul Mati sent a copy of a portrait he had made of jazz saxophonist Yusef Lateef to the musician himself. Lateef, a Muslim, liked the painting—Lateef’s bald pate almost swamped by a sea of encroaching flora—and sensed a kinship: he wrote back with a salutation to his “Dear Bro”, and offers of record sleeves in the future. Abdul Mati approached Lateef one evening after a gig at New York’s Five Spot, but when Lateef saw that this ‘Abdul’ was white, he turned away without a word.

​Abdul Mati didn’t let this trouble him unduly. Mati Klarwein—the name he reverted to after this incident, and which was given him by his German parents—has always been acutely sensitive to the age-old standoffs between black and white, Muslim and Christian, science and art, nature and technology. “My experience with Yusef Lateef was not ‘unfortunate’, as you say,” he says, in philosophical mode, at his home in Mallorca. “It was very indicative of the time when ‘black’ had to become ‘beautiful’—because it was!—and had to find its own identity and cautiously dig into its African past for that purpose. Going back to the animistic true past was too much of a jump, so they settled for Islam, being another facet of monotheism, and a provocative contrast to the Gothic Christianity that was and is still oppressively segregating them with its smug self-righteous patronising attitude.”

Klarwein is prone to such outbursts (try these: “The Sistine Chapel is a pompous comic book and Yves Klein is a vulgar illustrator of Zen Buddhism”; or “Talking about drugs can be as interesting as talking about sex, depends who does the talking—William Burroughs or Nancy Reagan”), but his opinions are informed by a life of travel—not tourism, but a far deeper immersion in foreign cultures and belief systems—that has given him a wider perspective on the ideological tensions that keep the late 20th century global dynamic on the rack. His paintings since the Lateef episode are radiant with such oppositions, spangled with symbols, sex and sunlight, and refracted and intensified through the tinted shades of LSD. In fact, for an explanation of the ‘Fourth World’ concept furthered by Jon Hassell, Klarwein’s pictures offer precise visual analogues for this conceptual dreamtime, in which ancient-to-future sounds and images converge and mutate, creating a surreal new estate founded on the eternal circling of information and cultures around the globe. As Klarwein writes: “I’ll never forget the expression of the Sayonara indians from the Amazon basin when they were listening to us play the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto in B flat by JS Bachofen on the Jew’s harp made from wishbones extracted from whales’ clitorises while we waited for Duchamp’s bicycle wheel to be repaired at the workshop of the Beijing People’s Museum of the repetitious, repetitious, repet…” It doesn’t get much more Fourth World than that.

​’Artist and model’ (detail) (1959)

​MATTHIAS KLARWEIN was born in 1932 in Hamburg, Germany; the story of how he became the counterculture’s artist-in-residence is due in part to the rise of Nazism. On Hitler’s accession to power, his Jewish parents fled with Mati to Palestine. An early ambition to direct movies in Hollywood came to nothing, and instead he travelled to Paris to study under the French painter Fernand Leger. Naturally, France introduced him to the artistic and showbiz milieu that was shaping up in the capital and on the Riviera. One of his most influential meetings was with Salvador Dali: “I read Dali’s Private Life Of Salvador Dali when I was 20 years old,” he says, “and I have never been the same person since. I met him at the age of 30 for the first time, and we saw each other regularly in New York and Paris during the 60s and early 70s. He was my spiritual father, and some even thought I was his illegitimate son. We were also each other’s pimps and cultural spies.” Dali’s decadent years as both king and court jester to rock stars, models and assorted hippy loons have been well documented by those who were either there at the time or wish they had been, “(Dali) hated music,” is Mati’s version of events. “He hung out with rock stars because of their fame and/or genius. He believed that there are three things that cretinize us humans: love, children and music. Just look at my life and you’ll see that the proof is in the pudding.”

As a young man, Mati became the travelling companion of an unnamed but wealthy woman with whom, as he rather grandly puts it, “I didn’t leave one stone unturned; every electron that I ran into changed my life production drastically”. It was perhaps during these nomadic years, passing through Tibet, India, Bali, North Africa, Turkey, Europe and the Americas, that he became saturated with the different landscapes, both inner and outer, that twist and writhe over his canvases. Once he had fetched up in New York’s art scene in the early 60s, he began synthesising all these impressions into his distinctive, huge tantric paintings, aided by the surrounding climate. “Of course Sun Ra was part of it, and so was ‘droogs’, as Dali would call them. One of the achievements of the 60s spirit, besides ecological awareness, was the elimination of the ‘either-or’ mentality, and the birth of rhizomatic reasoning as postulated by Deleuze, Castaneda and Leary. And the battle isn’t over yet!”

​Live Evil by Miles Davis

​No wonder, then, that at the end of the 60s Miles Davis seized on Klarwein to illustrate the sleeves for the albums he recorded to burst out of the chrysalis of jazz into the electronic age: Bitches Brew and Live-Evil. His memories of the crowded and artistic circles of New York in which he met Miles are similarly hazy. “I hooked up with Miles the way I hooked up with everything else in life: through the women I’ve known. be they friends or lovers, they are all mothers with excellent taste. Without them I’d be a dead spermatozoid in a dry puddle, and Miles saw that in my paintings. The only time he discussed subject matter was for Live-Evil. He asked me to paint a toad for the ‘Evil’ side. So I painted J Edgar Hoover as a toad in drag—which turned out to be another one of my prophetic insights.”

At this time, he also counted Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary among his close friends, and even painted a record cover for the semi-mythical, unfinished Hendrix collaboration with Gil Evans. A sleeve for Zonked, a vocal album by Miles’s then wife Betty Davis, was shelved after Miles discovered she had been sleeping with Hendrix. Meanwhile, the original painting from Bitches Brew remains lost: sold to an unknown buyer, although Klarwein claims he’s not troubled by the loss of an original—the important thing is the image itself.

Klarwein’s pictures re-ignite dialogue between ancient tribal history and contemporary civilisation. Paintings such as 1964’s ‘Crucifixion (Freedom Of Expression)’, whose multiracial orgies on a backdrop of holy sites and lush jungles caused ‘outrage’ (as paintings seem to do) when exhibited in New York. You can almost read them like one of Cheikh Anta Diop’s histories of Africa as the cradle of civilisation. In Klarwein’s world, culture is a perpetual-motion machine where hierarchies are overturned and history collapses into itself, tunnels open up through the Earth allowing cultures, creeds and symbols to project themselves on each other’s irises, male and female. Forms are melted through sex into a hermaphroditic anthropomorph. “As far as my own ‘cultural difference’ is concerned,” he says, “I considered myself very lucky to have had the chance to grow up in Palestine-Israel, a land where you can walk 2000 years back in history by merely strolling down to the end of the street you live on, especially in Jerusalem. How shallow American pop music sounds compared to the chanting of Oum Kalthoum or a raga by Ameer Khan! And where would rock ‘n’ roll be without the pure African energy channeled over by the slave ships? The American Indians were much too proud to become anyone’s slave, much too ‘spaced out’. They were like us: children of the cold weather too. Life for them was not a permanent party like it is for the Africans.”

​Abraxas by Santana, showing part of ‘The Annunciation’ (1961)

​​Nevertheless, on account of his work for Miles, Hendrix and Carlos Santana (the guitarist discovered Klarwein’s painting ‘Annunciation’ in the Aleph Sanctuary, a small chapel in Mallorca, and used it for his Abraxas LP), Klarwein has become inextricably associated with astro-black chic. “The astro-black culture was part of the cultural process black and white America needed in order to free itself from spiritual oppression,” he explains. “The esoteric and cosmic consciousness is a powerful antidote to the crass mainstream consumerism that is drowning us all, where God is just a number, any number. Esoterics pulled us through the terrible nuclear holocaust paranoia of the 50s—engendered by the traumatic battle against square-moustache totalitarianism of the 40s, caused by the blind faith we had in the machines in the 20s and 30s … all the way back to Adumb and Evil.”

Things change. By 1976, the fire of that era was reduced to embers. Hendrix was long dead, Miles had hung up his horn; Herbie Hancock was setting the scene for Electrofunk. Mati met Jon Hassell, whose own experiments with atmosphere, trumpet manipulation and textural freeplay was beginning to water the bleached deserts left by the battlescapes of cosmic jazz. “I know Jon since 1976 when I moved to SoHo and into the ‘fine art’ world of Lower Manhattan—before that it was just sex ‘n’ drugs,” says Mati. “The mind took over. The synthesizing, of past experiences into something globally significant, the sublimation of our erotic and exotic fantasies into an awareness of other cultures, and our indulging into sampling them and experiencing of new outlets of expression by integrating these cultural samples in our art. This we had in common and enjoyed sharing.”

The art that Mati produced for Hassell’s Fourth World LPs, released on Brian Eno’s Ambient label, was different: pure landscapes, jet’s eye views of transfigured tracts of land. He calls these ‘Real Estate’ paintings, or ‘Inscapes’. ‘Soundscape’, which illustrates Hassell’s Aka-Darbari-Java, is a prime example of the way the paintings function as landscapes and maps simultaneously: nature carved up and reshaped by economic and social forces. “Your definition is brilliant,” he says. “I should have called them ‘Mapscapes’ instead of ‘Inscapes’. Also, the paradoxical fact of man’s manipulation of nature can make it either a more fascinating and uplifting an experience, like the rice terraces of Indonesia, or a tragic and depressing one like the landscape of strip-mining. A lonely Chinese wall stretching for miles across a landscape can do marvels for the mind, and also for the purely abstract compositional requirements of the painting itself. Again, the balance between the concepts and emotion is the issue. The 60s were emotional times, the 70s returned to the conceptual, in music too, from rock ‘n’ roll to New Wave. From Beatles to Talking Heads—insects with brains

“Personally,” he continues, “I prefer the 70s for music than the mushy nostalgic 60s, with its Art Nouveau conventionalism. One thing I could never figure out is why all the best pop music always comes from England. It must be the developed sense of humour has a lot to do with it. America hasn’t suffered enough yet.”

Paralleling Hassell’s refinement of sampling aesthetics, Mati’s subsequent work has incorporated a healthy dose of cultural theft in his series of ‘improved paintings’. Typically, he will buy existing paintings and work over them with his own brush, executing a kind of visual ‘remix’. “The urge to improve paintings started with me in the early 60s and I have done a good hundred since then,” he explains. “Sampling or appropriating are just hip euphemisms for stealing and robbing. In the US, they would be illegal. They are not ‘sampling’, nor are they ‘appropriations’: they are ‘improved’ paintings—I buy them in flea markets for not more than $20 and proceed to improve them, remaining as much as possible within the style of the original painter. I leave the signature, if there is one, and add mine to it. It’s all upfront. The only secret is: who painted what? And that is the main concept: individuals are an illusion, or elusion, only concepts are real. It’s not your organ, honey, it’s the way you grind.”

Klarwein has published several books of his writings over the years, and it’s a medium he increasingly enjoys: “A picture might be worth a thousand words but a good sentence is worth a thousand windows,” he says. A Thousand Windows is, inevitably, the title of his latest book of images and text (published on his own Max Publishing imprint), and readings from it have appeared on No Man’s Land, a CD released during 1997 featuring music by Swedish percussionist/composer Per Tjernberg. The two have been friends for some time—Mati contributed cover art on three previous albums by Tjernberg, who has worked with Don Cherry, Dr John and Okay Temiz. On No Man’s Land, he and engineer/sound designer Tom Hofwander create weightless carpets and trailing fronds of sound with berimbaus, Chinese gongs, scraped metal, bird whistles, log drums, clay pots and a full Brazilian batucada, while Mati’s lived-in voice recites flamboyant, embellished anecdotes, observations and ruminations on the cosmos. Meanwhile, he’s been working on new images for projection during Jon Hassell’s live performances, and admits he never turns down any commission. “Life is not a holiday camp,” he says. “I don’t believe in comfort. Right now I’m painting a shopping centre and I am sweating blood, but it’s an offer I can’t refuse. Creativity has no limits. Besides, the battle between the mind and the heart still goes on, on both sides of the River Jordan.” •

No Man’s Land
by Mati Klarwein and Per Tjernberg ​
released on Rub-A-Dub Records (RUBCD 15)
​official website:

​select bibliography

MILK ‘N’ HONEY (1973)
Harmony Books, New York

GOD JOKES (1976)
Harmony Books, New York

COLLECTED WORKS 1959-1975 (1988)
Raymond Martin Press, Germany

Max Publishing, Spain

IMPROVED PAINTINGS 1979-2000 (2000)
Max Publishing, Spain

ISBN 84-96430-13-8



The following is the full of text of a note, directed at the Penn (U. of Pennsylvania) community, that was enclosed in one of the packages of materials that Kathy Change distributed the morning of October 22nd 1996, the day she set fire to herself.

(Note that this was written in the atmosphere surrounding the first Gulf War. -jh)

All that you have and cling to in fear

Is as worthwhile as a poisoned pie.

A universe full of love and wonderful possibilities

Would be yours if only you would reach for it.

You are sitting in timid conformity

On a hayride to hell.

You’re just about there.

Get off that truck now.

Break out of the ranks of evil

Do a dance for freedom.

I am angry, impatient, full of anxiety

And full of hope and love

But after 18 years of trying and being rejected

And being a pariah and a fool

I have finally concluded that my charism

And social magnetism register high on the negative scale.

Now that I’ve put in the first word,

This movement that I’ve tried to start,

Would probably do better without me,

So I will try to make a dramatic exit.

I’ve tried to do this several times before,

And failed.

If this is the right thing to do,

Heaven will help me.

If not,


Nevermind. I’ll be seeing you around.

I look at you and you are so beautiful

It makes me shy.

Your sympathy makes me want to hide

Because I feel unworthy.

For the cause I want to grab you

Drag you to meetings and demonstrations

But I’m afraid of putting you on the spot

Making you uncomfortable, scaring you away

So I am frozen in wanting

to merge my mind and heart with yours

Imprisoned by the invisible barriers

That I know must be broken through

I scream shrilly

I am an ungainly presence

Trying to break through the complacency

with my wild rage.

I have crashed this party

I do not belong here.

But you do. You are the children of the host.

You can talk to each other as peers

And take your rightful places

At academia’s table

with calm and gracious poise.

As crazy as I have been,

You can be cool.

Have confidence in your beliefs

You are a step ahead of everybody else.

Underneath their herd stupidity

Even the demo emulating morons and their sold out mentors

Who appear to be the majority in your milieu,

Are human beings

Who long for the world to be freed and set right

Even though they don’t know it.

Do them the great kindness of forgiving their stupidity

And put them in touch with the real heart

Of humanity.

To reach through the mask

Is your task.

There is so much at stake;

The country, the world, the future.

Don’t be put off by trivialities.

With you as its champion

Good will surely triumph.

How great will be your glory

How multitudinous will be your blessings

The highest happiness will be yours.

For many years I have though that Penn

Would be a good place to start the Transformation.

If this action I am taking succeeds

I hoped it might spark some interest

In what I was trying to say.

I hoped my writings would be printed and made available.

Maybe Transformation Parties could be held.

I am taking this action out of hope

Not despair.

By destroying my material corpus

I want to free my spirit

So that it can jump inside of you

I think that you would enjoy being filled

with conviction and can-do optimism

I think you would feel good

to be cleansed of the blase brain rot that clogs your mind

Yes there is such a thing as true morality, a real

distinction between good and evil, right and wrong.

Decisive moves must be made on behalf of good.

These are the addresses of some Penn people to whom

I have sent my packages.

Maybe you would like to meet and talk.

I have also sent packages to WXPN

and the Daily Pennsylvanian.

October 7, 1996

The multitudinous war crimes and crimes against humanity of the U.S. government have been documented and detailed, and every American is more or less aware of the criminality of his government, and yet we continue to respect its power and authority. We continue trying to work through the electoral process. We plead with our congress people to work for the well being of all the people and the planet instead of catering to the special interests of big money and organized crime. It is as though Gary Heidnik, the man who imprisoned, tortured and murder women in his basement, was the headmaster of a girls’ prep school; and upon discovery of his crimes,he was duly criticized, but allowed to remain in his position of power and responsibilty, presumably to continue his atrocities. The U.S. government is a much bigger and far worse criminal than Gary Heidnik, and it must be relieved of its duties immediately without further bureacratic hemming and hawing. The crimes of this present system are so enormous, an the dangers to which it is exposing us are so deadly and world threatening, that a sincere and forthright call to the American people to depose this evil system and come together now to peacefully replace it with true democracy, would be received with an overwhelmingly positive response from the people. Media workers are in a position to make this call and it is their responsibility to do so.

It is a waste of energy to get angry and gripe at the government. The government must be replaced by a truly democratic selfgovernment of, for and by the people. Those people working in industries essential to maintaining life should democratically take over their work places and organize an emergency economy to supply the needs of the people. The rest of the people should meet in their communities to organize a new directly democratic community based selfgovernment. This should be done immediately, because every day that we continue with business as usual, the problems just get worse. I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people in general.

I want to protest this entirely shameful state of affairs as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself. Around twelve years ago, I don’t remember the exact year, a woman from Boston set herself on fire in Independence Square. For the next five days the Philadelphia Inquirer was filled with reports of investigations into who this woman was and speculation as to why she did this act. Since I have been in Philadelphia for fiften years, all the while making myself very visible demostrating my position opinions, dancing and waving my flags on the streets of this city, I believe I should create at least as much as a sensation in the press. If the news media buries this story it will be proof of the extreme prejudice of the media. I want this statement and my other writings to be printed in the newspapers of this city. I want the people of this city who have been seeing me around for so long to finally hear what I’ve been saying. I want my ideas to be publically discussed. If people talked about my ideas, they would realize that transformation of our society is possible, and they would feel better.

I first planned to take this action a year ago. I wrote up final statements, xeroxed them, and then I backed down. A year ago, economic collapse seemed to be the most imminent danger threatening us. Today the likelihood of the impending war with Iraq rapidly escalating into a nuclear holocaust eclipses the likelihood of economic collapse as being by far the more serious and scary crisis. I am propmted to take this action by the dire urgency of the world’s environmental crisis, and the enormous unnecessary suffering and repression being endured by all the world’s people because of the oppressive geopolitical system. Of all the world’s people, only the American people have the power to change this global system of abuse, and therefore, it is their responsibility to do so. I hope my action will not be viewed as tragic, but rather, in the light in which it is intended. I am performing this ritual sacrifice in hopes that it will increase the efficacy of my prayers to all the people to have faith in the ideals, choose the path of peace and transform this nation and world.

I also want to make a statement about life and death. Death is natural and inevitable. Death is good, because it allows life to make a fresh start. The spirit is everlasting and always returns to life through rebirth. I am not certain exactly how this happens, but I believe that the spirit recycles itself somehow. It’s true that we are each special individuals whose lives are precious, but we are also part of a great spirit body, the universal collective spirit. By dying, we dissolve our individual ego personality and rejoin the spiritual totality, before returning to alife in a new body. It’s a completely wonderful process, and not sad at all, except perhaps for the people we leave behind, who may miss us. But there are so many beautiful people in the world, that they should not miss the departed for too long. There are always plenty of people around to love.

This society places too much emphasis on the unconditional sacredness of life. Anti-abortionists believe that it is more important to save life than to guarantee the quality of the life they save. This belief in survival as the highest priority contributes to the deterioration of the quality of life for everybody. When people do not practice birth control and all the babies are saved, then we overpopulate. We kill wild animal species, strip the earth of its forests and wilderness, and the planet becomes ecologically imbalanced and punishes us with environmental disasters. When there are more people than we can care for, the quality of life diminishes for everyone. A life is worth saving only if it is worth living. It could be argued that to live with physical handicaps and adversity may be good for spiritual growth. But to live in moral degradation is not good in any way. Because our society is so corrupt, unfair, environmentally destructive, and in a state of deterioration, rather than improvement, we are all living in a state of moral degradation. Our society is like a cancer on the planet. The goal is for everybody to improve, not to commit mass suicide.

For eighteen years I have been trying to urge people to throw off the corruption and go for the good, but I don’t see my efforts as being successful in any way, except that it’s given me something to do. I do not want to live off of this evil society any longer. My life is dependent on this society, and so I want to end my life. I demand that life must meet a standard of true morality or else it is not worth living. In Orwellian fashion, this society equates repression with morality. But in truth, repression of people who are only trying to enjoy themselves and not hurting others is utterly immoral. The real struggle is not between races, or classes. It is not people versus the elite.

The real struggle is between good and evil; between intelligent behavior and blind obedient conformity. Good is what promotes health and happiness. Evil is what causes deterioration and disease. If we choose good, it will be a triumph for everybody. Every person from the poorest to the richest, from the humblest to the most powerful, will gain. Everybody will discover real joy and peace of mind. The benefits will be so absolute that I cannot imagine any other outcome.

We are entering an age that will be as different from what came before as day is to night, or as summer is to winter. Throughout this passing age, humanity has had to work very hard at being constantly on the defensive, and prepared for war. Now as we dissolve the enmity, we can all relax and enjoy life.

As a plan my action, I think of all the things that might hinder it. What if the post office fails to deliver my press statements? What if someone stops me from carrying out my intentions? I don’t know if I will succeed, but I will drop this statement in the mail and proceed, trusting in fate to bring about whatever is meant to happen.

Call me a flaming radical burning for attention, but my real intention is to spark a discussion of how we can peacefully transform our world. America, I offer myself to you as an alarm against Armageddon and a torch for liberty.