MATI KLARWEIN'S colorfully detailed images seem inescapable--at least for the moment. There is a show of recent portraits filling the Govinda Gallery in Georgetown (through June 11). Harmony Books has just published his third book-catalogue, "Inscapes: Real-Estate Paintings." And the new Jon Hassel album features a Klarwein cover, joining such other covers as Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" and Santana's "Abraxas."
Klarwein, who splits his time between New York and Majorca (and a lot of that time is literally "between"), is a jolly 51-year-old renegade who seems to enjoy his work being adapted commercially. "I want to distribute my images. I mean, the whole point is to communicate to the outside world. I always did commercial work on the side in order to maintain my freedom. One way or another you end up being commercial, even if you consider yourself a fine artist and you work with the galleries."
"People feel guilty in America about being 'commercial.' It's bad for the gallery system to have somebody who also does book covers and T-shirts, it cheapens the image, which I find silly. I don't want to adhere to that."
The album covers were mostly already finished paintings chosen by the musicians, though the cover for "Bitches Brew" was commissioned by Miles Davis. "He used me twice. Three times actually: for one cover he wanted me to include a portrait of his wife Betty on it, but by the time it was finished they were divorced, so it never came out." That can be a problem when one paints slowly, and it's one that Klarwein sometimes anticipates in his commissioned portraits. "Like married couples--sometimes by the time you finish the portrait , they're divorced. Sometimes I sense it and I paint them apart, so that they can cut the painting later on."
Klarwein was born in Germany but raised in Palestine (his father, an architect, designed the building that houses the Knesset, Israel's Parliament). He has done three catalogues for Harmony and also just did a cover for Harmony's upcoming "History of Magic." The first was "Milk 'n' Honey" in 1973, with "words 'n' pictures by Abdul Mati Klarwein." It is an archetypal volume of psychedelic art (Timothy Leary was supposed to write an introduction, but "prison authorities" wouldn't let him see it, the book says). Stepping into it is like walking into a Haight-Ashbury poster shop circa 1968.
"God Jokes" from 1976 was, thankfully, a lot less wordy, but just as neon-ishly vibrant and kaleidoscopic, more spiritual than psychedelic. If "Inscapes" follows form, it will sell about 35,000 copies. "My work is very photogenic and entertaining," Klarwein suggests, "so it can go in a large market. And it reproduces very well. Like Maxfield Parrish, it borders on illustration, it has a big narrative element in it--which is coming back in painting."
Unlike the earlier volumes, "Inscapes" is moody and intimate; it has no people, or few suggestions of people. It is, as Klarwein humorously admits in a back-of-the-book interview with himself, a collection of "romantic landscapes custom-made for anxious escapists," with a decidedly Mediterranean sensibility (he has maintained his Majorca coast home for more than 30 years).
People buy his books, he says, "like they buy a ticket to go to the movies, for more or less the same price. I present these books as a visual trip to get lost in, like taking a walk in the country, for the tourist in you . . . to bring out fantasies. The paintings used to be very narrative; they're getting less and less so. I'm getting more into the textures now: my latest works are mostly aerial views. It's getting more and more abstract; you need more imagination to get into it."
His landscapes, lush and detailed yet with a slight sense of surrealism, are a mix of reality and memories. "I know how nature works from observing closely, and I can play with it. I use the logic of nature in my abstract landscapes. That's why I call them real-estate, cause it's my real estate and I know all those terrains, I own them."
The commissioned portraits on view at Govinda (including several of Washingtonians) represent Klarwein's "commercial side." They are certainly not traditional portraits, though they ultimately may be more revealing about their subjects. Klarwein plays, often humorously, with focus, space, perspective and realism.
"What we associate with reality and realism now is the photograph. A flat impression of surface--it's really a materialistic attitude, the way matter unfolds. I try to put something that happens in the spirit of the person, especially in the portraits, and more than just an impression of the second. A photograph is an impression of one second. I try to get a summing up of all the seconds that the person in front of me has concentrated."