Free Jazz Pioneer Milford Graves Transports with Posthumous Art Basel Installation Bringing the Polymath’s Many Practices Together

Harrison Jacobs, ARTnews, December 1, 2022

It can be difficult, if not impossible, for a gallery to conjure a sense of atmosphere at Art Basel Miami Beach. But amid all the frenzied selling and hobnobbing, New York’s Fridman Gallery has done just that at its booth, which is host to an installation of works by late free jazz pioneer Milford Graves.


Graves, who died in 2021 at 79, is best known as an experimental jazz drummer, but he was better considered a polymath, as the New York Times’s Giovanni Russonello wrote in his obituary of the artist last year. He was a visual artist, a music professor at Bennington College in Vermont, a botanist, a computer programmer, and a martial artist. He even created his own martial art, Yara, named after the Yoruba word for agility and based on the movements of praying mantises.


The presentation at Fridman, which was co-curated by Graves’s granddaughter Tatiana Graves-Kochuthara, brings together these seemingly disparate elements of his life and practice, with large-scale sculptures like a wooden chair adorned with Egyptian figurines and painted album covers sharing space with ephemera, clothing, his painted drum set, and plants similar to those he kept in his home.


Perhaps most intriguing is a large printed paper hanging from a wooden beam. It displays what appears to be a complex flowchart, but is actually a visual representation of an algorithm designed by Graves to translate heartbeats into music. Graves, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study what he called “heart music,” said that he used transducers to send the music into his body to stabilize arrhythmia, which he suffered from. He later died from congestive heart failure.


In addition to helping curate, Graves-Kochuthara, who is an actor, dancer, and visual artist, contributed a painted gong depicting Graves that hangs above the installation. 


“I’ve just been so grateful to have been able to do this. This is deeply personal,” Graves-Kochuthara told ARTnews, as she cradled an Audubon Society clock owned by her grandfather.


As she worked on the exhibition, she was still uncovering works, like an acrylic self-portrait on amate bark paper that she found in her grandmother’s attic. Most of the objects have a long-held association for Graves-Kochuthara.

“Everything [in the exhibition] is very familiar to me. Most of this I have seen or touched. I played those drums when I was younger,” she said. “It feels like memories on display.”


Iliya Fridman, the founder and director of Fridman Gallery, first met Graves after screening Milford Graves Full Mantis, a 2018 documentary on the artist, and the two began work on a solo exhibition of new paintings that used sound vibrations and a transducer to stimulate and mix paints. Graves died before a solo show at the gallery opened in 2021, however.


Since 2020, Graves’s work has been on view in a traveling retrospective that first opened at the ICA Philadelphia. Next year, the show will move to the ICA Los Angeles. The presentation at Fridman is Graves’s first at an art fair; many of the works will travel on to the retrospective after Art Basel’s conclusion.


“This is a lot of work for a commercial gallery, but I just really believe in this as a thing in itself,” Fridman told ARTnews.