New York

Milford Graves, Spooky Jungle, 2020, acrylic and mixed media on paper, 23 × 18".

Milford Graves, Spooky Jungle, 2020, acrylic and mixed media on paper, 23 × 18".

Milford Graves

The fundamental task of a musician, according to Milford Graves (1941–2021), was in many ways straightforward: “We’re here to make that eardrum vibrate,” he said, believing that music worked its substantial powers in this way, healing the human body, mind, and spirit. He started on his path as a percussionist who played rhythms that were so far out, so singular, that even his fellow free-jazz practitioners couldn’t always keep up. (“Play time, man,”</span> he recalled being chided.) But Graves understood that, in the same way that a heart is not a metronome—its cadence is subject to subtle shifts—an artist is not subordinate to any calling but their own. Over the years, Graves learned acupuncture and herbalism and developed a new martial art he called Yara, based on the movements of the praying mantis, to serve as “the Black way of self-protection.” Balancing mystical and scientific study, his seemingly disparate practices were united by his fascination with, and faith in, the heart as originary vibration, and the ways in which its forces could be nourished, supported, fueled, and channeled to produce not only life, but also life-altering music and art.

The exhibition “Heart Harmonics: Sound, Energy, and Natural Healing Phenomena” at Fridman Gallery was largely devoted to the paintings Graves made in the last year of his life. He worked alternately with a brush and a transducer, a handheld device that he used to convert recordings of his music into electrical pulses. After placing different hues in acrylic between a pair of black-vinyl LP sleeves, or between two pieces of paper, he would move the transducer over the surface, commingling the paints and making wavy topographies of color—abstractions infused with the matter(s) of sound. At the center of Untitled 18, 2020, red and white feather upward to form a single, brain-like mass, while the bright motley terrain of Untitled 13, 2020, cascades downward. When deploying a brush, Graves engaged line and language. Spooky Jungle, 2020, is a playful portrait of a musician (perhaps of the artist himself) in profile, with tiny plastic toy instruments—drums, violins, saxophones, flying V guitars, and a single white grand piano—stuck into the thick licks of pigment around the figure’s jawline and down his neck. Pasted to the center of his head is a photo of a birch tree with shards of bark glued to it, a gesture of modest magic that restores something of a tree’s true presence while placing the natural world at the center of creative consciousness.

Graves’s ideas about vibration were not merely conceptual. In the basement workshop of his Queens home—for decades a site of pilgrimage for students and collaborators alike—he developed software that made melodies from the electrocardiograms he recorded of his and others’ hearts. The hypnotizing two-channel video LabVIEW Animations, 2018–19, is a montage of collected data and images—the eye of sky god Horus; a seated Imhotep, architect of the pyramids; and more—animated to this electronic “heart music,” as he called it. These same sounds (which had never before been played publicly) reverberated via small transmitters through four wind gongs suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. Two of the instruments were painted by Graves, the other two by his wife and collaborator, Lois, who made them in love and tribute. A heart made audible is more than sound: It is a sonic architecture dissolving the inner and outer worlds, and—to use Graves’s word—offering an experience of the revelationary space of an expansive, extraordinary mind.