Music, of course, is what Miles Davis is best remembered for, but this volume explores his lesser known efforts as a visual artist. Davis’ own refreshingly unpretentious attitude to his painting and sketching—“It ain’t that serious,” he told author Steve Gutterman—helps make this hardcover volume all the more approachable (even for art ignoramuses like me). Prior to Davis’ passing in 1991, Gutterman sat with the musician to discuss his non-musical artistic pursuits. Laced with humor and insight into his creative philosophy, these comments are scattered liberally throughout The Collected Artwork.
After a heartfelt foreword by Quincy Jones, the book splits into two main sections. The first is “Drawings,” populated mostly by Davis’ sparse, spindly illustrations of the human form. Most of these are female, taking on a wispy, spidery form. “If you looked through my sketchbook, you’d think I was some kind of sex freak or something. It’s full of naked women,” Davis insists at one point, but despite a subtle eroticism found in a few sketches, the collected works here skirt explicitness. Davis follows his confession with a wry punch line, “Once, when I was on tour, one of the guys in the band told me, ‘Man I miss my girlfriend, draw me something.’”
The second primary section is called “Paintings” and features far more elaborate and largely abstract works. In his intro, Gutterman draws parallels between Davis’ musical style and his painting style. If the drawings bring to mind the more straight-ahead hard bop of his ‘50s period, the colorful paintings evoke the funk and electricity of his ‘70s music. At first glance, many of these paintings appear to be collages of non-linear visual imagination, but there are details—disembodied eyes, for one recurring theme—that sink in upon closer examination.
Don’t look for images of Davis himself, “I don’t do self-portraits. I see my face too much as it is. It scares me!” Various Davis family members weigh in with personal recollections. Jazz drummer Vince Wilburn Jr. is Davis’ nephew. He recorded and toured with Davis, beginning in the early-‘80s. The youngest of Davis’ offspring, Erin Davis, notes the Wassily Kandinsky and Jean-Michel Basquiat influences in his father’s art. Davis’ daughter Cheryl gets the last word, observing that “artistry begins with understanding what you’re about and liking who you are.”
Returning to the theme of criticism and how it should be delivered, Davis has this to say: “It’s very important not to spoil somebody’s groove. You see, it’s what you say to people, especially to an artist.” Discussing his attitude as a bandleader, Davis elaborates, “For instance, I got a guitar player—people love him, but sometimes he plays the wrong notes. But if I want to tell him he’s playing the wrong notes, I’m going to show him.”
I’m not sure what serious art appreciators will think of Davis’ efforts, but with this book we get a good look at the physical manifestation of his artistic concept. It’s a fascinating extension of his music, which found him “painting” a wide variety of textures and colors with his horn. For a quite literal version of this “painting with sound,” check out Davis’ extraordinary 1989 collaboration with producer-composer Palle Mikkelborg, Aura (which features the drumming of the aforementioned nephew, Wilburn Jr.). In fact, that sonic representation of Davis’ rich palette makes for an appropriate soundtrack while exploring the work on display in Miles Davis: The Collected Artwork.