Miles Davis: The Art of Cool

New Exhibition of Miles Davis' Artwork


“The color. I get the color first,” Miles Davis told noted jazz critic Mike Zwerin. “Then all the rest I improvise. Lines and circles. Maybe I’ll want to wiggle the lines, maybe I’ll draw a breast and an eye. I work from the subconscious, like music. It has to do something to me. I couldn’t write a piece of music that doesn’t make me tap my foot or make me feel something inside. Once the form is there, it’s like an arrangement with openings for solos. It’s a matter of balance. You can’t have too much black, like you can’t have too much saxophone.”

Davis, the most celebrated jazz musician of the last half of the twentieth century, began painting seriously in 1980 after a long recovery from drug addiction. He had casually sketched and drawn all his life, but he brought his full creative passion to it only in his mid-fifties, well after he’d indelibly impacted the music world. Within five years, his art was publicly exhibited, first in Germany, then in London, and more recently in Paris, Sao Paolo, and Montreal. The upcoming Napa Valley Museum’s and Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater’s presentation of Miles Davis: The Art of Cool is the first large-scale exhibition of his paintings and drawings in the United States. In art there is first imagination, and then there is craft, whether it is poetry or painting, sculpture or fiction, theater or music. It is no surprise that these creative imaginers often find more than one avenue of expression, more than one craft to pursue. Actors write, poets sculpt, musicians paint.

As a painter, Miles Davis was not a hobbyist. When he turned to painting, it was an immersion. The floors of his Central Park South apartment were strewn with canvases and drawings. Felt-tip pens and paper perpetually at hand, he sketched his way through the course of his days—through meetings, interviews, rehearsal breaks, meals, and particularly while travelling. British journalist and Davis chronicler Richard Williams described Davis’s artwork as his “last addiction.”

Of the most well known musician-painters—Arnold Schoenberg, Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett, Ronnie Wood—Davis is, not surprisingly, the most avant-garde and sensual. His work was described by Williams as “more or less figurative to full-blown abstraction…a swirl of entwined dancers, androgynous lovers and fantastical cartoonish figures he calls ‘robots.’” Of one sketch, Davis said, “This is either a dance or an orgy—either way, it’s got the feeling.” Of another, “Those are some bars of music with women stretched over them—that’s the way I see music sometimes.”

Addressing the interface of Davis’s music and his visual art, a reviewer wrote, “He paints and draws in the way that he played—elegant, mysterious and sensuous. At other times, quick and skittering. The paintings are that, too. Layers of his solo imagination appear, curving , colorful, playful. He led music past the boundaries known and into so many new places in the heart, mind and soul. The textures and rhythms of the quest he led are captured in his art.”

Miles Davis: The Art of Cool will feature 35 of his original sketches and paintings, as well as a collection of his personal memorabilia. The exhibition kicks off on Friday, June 7 at 5 p.m. with a preview reception (reservations required). There will be a calendar of special programs and performances during the exhibition, including an educational program for children. Further details can be found at Exhibition is supported by Miner Family Wines, Dean & DeLuca, Miles Davis LLC, Napa Valley Community Foundation and Kieran Robinson Wines.

David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance writer.

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