The Paintings of Miles Davis: Discover Visual Art Inspired by Kandinsky, Basquiat, Picasso, and Joni Mitchell

Few artists have lived as many cre­ative life­times as Miles Davis did in his 65 years, con­tin­u­ing to evolve even after his death with the posthu­mous release of a lost album Rub­ber­band ear­li­er this year. The album’s cov­er, fea­tur­ing an orig­i­nal paint­ing by Davis him­self, may have turned fans on to anoth­er facet of the composer/bandleader/trumpeter’s artis­tic evolution—his career as a visu­al artist, which he began in earnest just a decade before his 1991 death.

“Dur­ing the ear­ly 1980s,” writes Tara McGin­ley at Dan­ger­ous Minds, Davis “made cre­at­ing art as much a part of his life as mak­ing music…. He was said to have worked obses­sive­ly each day on art when he wasn’t tour­ing and he stud­ied reg­u­lar­ly with New York painter Jo Gel­bard.” Nev­er one to do any­thing by half-mea­sures, Davis turned out can­vas after can­vas, though he didn’t exhib­it much in his life­time.

He paint­ed main­ly for him­self. “It’s like ther­a­py for me,” he said, “and keeps my mind occu­pied with some­thing pos­i­tive when I’m not play­ing music.” Being the intim­i­dat­ing Miles Davis, how­ev­er, it wasn’t exact­ly easy for him to find artis­tic peers with whom he could com­mune. When he first approached Gel­bard, the artist says, “I was scared to death! I could bare­ly speak.”

The two lived in the same New York build­ing and Gel­bard even­tu­al­ly relaxed enough to give Davis lessons, then lat­er became his girl­friend, col­lab­o­rat­ing with him on work like the cov­er of the 1989 album Amand­la. As she char­ac­ter­izes his style:

The way Miles paint­ed was not the way he played or the way he sketched. He was so min­i­mal and light-hand­ed in his sound, in his walk. His body was very light; he was a slight man, a del­i­cate kind of guy. His sketch­es are light and airy and min­i­mal, but when he took his brush and paint, he was dead­ly – he was like a child with paints in kinder­garten. He would pour it on and mix it until it got too mud­dy and over-paint. He just loved the tex­ture and the feel. It got all over his clothes and his hands and his hair and it was just fun for him…

Miles also found a peer in fel­low painter Joni Mitchell. She describes how he called her one day and said, “Joni, I like that paint­ing that you did. Nice col­ors. I want to come over and watch you paint.” Davis, her musi­cal hero, wouldn’t record with her (though she found out lat­er that he owned all her records). “He would talk paint­ing but he wouldn’t talk music with me.”

Davis’ paint­ings are rough and expres­sion­is­tic, a coun­ter­point to the for­mal dis­ci­pline of his music. (McGin­ley suc­cinct­ly describes them as a “sharp, bold and mas­cu­line mix­ture of Kandin­sky, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Picas­so and African trib­al art”.) He didn’t make inroads in the art world, but paint­ing did become “a prof­itable side­line,” not­ed the L.A. Times in ’89. Friends and fel­low musi­cians like Lionel Richie and Quin­cy Jones bought his work. “A mag­a­zine called Du in Zurich bought some of my sketch­es for a spe­cial edi­tion they’re putting out on me,” he said.

In 2013, a hard­cov­er edi­tion of his col­lect­ed paint­ings appeared, with a fore­word by Jones, per­haps the most avid of Miles Davis col­lec­tors. There are many oth­er voic­es in the book, includ­ing author Steve Gutterman—who inter­viewed Davis before his death and writes an introduction—and var­i­ous fam­i­ly mem­bers who con­tribute per­son­al sto­ries. Miles sums up his own “refresh­ing­ly unpre­ten­tious atti­tude” toward his art­work in one brief state­ment: “It ain’t that seri­ous.”

Pick up a copy of Miles Davis: The Col­lect­ed Art­work here.

Note: This post updates mate­r­i­al that first appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kind of Blue: How Miles Davis Changed Jazz

Hear a 65-Hour, Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Miles Davis’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jazz Albums

Lis­ten to The Night When Miles Davis Opened for the Grate­ful Dead in 1970

The Influ­ence of Miles Davis Revealed with Data Visu­al­iza­tion: For His 90th Birth­day Today

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Laurence Goldman says:

    With­er Jean-Michael Basquiat
    Miles paint­ings (I had no idea) are just plain good. The col­or is good, the com­po­si­tions fresh. They work. These are great Sun­day painter art-not out to prove any­thing. They’re rich and would be great to live with. They also expose how awful t he work of Jean-Michael Basquiat is. The equiv­a­lent of a fifth grad­er scratch­ing obscen­i­ties on a bath­room stall. His fame is total­ly unjus­ti­fied, the lucky result of being the right entrant ter­ri­ble at the right time.

  • Glyn Morris says:

    For the record, Basquiat has so much more going in his art than you give cred­it. But every­one has their opin­ion. I hope your work sells for mil­lions, like his. That said, as a friend and ear­ly buy­er of Jean Michel, ‘before he was famous.’ I see a (pos­si­ble) strong influ­ence of Miles Davis. But I’ve also seen Basquiat’s influ­ence in young artists who nev­er heard of him. That’s art. No easy answers.

  • Patrick gleeson says:

    Can we just all accept that art crit­i­cism, which at its most daunt­ing can be (not always, but at its worst ) some­thing as dis­mis­sive as “this isn’t________” is point­less and even cru­el? And cer­tain­ly unhelp­ful, not jus­rtv­to the artist, but final­ly not to the crit­ic either. When you—anyone—writes that some­thing is worth­less, you’re not just belit­tling someone’s attempt, most often heart­felt and hon­est, to express how they think and feel, you’re also defin­ing your­self in terms of what you can’t accept. That keeps you locked into what you’ve already accept­ed, and pre­vents you from grow­ing, to accept some­thing new.

    I’m not dis­miss­ing the analy­sis of art, which is often help­ful and can be rev­e­la­to­ry, but the urge to cat­e­go­rize what you expe­ri­ence in any­thing as shal­low as .”good” or “bad.”

    Nor am I say­ing it’s wrong to eval­u­ate artis­tic expres­sion. I am say­ing: be thought­ful, be slow to judge.

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