The year 2021 saw two outstanding polymath artists celebrated for their achievements in what turned out to be the final months of their lives: Lebanese poet-painter-novelist-journalist-playwright Etel Adnan, subject of an exhibition, Light’s New Measure, at the Guggenheim, and American percussionist-martial artist-herbalist-sculptor Milford Graves, whose solo show Fundamental Frequency at Artists Space grew out of another one at the ICA in Philadelphia last year. Both presentations devoted to these late, great, multi-hyphenates show just how much is possible when artistic categories are less obliterated than re-integrated in new contexts. And they do so by going back to the origins of their artistic impulses, the wellsprings of their fertile lives and careers.
The Adnan exhibition occupies the lower ramps at the Guggenheim, which lead to a fascinating Vasily Kandinsky survey on the upper ramps entitled Around the Circle. Kandinsky is a useful reference point for considering both Adnan and Graves, given his various freedom-seeking missions: liberating color and form from their obligation to portray reality, instead insisting on their own reality; and making spiritual and poetic concerns the foundation of his art. The Guggenheim curators (Katherine Brinson and Lauren Hickson for Adnan, Megan Fontanella for Kandinsky) highlight the admiration that Adnan had for Kandinsky, in particular her defense of his later paintings:
It is often said that Kandinsky’s final period lacks poetry, that it’s rigid because it comprises defined forms, circles and triangles. It is disdainfully labeled “geometric.” … We forget that Kandinsky didn’t speak so much about abstract painting as about “absolute painting”; we forget that for him, it was as natural to express mystical explorations in paintings as it is to find them in written texts.
As an artist herself, she focuses on an open-ended process more than a fixed outcome, the possibility of transcendence, rather than the limitations of any particular form.
Adnan herself delineated a fascinating, almost counter-intuitive distinction between two of her principal activities: “It seems to me I write what I see, paint what I am.” Yet defining her writing as based on observation and her painting as a more fundamental expression makes sense. Adnan worked as the cultural editor for two newspapers in Beirut, wrote plays and novels in French, and poems first in French and later in English, many of which were set to music by contemporary composers. But while her writing is evocative, often mournful and beautiful, her paintings are something else: stubborn facts of existence, irreducible expressions. Her partner Simone Fattal described them as performing “the role the old icons used to play for people who believed. They exude energy and give energy. They shield you like talismans. They help you live your everyday life.”
Here is another link to Kandinsky, one the Guggenheim show instructively points out, which is that the artist’s breakthrough to abstraction was highly informed by his real-world encounters, illustrated by this remarkable anecdote of his travels through the countryside of his native land: “There, I saw farmhouses completely covered with painting —nonrepresentational—inside. Ornaments, furniture, crockery, everything painted. I had the impression that I was stepping into painting that narrated nothing.” Kandinsky’s breakthrough, then, was not so much out of representation as into abstraction: out of the past but into the real, into the now. And though it sought a universal dimension, it was intensely grounded in the visual vocabulary of Russia.
Here, again, Kandinsky is a useful figure in examining the achievements of Milford Graves. His first artistic experiments were as a percussionist. After playing in various Latin bands, he took a lead role in the burgeoning free jazz movement of the early 1960s. He played with the formidable New York Art Quartet, including on a 1964 recording that accompanied the poet Amiri Baraka’s seminal “Black Dada Nihilismus,” going on to perform with Don Pullen and with Albert Ayler. One especially meaningful performance of theirs was at John Coltrane’s funeral in 1967. His contemporaries were said to be astonished by his technique, and his boldness, in that he fully dispensed with the time-keeping role of the drummer common to most bands. But like Kandinsky, he did not so much jettison tradition as expand on it, in his case drawing on the polyrhythmic possibilities found in African and Indian music.
Graves was born and remained in Jamaica, Queens, the home of a large number of important Black American musicians. Besides his musical pursuits, Graves took a serious interest in acupuncture and holistic medicine, developing his own herbal remedies, as well as creating a martial arts form known as Yara. Representations of all of these creative outgrowths are present in the Artists Space show, along with sculptures and drawings and photographs of him performing. His interests all lead back to the body, in particular the role of the heart, which he insisted was not a strict timekeeper, as it is usually portrayed, but an organ with its own shadings, its own complex relationship to ourselves and our surroundings.
Adnan and Graves earned critical accolades for their forays into different areas. But not all polymaths are accorded the same respect. I had my own unusual experience with artists crossing boundaries when I was hired to write a book with the peerless musician Miles Davis about another pursuit of his, visual art. In the last 10 years of his life, Davis spent a considerable amount of time drawing and painting. He took the pursuit seriously, and I interviewed him about his growing interest in art. Sadly, the book came out just before he passed on, but it documented another form of creative expression for someone whose accomplishments as a trumpeter, composer, and bandleader had transformed music.
But this foray into the visual arts was met with intense skepticism by many. When I mentioned the Miles Davis book to the highly regarded conceptual artist David Hammons, he snorted in disapproval, saying “He knows as much about being an artist as I do about playing the trumpet.” Another person I mentioned it to likened the book to an imagined one called The Recipes of Jean-Paul Sartre. In other words, does achievement in one field have any relevance to accomplishment in another?
In the most obvious sense, it does not. But as a reflection of artistic commitment, of art as a manifestation of an individual’s total work and worth, I believe it does. All efforts at artistic expression bear consideration, but especially when they are made by people who maintain their own healthy disregard of artistic categorization. Approaching their work in this fashion requires greater acceptance of the whole artist, as well as the original impulses that compel someone to make art in the first place. To conclude with Kandisnky, his path-breaking On the Spiritual in Art identifies three key facets in the development of the artist: “(1) He must repay the talent that he has; (2) his deeds, feelings, and thoughts, as those of every man, create a spiritual atmosphere which is either pure or poisonous; (3) these deeds and thoughts are materials for his creations, which themselves exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere.” Adnan and Graves opened up new possibilities and advanced the development of art. We owe them and their fellow adventurers a commensurate debt of gratitude.