LOS ANGELES — Walking through downtown LA, you may not notice the percussion of the city around you — but walk into the ICA LA and you’re surrounded by sound. Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency takes center stage as a multimedia exhibition highlighting the work of the late free jazz drummer and artist Milford Graves (1941–2021), whose polymathic experimentation spanned music, visual art, botany, and even an improvisational martial art he invented called Yara.    

Born in Jamaica, Queens, Graves “liberated the drum kit” with his revolutionary approach to rhythm, as Mark Christman of the Ars Nova Workshop said at the exhibition’s open house. Graves performed and recorded with numerous other avant-garde jazz artists over his career, including Albert Ayler, Miriam Makeba, Sun Ra, and John Zorn, while also working as a professor in Bennington College’s Black Music Division for nearly 40 years.

The exhibition is a feast for the senses, between the soundtrack echoing through the gallery, Graves’s colorful assemblage sculptures, video footage and photos of him performing music and martial arts, and of course his records, some of which are hand-painted. This broad range could easily tip into cacophony, but effective curation brings out the resonances between the various art forms and objects. Each section’s wall texts articulate Graves’s philosophies of movement, music, and physicality, often in his own words. 

A sense of spirituality permeates the show, as it presents Graves as an artist who lived holistically: every aspect of his art impacted his life. As a result, the show features an unexpected variety of material, from his patterned costumes — hanging simply and effectively on the wall — to numerous aural interactions, such as individual sound stations. 

Installation view of Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency at the ICA LA

Graves’s own fusion of his many interests is apparent in an exuberantly painted drum kit, and in his interests in the body and nature — especially how they interact with each other. He studied cardiac technology to understand the connection between the drum beat and the heartbeat and recreate the rhythms and vibrations that would resonate most in the body. His rhythms playing alongside assemblages illuminating the anatomy of the heart convey that music and art were his ways of making sense of life itself. 

Complementing the retrospective is Into/Loving/Against/Lost in the Loop (2023), an installation by Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork that uses microphones installed in the main gallery to capture the audio in the Graves show. In the separate room, speakers distort and amplify the sound as visitors wander through a maze of translucent plastic sheets, prompting them to ponder the curious feedback loops of sound and space. Together, the shows provide a multisensory experience that allows visitors to explore all the ways that different art forms can intersect. 

A new exterior mural adds to the conversation about interactions and translations in art: Christine Sun Kim’s “Bounce Back” (2023) uses the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “debt” to explore the nuances of its meaning based on the ways it is signed and used in various contexts. 

The open house presentations were translated by Pro Bono ASL and free introductory ASL classes are part of the exhibition’s programming, adding another dimension to the ways that these art forms are translated and experienced. This synchronous display is what makes the show stand out: experiencing the cadence of his music while watching a film of his Yara movements, the harmony of Graves’s work comes through.

Installation view of Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency at the ICA LA
Installation view of Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency at the ICA LA
Installation view of Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency at the ICA LA
Installation view of Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency at the ICA LA

Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency continues at the ICA LA (1717 East 7th Street, Arts District, Los Angeles) through May 14. The exhibition was organized by Artists Space, New York, in collaboration with Mark Christman and Ars Nova Workshop, Philadelphia, and curated by Danielle A. Jackson with Stella Cilman. The ICA LA presentation was organized by Amanda Sroka, senior curator, with Caroline Ellen Liou, curatorial assistant.

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Anne Wallentine

Anne Wallentine is a writer and art historian based in Los Angeles. She received her MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art.

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