Milford Graves is one of those people who wants to understand Everything.

This virtuoso percussionist, self-taught authority on cardiology, professor, philosopher, healer, and martial arts innovator is the subject of “Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal,” an intermittently fascinating, though more often exasperating exhibition on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art through Jan. 24.

I have always had an affinity for crackpot visionaries — Buckminster Fuller, for example, or William Blake, to name two of the more respectable examples of the bunch. Those who take an idiosyncratic journey to make a new synthesis of practice and knowledge, those who reconcile deep contradictions and produce weird inventions, have always captured my imagination. And if I fail to understand what they are talking about, who expects genius to be easy?

Naturally, I was drawn to a show about Graves, who was born in 1941 and is still working, though ailing, at the house in Jamaica, Queens, that has been the center of his career nearly all his life. He probably would be better known today if he had accepted an offer from Miles Davis to play in his group, but he had many other things he wanted to explore.

Graves holds a patent for preparing non-embryonic stem cells. He was a professor in the Black Music Program at Bennington College in Vermont for 39 years. In 2020 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study human heart vibrations, and he is credited with discoveries on variable heart rate. He invented a martial art.

The show was a collaboration between Ars Nova Workshop, the presenter of jazz and improvised music, and ICA. Mark Christman, director and founder of Ars Nova, has said organizing such a show was one of his long-held ambitions. He put it together with ICA’s chief curator, Anthony Elms.

Graves began as a percussionist, initially with Latin groups in New York, and eventually as one of the founders of the free jazz movement of the 1960s. He worked with many of the top jazz innovators of the time and was picked in a 1967 critics' poll as the music’s bright new talent.

Music is the beginning of all the exploration that followed. The exhibition’s heart is a gallery in which a video of Graves playing the tabla, the twin hand drums that originated in India, is projected on the wall. The rhythm is complex, with overlapping beats and other sounds within the beats, but the impact is direct and compelling.

Most of what Graves has done grows directly from his exploration of the beat. The rhythm of the drum echoes the human heartbeat, and that is where Graves went next. He purchased an electronic stethoscope so he could listen more carefully to heartbeats, and then took a course to be certified as a medical technician. Over the years he has acquired ever more sophisticated heart monitoring and imaging devices.

Over time, he began to be interested in the rhythms and pulses that permeate time and space, incorporating it with his study of the heart. One of the chief products of this preoccupation is a set of figures that dominate the main gallery and are probably the main reason for an institution like ICA to show Graves’ work.

Mad scientist at work

These sculptural assemblages combine parts of anatomical teaching models, electronic images on screens, partial skeletons, a nail-studded nkisi power figure, figurines, copper-colored mesh and a wooden funnel-like object that is labeled a wormhole, a gizmo I think is a van de Graaff generator, and lots of seemingly miscellaneous other stuff. It has a definite mad-scientist vibe.

The most self-explanatory part of this grouping consists of a skeleton, with a large plastic ear and a screen at its heart. Over its shoulder is a drum, on which the words “Drum listens to heart” are written. The rest of the work seems to be intended as an elaboration of his thinking in both a physical and psychological realm.

"Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal" at ICA, installation detail.
Constance Mensh
"Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal" at ICA, installation detail.

Graves clearly views the assemblage as a major statement, even as a kind of scientific diagram, related to the EKG printouts and electronic monitoring imagery displayed on the walls of this gallery. Unfortunately, it goes unexplained, except in a video on the exhibition’s second floor, far from the work itself. Without any sense of what Graves intends, the show’s centerpieces looks like a piece of funky window dressing.

At this point, I should note that my account of the exhibition proceeds very differently from how you’ll encounter things if you go. I find that I can only begin to discuss Graves’ work by working from the inside — the drumbeat and the heartbeat. The curators approach from the outside in, beginning with pictures of Graves’ garden.

It appears to be wildly overgrown, though upon examination, it proves to be carefully if unconventionally cultivated. That may be a good metaphor for the artist himself.

The rest of the exhibition seems intended as a visit to Graves’ house. The main gallery has the assemblage and cardiology. Another has a vividly painted drum set from the 1970s, along with album covers and some of the costumes Graves has worn in performance. Then, videos show Graves and others practicing Yara, a martial art he invented, inspired in part by the praying mantis. It looks something like a hybrid of tai chi and jitterbug. I particularly like the video of Graves practicing it in the snow.

Hanging from the ceiling is a suspended object, labeled as a practice bag for Yara. It is presented as a work of art, and it does have presence. It is too bad that among all the Yara videos in the exhibit, none show the bag in use.

Installation shot of "Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal" shows Yara martial arts practice bag in the foreground, with video of the artist's hands, playing the tabla, behind.
Constance Mensh
Installation shot of "Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal" shows Yara martial arts practice bag in the foreground, with video of the artist's hands, playing the tabla, behind.

Obviously, rhythm is intimately associated with dance, and dance has an association with martial arts, especially the way Graves does it. Still, though Yara takes up a lot of the exhibition’s floor space, especially in the videos upstairs, its relevance is not apparent. Indeed, the whole show seems a hodgepodge of cool things Graves has done.

I suspect the curators' analogy is to a jazz concert in which the performers do what they do without explanation and those attending simply make of it what they will. (Even the gallery notes that the ICA usually distributes are missing, because of COVID-19 precautions. They are available online at icaphila.org.)

Such a minimal curatorial approach might seem appropriate for a jazz musician, but it does a disservice to an artist like Graves whose work is cerebral, experimental, and odd. He has spent his whole life thinking this stuff up. We can’t expect to grasp it all immediately. An exhibition like this should at least try to help.

ON EXHIBIT

Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal

Through Jan. 24 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St.

Hours: Wed.-Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m..

Admission: free, timed tickets required.

Information: 215-898-7108 or icaphila.org