Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal

February 27–April 27, 2024

Open to the public Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 pm. On exhibition event dates, Usdan Gallery will have extended hours, see below.


Exhibition events:

Jason Moran solo performance, Friday, March 1, 8 pm, Deane Carriage Barn (Usdan Gallery open until 7:30 pm)

William Parker and Cooper-Moore performance, 8 pm, Wednesday, March 13, Deane Carriage Barn (Usdan Gallery open until 7:30 pm)

Milford Graves Full Mantis documentary screening and discussion with director Jake Meginsky, Monday, March 18, 7 pm, Tishman Auditorium (Usdan Gallery open 2:30-6:30 pm)


This nationally traveling exhibition gathers the multifaceted work of Milford Graves (1941-2021) to explore the practices and predilections of an extraordinary jazz innovator, tireless polymath, and legendary Bennington College professor. A revelatory force in music starting in the mid-1960s, Graves liberated the role of the drummer—moving drums from the background to contribute equally with other instruments—and gave rise to the Free Jazz movement. Yet his life’s work encompassed medicine, botany, activism, and martial arts, elements that intertwined to inform his music and expansive consideration of healing and the mind-body relationship. 


An autodidact, lifelong experimenter and consummate improviser, Graves saw rhythm in all the layers of existence, from subatomic particles to heartbeats to the movement of planets. He is credited as one of the discoverers of the “variable heart rate,” a breakthrough that fed his drumming and led to advancements in cardiology; his accolades ranged from a Doris Duke Impact Award to a Guggenheim Fellowship to a patent for a device that prepares non-embryonic stem cells. Fascinated by martial arts, he created his own form, called Yára, by studying the movements of the praying mantis. His house in Jamaica, Queens—owned by his grandparents, and where his family still lives—formed the center of his work and the expression of his ideas. And while he taught music and improvisation to Bennington students for 39 years, he also taught gardening, acupuncture and other wellness practices to his Queens neighbors. 


A Mind-Body Deal demonstrates how Graves’s wide-ranging activities mutually informed one another, manifested in exhibition objects including hand-painted album covers and posters, idiosyncratic drum sets, multimedia sculptures, photographs, costumes, archival recordings, ephemera and documentation of his house and garden.


After incarnations in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles, A Mind-Body Deal has particular historic resonance in the Bennington College context as it highlights Graves’s  pedagogy as part of his practice. An event series centering music, movement, healing, and film will further explore and celebrate his legacy, with performances by renowned musicians including pianist, composer and MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran, bassist William Parker, and pianist and composer Cooper-Moore. Additional community events include a screening of the documentary Milford Graves Full Mantis, directed by alum Jake Meginsky ’09 and special performance at the February 27 opening by Bennington music faculty Senem Pirler and Michael Wimberly, music faculty emeritus Bruce Williamson, and music instructor Michael Bisio. 


A Mind-Body Deal is curated by Mark Christman, executive artistic director of Ars Nova Workshop, in Philadelphia, with curatorial research from Jake Meginsky (‘09), and designed for Bennington by Usdan Gallery Director and Curator Anne Thompson. The exhibition debuted in Fall 2020 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, in collaboration with curator Anthony Elms. A version of the exhibition, expanded with the inclusion of Danielle Jackson as curator, appeared under the title Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency, at Artists Space, in New York, before traveling to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 


Major support for Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Joseph Robert Foundation.


(Above image: detail of Milford Graves, Healing Herbs and Bodily Systems, 1994, mixed-media collage. Installation photography: Alon Koppel for Usdan Gallery, Bennington College, 2024)