November 24, 2019 01:30 PM EST Treadway Gallery


Miles Davis Untitled Abstraction

Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Untitled Abstraction, c. 1988
acrylic on canvas
110 x 60 inches

Provenance: Miles Davis to Paul Toledano (1958-1994), Davis’ personal assistant from 1987-1990 to Toledano’s sister, Marie Gillen, Abita Springs, LA.

Toledano was listed in the credits of Miles Davis’ last album. Davis gifted Toledano several paintings for him to market to help with Toledano’s medical bills. A signed letter from Gillen accompanies the work.


"When I first met Miles Davis, I was terrified. He was my idol and still is. Miles played the way he was as a human being and he painted and drew the same way. Miles was authentic, nothing slick. He didn’t want to think like everyone. He knew jazz had an attitude just like his art did. When he drew faces and shapes, he

drew heads in all different directions. It was always an experiment, a chance to break boundaries."



Quincy Jones, from the foreword, Miles Davis The Collected Artwork, Insight Editions, 2013.


Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, a river town just north of St Louis. He grew up in East St Louis, Illinois, just across the river from St Louis. His family was educated and fairly well-off; his father had earned a B.A. from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and had graduated from Northwestern’s College of Denistry. Miles was given a trumpet for his thirteenth birthday

along with lessons from Elwood Buchanan at Lincoln High School. He was inspired by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to be a musician. He performed in clubs around the St Louis area at a young age.


In 1944, he enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music to study classical music during the day, while playing in jazz clubs in Harlem at night. A year later, he left Juilliard to play jazz full-time.  He played with Charlie Parker as early as 1945, and made a recording with Parker in 1947.  He became interested in visual arts in the 1980s, alternating between playing music and

painting; he said, “I really started painting a lot in the beginning of the eighties, and now I'm spending quite a bit of time doing that. If I don’t play the trumpet, I’ll do that. It’s always one of the two. I can’t do them together.” (1)


In 1988, Davis became inspired by the Milan design movement, Memphis, and began painting abstract works using hot colors and conflicting shapes. He incorporated "totem faces” and tribal masks from African art. He befriended the artist Jo Gelbard and collaborated, Gelbard did the album art for Davis’ album Amandla (1989). He painted large canvases on his studio floor in California, favoring the light quality over New York.


On Miles Davis’ painting, Roots, 1991, Jae Sinett writes,

“Miles was well-grounded in the aesthetics of African American music. Everything he did portrayed that. Even during the cool period with Gil Evans, you can hear the blues in those orchestrated pieces. This painting seems to be a reaffirmation of the blues. Some of the figures are trying to break that spirit apart—are trying to suck the life from him. But there are figures who can’t be disrupted: a suggestion that some one is watching over the ones who are struggling.” (2)


One of Miles’ most active influences was Jean-Michel Basquiat. Although they never met they had a mutual admiration for each other: Jean-Michel would listen to Miles’ music when he worked (and made references to Miles in his work) and Miles connected with Jean-Michel’s paintings and collected them.


Scott Gutterman describes his failed attempt at trying to define and categorize Miles’ body of work:


"I once asked Miles to help me with writing captions for his work. The plan was that I would hold up an image of one of his paintings, and whatever he said would become the caption. He looked at the first one, a typically free-flowing abstraction with hints of a dancer’s body at its core, and said, 'I don’t know what the fuck this thing is.'   Miles didn’t title or date any of his art. Miles Davis was an artist in the simplest and truest sense of the term: He respected his impulse to create, and he tempered that impulse with discipline." (3)


Miles Davis compares his approach to painting like composing music:


If I have a canvas, I look at it like I would an arrangement. It has to be balanced. I have to have something going this way and something going that way. I try to do it like the guy I used to work with all the time, Gil Evans. I can put my head inside his and do things the way we used to do. Most composers, when they write, if they’re moving something, most of them take the notes of the scale and use them like checkers. But not Gil. Sometimes there’d be contrary motion from maybe two melodies. He’d run ‘em right together. And it would come out, you know, like one of Picasso’s things—balanced and modern. (4)


It is clear that the compositions of Davis’ paintings were spontaneous and related to his emotions. He did not start with a well-planned message about a particular topic and then try to represent that in his art; rather like a true abstract expressionist, he took part in the physical activity of creating art in an attempt to connect with his inner self. The process was of self-discovery and was emancipatory. It also explains his willingness to have conflicting images within one composition. Several people who were asked about Miles’ art would respond, “if he were happy” or “if he just had a negative phone conversation”, etc.; he would

paint or draw in an attempt to come to terms with his feelings and work through them to a better place. The initial conflict and its resolution may very well appear within one painting.


Interestingly, Sam Gilliam’s paintings of the mid-1970s were influenced by the music of Miles Davis (and John Coltrane), and as previously mentioned, Jean-Michel Basquiat was moved in certain ways while painting and listening to Davis. Miles’ paintings are the result of reducing that into a singularity—the two creative avenues being explored by one man’s mind.



1. Syncopated Rhythms, 20th Century African American Art from the George and Joyce Wein

Collection. Boston University Art Gallery, 2005.

2. The Visual Art of Miles Davis , Joanne Nerlino, International Review of African American Art,

vol. 14 no. 3, Hampton University Museum, 1997. Jae Sinett is a jazz drummer and composer.

3. Miles Davis The Collected Artwork, Insight Editions, 2013. p.21.


4. Ibid. p. 164.


This painting was originally given to Paul Toledano unstretched.  It is on a new, heavy duty stretcher with a high quality custom frame.

Estimate: $70,000 - $90,000


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