Miles Davis’ Wives

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

George Condo, "Untitled #12, More Sketches Of Spain For Miltes Davis," 1991, Etching and Aquatint, 33 1/2 x 46 1/2 inches (plate), 38 x 52 inches (sheet), Edition of 40. Courtesy Jack Rutberg Gallery.

Miles Davis wasn’t interested in Flamenco dancers or their music. Maybe it was too frilly, too foreign, too feminine to enter his orbit. Whatever the reason, Frances Taylor, the first Mrs. Miles Davis, set out to change his mind. She’d been to Barcelona and fallen for the sexy Spanish sounds and wanted Miles to fall too. Finally, around 1958, she coerced him into seeing the Roberto Iglesias company in New York. Immediately after, he dashed to the Colony Record store and bought up every Flamenco album they had. The next day, he called his longtime right hand, Gil Evans, and the two started in on what would become Sketches of Spain, an album some lambasted as light fare and others swooned over.

Painter George Condo must have swooned. He came of age alongside Basquiat and Keith Haring and recently designed the risque, quaintly crude covers for Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,  but it’s Davis he listened to growing up. His first big-deal painting, exhibited at the 1987 Whitney Biennial and later bought by Eli Broad, was a colorful opus called Dancing to Miles. In 1991, he created a series of etchings in response to Sketches of Spain. Through September 3rd, you can see them at Jack Rutberg Gallery in mid-city L.A.

George Condo, "Dancing to Miles," 1985-86, oil on canvas, 110¼ by 137¾ inches. The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica, CA.

In Condo’s Sketches of Spain, the unfettered id of neo-expressionism merges with an early Cubist angularity. Freedom joins the fantastic, and the etchings delight in eccentric mark-making. Their marks often converge to form feminine figures, as in Untitled #7, an image as frenetically daunting as any of de Kooning’s women. Other times, the marks create illustrative caricatures—in Untitled #2, a curly haired, nude floozy holds her nose and pinches her nipple while an prim bystander looks on. At first glance, the etchings are funny, slightly schizo Picasso wannabes. “It’s about coexistence with the artist’s you respect,” Condo has said; he just wants to fit in. But that name, Miles Davis, appears on the wall labels and image lists, and the persona of the cool, dark trailblazer who never quite did fit in pulls the etchings out of dreamy nostalgia and into a specific historical trajectory. Suddenly, Condo’s blond-ish, flat female figures become grating. They feel frustratingly disconnected from the relational complexity surrounding Sketches of Spain and Davis’ other mid-career masterpieces.

Miles Davis' second wife, Betty Davis, on the cover of "Nasty Gal," an album recorded in 1975.

There’s a story about Davis, recently divorced, seeing Frances at an art opening and pretending she was still his wife. That way, he could comment on her ass without sounding as brutish. Still, despite all the chauvinistic mythology surrounding the jazz great, his women were strong and savvy. There were the type to trick him into falling for Flamenco or finding funk.

I suspect one of Davis’ wives would have liked Condo’s paintings immensely. She gravitated toward primitive sexiness, and had penchant for making whimsy guttural. Twenty years Miles’ junior, Betty Mabry’s marriage to him lasted only a year and in the decade following their divorce, she would produce heated, breathily aggressive singles like the Anti-Love Song and Nasty Girl. If she poured some of her energy into Condo’s Miles homages, the result would be as unfettered and emotive as the images already are, but the women would be a little fuller, a little smarter and take a lot more ownership over the sleek musical landscape that resulted when Davis let Flamenco into his heart.