In his 49 years on Earth, the multi-hyphenate artist and musician Rammellzee covered a staggering amount of creative ground. Circling the worlds of hip-hop, art, fashion, and language in downtown New York, the artist’s consistent presence on the peripheries of pop culture had an immeasurable influence on the many communities that he infiltrated. Rammellzee cultivated a distinctive visual aesthetic that bordered on the fantastical; often masked or obscured in some way, he looked a bit like a post-apocalyptic superhero. Currently on view at Red Bull Arts in Chelsea through August 26, “RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder” is his largest survey of work to date, and perhaps the beginning of a new posthumous chapter for the artist and his estate.
“This show was never not going to be an onslaught—it had to be,” Max Wolf, chief curator of Red Bull Arts, told me as we toured the exhibition. Much like the career of Rammellzee, who died in 2010, the show—jam-packed with timelines and text telling at least part of the story behind a body of work that encompassed visionary painting and sculpture as well as performance and sound—defies easy summarization.
Born in Far Rockaway, Queens, Rammellzee got his start in late-1970s New York as a theoretically inclined graffiti artist whose early writings established a new vocabulary that attempted to redefine and transcend the limits of standard English. The artist dubbed this new approach to language “Gothic Futurism,” and his early essays helped lay the groundwork for three decades of formal exploration. In Gothic Futurism, graffiti-esque lettering is often used as a means to visually morph letters into figurative shapes. “As text, they’re quite sculptural,” Wolf said of the dense writing. “He never let grammar get in the way of his quantum mathematics.”
The artist legally changed his name to “The RAMM:ELL:ZEE” in 1979, and from that point on, he refused to reveal his birth identity, which remains impressively un-Googleable to this day. The list of his artistic contributions is formidable. Starting in 1982, he developed a body of paintings and sculptures that often examined the detritus of American popular culture through an Afrofuturist lens. He is known to cinefiles for his cameos in Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style (1983) and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and he is revered by hip-hop heads for “Beat Bop,” his 1983 collaboration with the rapper K.Rob and the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. (He and Basquiat were friends—enough so that Rammellzee accompanied the artist to Los Angeles for his first solo exhibition in the city at Gagosian Gallery.) The boundary-pushing “Beat Bop” remains a touchstone of experimental rap. It is also one of the most collectable rap records of all time—currently one copy of the original pressing is for sale on the record marketplace website Discogs for $7,885.47.
The Red Bull Arts exhibition covers Rammellzee’s formative material to work made later in his life, which for a long period centered on the Battle Station, a loft space in Tribeca that the artist re-situated in Battery Park City after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Among the standouts in the show are large costume-cum-sculpture works created in the Battle Station with found materials to embody a sort of good-versus-evil battle between two warring factions, the Garbage Gods and the Trashers. “You see this binary throughout his life,” Wolf said. “There’s the writers and the cops, the people who know and the people who don’t, the artists and the collectors.”
Rammellzee, the curator said, had health problems resulting in part from decades of exposure to the many toxic materials–epoxy resin, for one–used in his work. The artist was forthright to his friends and family about his issues, and the final decade of his life had an expressed urgency. “He did acknowledge mortality at lot in his work later in life,” Wolf said. “He had to hit the opera, he had to hit the film, the comic, the video game. He had to set the foundation.”
For curators, Rammellzee’s complex mythology provides its own challenges, both practically and conceptually. Noting that the artist’s “legacy is ensconced in folklore and hearsay and gossip and legend,” Wolf said it was important that “the curatorial bend” in the survey show be minimized. The goal was to provide as much material from as many sources as possible. For physical material, Wolf—along with critic and curator Carlo McCormick and Red Bull Arts associate curators Candice Strongwater, Jeff Mao, and Christian Omodeo—spent five months tracking down archives from disparate sources, including European collections and the artist’s estate, which is currently represented by Sotheby’s.
Eric Shiner, senior vice president of contemporary art at Sotheby’s (after a stint as director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), said he is optimistic about the prospect of Rammellzee’s sizable estate reaching new audiences. “We’re working in the next months and years to really build Rammellzee’s reputation and to promote his legacy on all fronts,” Shiner said. “Not only his three-dimensional and two-dimensional artwork, but also in all of the many other things that he was working on, whether they be video games or operas or movie scripts.”
Citing the superhero movie Black Panther as an example, Shiner continued, “It’s incredible when you think about the world he created and what it can become—it fits so perfectly with what’s popular right now.”