Cey Adams was a teenager in New York in the 1970s when block parties in the Bronx began to birth a new beat. A young graffiti artist with a knack for graphic design, he quickly found himself in the early momentum of hip hop, making album art and logos for artists like the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, and Public Enemy. As the founding Creative Director at Def Jam Recordings, Adams helped turn words once scrawled on city walls into their own cultural lexicon.
A traveling retrospective, Cey Adams, Departure: 40 Years of Art and Design, is currently on view at the University of North Texas in Denton, but it’s a show in Austin that’s celebrating Adams’ 40-year career with all new work. Combinations at West Chelsea Contemporary features nearly 100 mixed media collages, ranging from iconic American logos to street art and Pop-inspired designs.
Pepsi-Cola, KFC, and Brillo collages jump out as fresh throwbacks, mixing and remixing nostalgia with ephemera: wallpaper scraps, maps, and layers of magazine clippings reveal the cultural clamor of America. In KFC (2023), an image from the civil rights era, pasted to the right of Colonel Sanders’ ear — just below a gallery flyer for Richard Serra — creates connections that are more subliminal than accidental.
But Adams says there’s no relationship between the Colonel and the civil rights movement in this composition: “It’s about the craftsmanship of the design — the letterform, the spacing, the idea that you can take a portrait and break it down in three shades and it looks exactly like a person.”
The show’s largest collage-based work, American Flag (2023), is an homage to Jasper Johns, its blue boxful of stars and red and white stripes replete with advertisements and documents, celebrity sightings, and glitter paper. But take Bob Hope out of it — take out the red paint, red glitter, red monkey, red book cover — and it’s just a red stripe, Adams insists. The lines, the colors, the way they combine: “It only becomes a flag when you have 13 of them.”
Adams points to an elegant handwritten letter in the top white stripe, which begins with the words My Dearest Violet. The letter is dated from March of 1925; he was born in March of 1962, and the near 40-year difference is something of a marvel to him. “I am fascinated by time periods — especially things that are original, with a date confirming that the signature was made at that time.”
Adams’ own timeline is evident at every turn in these works, from 1960s aesthetics, to 1980s stylistics, to flashes of adolescence: Hot Wheels and Barbie logos conjure one’s own Mattel memories from childhood. Adams started producing collage works around 2010, to better connect with young students who might otherwise shy away from making art. Anyone can play with glue sticks and paper, he shrugs. As for his own collages, so perfectly put together and chock-full of visuals, it’s just “layer after layer after layer.”
Most of the works in Combinations are presented in groupings — a sort of strength in numbers — as seen in a grid of 20 12 x 12-inch word-centric pieces, their colorful seriality a clear nod to Warhol. Across the way, a suite of four LOVE collages, à la Robert Indiana gives way to a hard-edge painting of the same word in bright white, pressing out from a swirl of color set against a pitch black background. (A much larger version, painted on panels of blue denim, resides in the Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco.)
“Things look better in groupings,” he tells me as we take in the LOVE series. “One supports another supports another.”
Combinations gets its name not from the various components of each collage-based work, but from the people Adams has worked with throughout the last 40 years. An early press shot of Run-DMC from the late 1980s, taken by music photographer Janette Beckman, appears in the show, with auras of color, added after the fact by Adams, radiating outward from the trio. The mashup perfectly captures the energy and artistry of the era.
A street mural photographed by Martha Cooper — who documented much of New York’s graffiti scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s — is also featured in the show. Carwash (1982), which Adams asked Cooper to shoot at the time, hid in a box of slides for 40 years, and has been brought to life as a silkscreen print courtesy of Gary Lichtenstein (no relation to Roy Lichtenstein), whose own work instantly caught Adams’ attention when he visited the master printer’s former Jersey City studio in 2016.
Throughout his career, Adams has helped shape the art and design of hip hop culture, and American culture, and after seeing Combinations, mixed media collage seems like the natural choice in bringing it all together. “That’s what’s so great about doing collage, this is an art form that no one respects,” he laughs.
But these works are certainly designed to make people pay attention. From a few feet away, Adams’ logos and letterforms are instantly recognizable — up close, their layers of information take time to unpack.
Like he said while we stood before them: “The story only unfolds when you step back.”
Cey Adams: Combinations is on view at West Chelsea Contemporary in Austin through November 19, 2023.