BOSTON – Cey Adams thinks big. At this moment, in fact, he’s forced to scale a ladder to work on a rendering in gold, yellow, black and gray of his name writ large. C E Y the letters shout from a mural-in-progress at the entrance to Boston University’s Stone Gallery, which is being prepared for the Oct. 4 opening of Adams’ first ever solo retrospective.
The newly renovated gallery is being transformed into a sort of artistic timeline. It traces Adams’ life from his youth as a New York City graffiti writer to his work as creative director of the genre-defining hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings, as well as his emergence as a fine artist, his latter-day interpretation of iconic American corporate brand logos, and his publications and his work for the Smithsonian Institution.
“I honestly believe that if you put it out into the universe and really want it, it will come.” – Adams
To his left as he works on the mural is a photograph, taken more than 40 years ago, of a slight and smiling Adams standing in front of what appears to be a freshly tagged wall wearing a sweat shirt emblazoned with colorful graffiti style letters. Whaam! it says. A lot has changed for Adams since that photo was taken, but a lot hasn’t, including his devotion to his art, his limitless drive and his signature smile.
“I honestly believe that if you put it out into the universe and really want it, it will come,” he said during an interview in the gallery’s office. “I was in the right place, at the right time, that’s an excellent way to put it. But I aIso like to think I was the right person in the right place at the right time,” he said.
“I aIso like to think I was the right person in the right place at the right time,” – Adams
Adams was in the right place at the right time in the early 1980s when, after studying at the School of Visual Arts, he began gaining attention as a street art pioneer. He was featured in the PBS documentary Style Wars alongside notable artists like Dondi, Futura, Crash, Daze and many others. Some of these long-time colleagues are still at it.
“There is a very small group of us from the 80s that broke through and 40 years later are still making art today. I’m talking about artists in their 50s and 60s that have been on the same path all these years,” he said. He mentioned Crash, Daze, Lady Pink and Futura as examples.
“There is a very small group of us from the 80s that broke through and 40 years later are still making art today.” – Adams
At the time, the nascent street art scene was offering young artists a new path to artistic fulfillment and, possibly, commercial success. That path, Adams said, still exists for today’s street artists. In fact, he said, the once-closed elite art networks and legacy galleries have seen the future and street art is it.
“When I was a teenager writing graffiti and making art, I never thought I could have my voice heard. Now it’s happening on a global scale. Major galleries and museums and these corporate brands all want to participate. And that’s what street art has done over 50 years,” he said.
“The important thing is that we don’t need anybody’s permission or validation to be reminded that we exist. When I was 15 the whole idea was to get the attention of the art establishment. What street art has taught us is that we don’t need their permission. All we need is an understanding of who we are and what message we’re trying to convey,” he said.
“When I was a teenager writing graffiti and making art, I never thought I could have my voice heard.” – Adams
The current exhibition at BU, CEY ADAMS, DepARTure: 40 Years of Art and Design, is curated by Liza Quiñonez of Street Theory. Running through Dec. 11, the show features more 60 pieces including photographs of Adams’ early days in street art, hip-hop album covers and logos he designed with Def Jam, original works from his Trusted Brands Series and a full size version of the One Nation mural he painted for the Smithsonian.
The exhibition will be followed by a new retrospective book tentatively titled DepARTure: The Art and Design of Cey Adams, that will share the current show’s themes. Adams’ earlier publications include 2008’s DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop and 2019’s The Mash Up: Hip-Hop Photos Remixed by Iconic Graffiti Artists with renowned punk/hip-hop photographer Janette Beckman.
“He’s the hardest working man in the art world.” – Photographer Janette Beckman
Beckman, who has made photographs of legendary artists from Run DMC to the Sex Pistols, called Adams “a force of nature.”
“He’s the hardest working man in the art world,” she said of her friend and colleague. “He is a brilliant artist, a brilliant graphic designer, he paints murals, he’s a native New Yorker. There are so many great things,” she said, adding that his networking skills may rival his artistic ones.
“With Cey, he’s built so many great relationships with all these people over the years that when he suggests an idea or a project, they all say ‘sure I’m in,’” which is what happened when the two collaborated on The Mash Up combining Beckman’s vintage hip-hop photography with the work of some of the street art world’s best known practitioners, including Lee Quinones, Lady Pink, Zephyr, Claw Money, Jester and Futura.
Adams and Beckman collaborated again earlier this year to create a new silkscreen print that features Adams’ work atop Beckman’s image of street art legend Keith Haring. For the print, the two turned to Gary Lichtenstein, the master silk screen printer who has worked with Adams and many other renowned artists including Bob Gruen, Futura, Al Diaz and Crash.
Lichtenstein said Adams is a hands-on partner in the making of silk screen works, which become more like originals than prints. “He’s one of the most curious artists I’ve worked with. He’s always questioning, asking good questions and he’s really intuitive. He’s got that design flair, that understanding of color, shapes and textures. It’s kind of like cooking in the same kitchen,” he said.
“He’s got that design flair, that understanding of color, shapes and textures.” – printer Gary Lichtenstein
Adams’ first major right-place, right-time experience may have come in 1983 when he met and befriended the Beastie Boy’s Adam Horovitz, a relationship that endures today. He also met Russell Simmons and Rick Ruben, the founders of Def Jam at around that same time. After signing on as creative director with the up-and-coming label, Adams created album covers and logos for soon-to-be-crowned hip-hop royalty, including the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z.
“When Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J were coming up, I was right there. Every great thing that happened to them, happened to me. I traveled the world with them,” Adams said of those heady early days at Def Jam.
After Def Jam, Adams began creating campaigns for companies such as Levi’s, Nike, HBO, Coca-Cola, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Moët & Chandon, Comedy Central, HBO, and Warner Bros. From these collaborations grew Adams’ Trusted Brands series, perhaps his best known work. In Trusted Brands, Adams took corporate logos designed to be used in advertising or on tiny packages and blew them up to gallery size, and in the process replaced solid colors with nuanced collage work.
“I wanted to celebrate the brands that I grew up loving. And it turned out that people that collect art also loved these things,” he said, adding that the companies were flattered by the attention.
“I wanted to celebrate the brands that I grew up loving. And it turned out that people that collect art also loved these things.”- Adams
“They embraced what I did; they wanted to be part of the conversation. They want to have contemporary artists focus on them and have consumers see them in a different way. I’m not saying these brands are amazing or anything like that, I’m just saying take a look,” he said.
The pop art influence in Adams’ work is unmistakable, particularly in the Trusted Brands series: “I’m a product of the 60s. I loved Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg. I loved pop art, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Adams developed a relationship with the Smithsonian and, again at the right place at the right time, he was commissioned to live-paint a mural on the National Mall on the occasion of the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The result was the One Nation mural, a black-and-white rendering of the American flag, with collage elements honoring the heroes of the civil rights movement.
In his latest project for the Smithsonian, Adams oversaw the creation of a 300-page illustrated book that accompanied the 2021 Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, which also included nine CDs with 129 classic tracks. One of his first acts after completing the book was to share it with Horovitz.
“The Beastie Boys have a few songs in this book and the first thing I did when I finished the layout, I sent it to them so they could see it. This is the highest cultural institute in the land, so I was excited to share it,’’ Adams said.
From the streets of New York, to the creative suite at Def Jam, to the corporate board rooms, to the galleries and museums, Adams has established himself as an important, multifaceted artist and designer whose career touched so many important components of modern American art, culture and race relations.
“Cey Adams is unquestionably a cultural icon, he is a visionary that has been at the forefront of many art and cultural movements,” said Monica Quinonez of West Chelsea Contemporary, which represents Adams.
“Cey Adams is unquestionably a cultural icon, he is a visionary that has been at the forefront of many art and cultural movements.” – Monica Quinonez, West Chelsea Contemporary
For his part, Adams seems most proud of his role in helping street art gain its legitimacy as an art form, paving the path for a new generation of artists whose work can gain public attention outside the restraints of elitist art networks. “Street art makes a direct connection to the cultural landscape that we’re living in right now. Young people understand their voice can be heard in real time now,” he said.