New York

RAMMΣLLZΣΣ, Maestro 2 Hyte Risk, 1976–79, pen and marker on cardboard, 9 7⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

RAMMΣLLZΣΣ, Maestro 2 Hyte Risk, 1976–79, pen and marker on cardboard, 9 7⁄8 × 23 5⁄8".

“RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder”

Red Bull Arts New York

In the beginning there was The RAMM:ELL:ZEE—not a pseudonym, but an equation that the legendary artist, rapper, philosopher, graffiti writer, and proto-Afrofuturist gave to himself. Why merely name oneself when identity is the result of a mixed-up math, the sum of complex calculations and multidimensional coordinates? God of his own creation myth, the Queens-born Rammellzee waged his first holy war on words, expounding the wild theories he called Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, dedicated to liberating the alphabet from the corrupting social forces—“the tricknowledgies,” as he once dubbed them—that stunted its symbolic potential. “This time diseased culture is not going to send out another diseased culture to relay a message, but will send a letter and the letter is going to relay the message,” he told Edit deAk in a portrait-essay published in the March 1983 issue of Artforum.

“RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder,” the artist’s first retrospective, traced the evolution of his radical dazzle with due reverence. From his earliest days tagging the sides of New York subways, to his dizzying manifestos, to the drawings, paintings, music, performances, and far-out cosmologies he created until his death in 2010 at the age of forty-nine, Ramm (as he was called by most) fashioned himself as a conduit of esoteric knowledge. The intricate, nearly illegible graffiti lettering in an early ink drawing titled Maestro, 1979, was partly inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts. (He admired the monks who would encrypt information inside their elaborate handiwork). Evolution of the World, also 1979, is one of his most exquisite works on paper: a two-panel piece in multicolored marker, for which he imagined a bustling galaxy of hovering planets and long-tailed asteroids, speeding spaceships and alien figures, the action moving from left to right, like a subway car.

Not all of Ramm’s work is as vivid and enchanting. Some of his earliest paintings—such as The Knowledge of the Square and Jams, both 1982—look like straightforward translations of graffiti’s scrawls, spatters, and emblems onto canvas; here the vitality of his hand feels constrained, uncharacteristically mild. Magnum Force—Luxturnomere, 1984, a more dynamic piece, is a slab of granite he spray-painted and carved into an ornate silhouette that fuses letter, arrow, and Starfighter (a motif that recurs in various forms throughout his work). In mixed-media assemblages such as Ransom Note of the Infinium Sirpiereule and The Coming of Zee, both 1984, he created odd topographies by layering unidentifiable found objects into paint and resin, burying them for excavation by the world to come.

“This planet is doomed,” wrote Sun Ra, composer, musician, poet, prophet, and one of Rammellzee’s strongest spiritual and aesthetic ancestors. “I come from a better place than this.” The artist’s most extraordinary creations were his Garbage Gods, elaborate costumes he designed and built from odds and ends he collected or rescued off the street. Each represents a character in an epic tale of a new cosmic order he wrote and presided over. Influenced in part by Japanese samurai legends, Ramm’s warriors—with names like Traxx, Rip Cord Rex, Igniter, and Alpha Positive—are colorful, glowing, and absolutely transporting, made from the discarded stuff of this world as a vision of an imagined elsewhere. Hovering nearby in the gallery was a swarm of Ramm’s Letter Racers, small spacecraft each representing a letter of the alphabet and densely constructed of innumerable toothpaste caps, skateboards, toy crowns, and assorted junk. From speakers overhead blared a recording of the artist reading his sci-fi film script Alpha’s Bet (2000), which he wrote to bring his universe to the big screen. His voice, steely, growling, sounds like an interplanetary transmission as he announces: “This is a report of your gothic futures.” Rammellzee’s cosmos was an act of superlative faith, an exhilarating production of a singular mind. Message received.

Jennifer Krasinski