“Entry to the fabled TriBeCa loft where the artist and musician Rammellzee lived and worked, all but secluding himself in a thicket of cosmic paintings, militarized plastic sculpture and Samurai-like handmade costumes, was like initiation into a secret society in which graffiti, hip-hop, linguistics and science fiction were being fused into a strange new category of art. But Rammellzee opened the doors to this world more and more rarely before he died in 2010 at 49, and even stars tended to be star-struck by an invitation.
“I took George Clinton and Bootsy Collins to the Battle Station for the first time, and they left feeling like they’d just had a close encounter,” said the bassist and music producer Bill Laswell, who met Rammellzee in the early 1980s and remained one of the few people who saw him regularly.
“Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks the building on Laight Street that housed the Battle Station was sold to make way for luxury apartments, and Rammellzee and his wife, Carmela Zagari, were pushed out, relocated to a conventional, smaller place in Battery Park City. Almost 20 years’ worth of his obsessive artwork, enough to fill a large truck, went into a storage locker, where it remained unseen for years, in danger of being forgotten for good.
“But pieces of it are now starting to re-emerge, in a way that Rammellzee most likely would have approved of: in fighter formation. A bunkerlike, black-lighted re-creation of the Battle Station was one of the most talked-about pieces in “Art in the Streets,” a sprawling graffiti survey last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, organized by the museum’s director, Jeffrey Deitch, who as a New York dealer had courted Rammellzee for years.
The Suzanne Geiss Company, a new gallery in SoHo, will open its inaugural show by suspending, as if in flight, two complete sets of works that Rammellzee called “letter racers,” spacecraftlike sculptures representing the letters A to Z, built bricolage style from scraps of cast-off consumer goods like flip-flops, sunglasses, toy cars, cheap umbrellas, Bic pens and air-freshener tops.
“Rammellzee – his pharaonic name — which he formulated as a teenager, after leaving home in the projects in Far Rockaway, Queens, and later legally adopted — was not a name at all, he insisted, but a mathematical equation.
“His artwork, though he did show it in galleries, at least in the early years, was artwork only secondarily, he said. Its real purpose was to illustrate a deconstructionist-type dual philosophy, called Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, that imagined a world in which Roman letters would arm and liberate themselves, at his command, from the power structures of European language. He believed he had inherited his role as a kind of lexical commander in chief from medieval monks, whose literacy in a mostly illiterate world demonstrated the extraordinary power of words to shape reality.
“He felt that even now if you control the language, you control the discourse, you control the power,” said Henry Chalfant, a filmmaker and graffiti scholar who first met Rammellzee at a 1980 exhibition of graffiti work by Lee Quinones and Fred Brathwaite (better known as Fab 5 Freddy) at White Columns gallery in SoHo.
“The letter racers were in his conception totally functional, like models to demonstrate how the letters would work if they were ever to be mechanized and able to fly into battle,” Mr. Chalfant said.
“Rammellzee’s belief that his models could be used as templates for workable military vehicles was so deep, in fact, that he came to fear the government would stop him or forcibly enlist his talents. In his earlier years, though, he had a correspondence with the Defense Department, examples of which he showed Mr. Chalfant.
“In their responses the government thanked him for his proposals, and they said that if they ever needed him, they would get back in touch with him,” Mr. Chalfant said, adding as a swift and perhaps necessary second thought that while Rammellzee always operated “at a remove from present earthly reality,” he never lost touch with that reality. “He always functioned in a very practical way vis-à-vis his career and his work as he saw it. His philosophy was rigorously elaborated. And he worked very hard, right up to the end of his life.”
Text: Art Excavated From Battle Station Earth, New York Times, February 23, 2012.
Pic: Signoverture 1991, Color Letter Racers 1988, and White Letter Racers 1991