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Cey Adams: A Collector’s Guide

Five things you should know about the artist who defined the visual culture of American hip-hop.

Works featured are currently on offer at West Chelsea Contemporary.


The artist smiles before his work All American, 2017: the newest edition to the WCC collection.
Mixed media (Enamel, acrylic, spray paint, magazines and newspaper) on panel
192 X 96 inches | Photo by Janette Beckman

Artist Cey Adams emerged from the New York’s downtown graffiti movement in the 1980s to exhibit alongside contemporary icons like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Michael Stuart and Keith Haring. Today he is best known for his major role in developing the visual language of American hip-hop, with artwork and design credits attached to platinum albums of icons like Jay-Z, the Beastie Boys, DMX, Method Man, Public Enemy and more.

Adams began his career tagging NYC subway lines, and later became the founding Creative Director of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings. Today he is equally revered in the art world for his artistic brilliance and humility, and is known for supporting the next generation of emerging artists.

In many ways, Adams is a figure who represents the endless possibilities of the American dream. His work serves as a gateway to the dreamworld he has brought to life: one built of art, music, hustle, collaboration and extraordinary vision.

Read on below to discover five things every collector should know about Cey Adams.

  1. Adams got his start as a street artist.

Born in New York in 1962, Adams got his start as a hungry young artist with a desire to do something positive with his work. His early years were spent tagging Brooklyn and Downtown Manhattan trains, and designing flyers and posters by hand for artistic contemporaries and small businesses. 

Adams’s beginnings remain present in his practice today; his hand-drawn sketches are scaled up to painting size using traditional graphic-design grids. Mixed, found materials culled from the urban landscape make up the core materials of his striking collage works.

A young Cey Adams with a mural of his: Brooklyn, 1983

2. Adams got his break when he began collaborating with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of RUSH records.

A pivotal career point arrived for Adams when he was approached by Russell Simmons, then the founder the hip-hop label “Rush Management” to create album artwork, logos, and advertising campaigns for his represented roster of artists. The roster at the time included then-underground hip-hop artists like Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Jimmy Spicer, and Run DMC.

Simmons and Adams would go on to launch Def Jam Recordings together, with Adams at the helm of creative direction, and the likes of Jay-Z, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Notorious B.I.G., Maroon 5, and many others on their represented artist roster.

Adams never shied away from commercial work in his early years. Rather, he embraced all opportunities as they came along, and focused on ways of bringing his unique artistic style to traditional commercial branding elements. His graphic designs were often drawn by hand, Xeroxed and collaged.

Cey Adams, Schaefer now on offer at West Chelsea Contemporary

“We were trying to shine— and make it look like we had something before we had something. I’m trying to get somewhere. And whatever I have to do short of getting in trouble, I’m gonna do.”

– Cey adams

3. Adams is the mastermind behind many works of art you already know.

Adams designed and produced historic album covers and logos not only for Def Jam artists like Public Enemy and Slick Rick, but also Bad Boy, Universal, MCA, and others – including the album cover to Big’s Ready to Die and the now-iconic signature-style logo for Mary J. Blige. In addition, he has designed logos and products for The Chapelle Show, NYC’s Hot 97 radio station, Nike, Coca-Cola, and more.

Some of Adams’ iconic design work for recording artists.

4. Adams’ more recent work plays off of American corporate iconography with an emphasis on “re-mixing”.

In his 2015 series “Trusted Brands”, Adams presents 20 mixed-media paintings that revisit the imagery of his youth. Featured subjects include immediately recognizable American commercial logos of the 80s and 90s: Coca Cola, Hot Wheels, Shell, Captain Crunch, Barbie, and the American Flag among them. However, each icon has undergone a process that Adams refers to as “re-mixing”: a process by which he filters the original image through his own lens and materials. In his work, layered found materials and imagery comprise new versions of the original logos, filtered through street-art inspired distortion.

Adams calls the series an homage to the artist Jasper Johns, who inspired him greatly as he was coming up. The paintings themselves are 100 percent collage; created mostly from fiber papers sourced from India and Nepal. Each features a broad array of found magazines, newspapers, and art references embedded within the painting. Many of the elements are hand-tinted to create a cohesive color scheme within each work.

Adams created the paintings featured below at Bemis Arts Center in Omaha Nebraska. He later exhibited the works at Rush Arts gallery in Chelsea, NYC.

5. Adams’s work is part of the permanent collection at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September, 2016.

His mural-sized mixed media American Flag (which he did, live, in the National Mall) called One Nation, honors heroes of the civil rights movement, and resides as part of the permanent collection of the Smothsonian’s newest museum.

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FEATURED IN WCC’S SHOW – THIS IS NOW:

Nara | Kusama | Dine | Sultan | Hambleton |Warhol | Katz | Adams | Davis| Rosenquist | Gruen | Indiana | The Connor Brothers | Young | RETNA | KAWS| Slonem | Ruscha & more.

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