12ozProphet Exclusive Interview: Nemo Librizzi, Deep Space Exhibition Co-Curator
The graffiti-writing son of a NYC arts family that went from rags to riches, Librizzi grew up to become an urban “cultural consultant” with a unique mix of an insider’s knowledge of both high- & low-brow cultures.
Nemo Librizzi is the co-curator with Joseph Nahmad of the brilliant Deep Space exhibition, featuring Matta, Futura, Rammellzee and Phase2, which is still open in Manhattan at 450 w 14th street, until December 12. After seeing the exhibition and reading Nemo’s essay in the brochure, 12ozProphet was inspired to find out more about the man who managed to pull together these three seminal icons of the graffiti movement and canonize them in fine art history by showing them as equals next to Matta, one of the greatest modernist painters of the mid-twentieth century.
After 12ozProphet emailed Nemo some questons for an interview, he returned a 3000-word autobiographical essay the very next day, leaving out the questions completely to create a dramatic narrative of a wild child who was raised by a poor father who moved to NYC to be part of the Abstract Expressionist movement and ended up becoming a successful art dealer. Over the years, Nemo proved himself adept at running in high society social circles as well as navigating dangerous neighborhoods and train yards with diplomacy and cool.
Turns out Nemo hung with many of NYC’s finest. He tells of apprenticing to Tracy168, WestOne, and JonOne, as well as eventually teaming up with Chama to start the crew WKS, which VFR still reps today. Later he goes to Paris and continues writing, connected by JonOne to the graff community there, including getting spotted his airfare back to the states by Bando.
Currently he works as a “cultural consultant” on many types of projects that need someone to help design atmosphere or who understands the “esoteric minutae” that will make an environment come alive. This includes working with filmmakers, hotel designers, corporations and more. As a curator, he has another Futura exhibition coming up in Hong Kong with Valmorbida, as well as another show with Joseph Nahmad featuring Basquiat and his inner circle. As an artist, he is currently working on an experimental film and a comic book. He still has one foot straddling either side of the tracks and brings that dual nature to all projects.
I was born in 1970. We lived in Kew Gardens, Queens at that time. My father was a painter and poet. He had moved to the city from upstate in his teens to be part of the Abstract Expressionist movement and managed to catch the tail end of that culture at the Cedar Tavern. It was while studying at the Art Student’s League he met my mother, who was reading Rimbaud in the lobby, a poet he’d just discovered and was nuts about as well. She was a painter, ballerina and model and they both went home that day to announce to their parents they’d met the person they were going to marry. Having come out of poverty and with little formal education it was working at an art supply store that my father again met with destiny; a certain commercial artist was a regular customer and the two of them struck up a friendship. Some time later my dad’s actor friend Roberts Blossom brought him to this new famous artist’s studio, and at once my father and Andy Warhol recognized one another from the art supply store. Andy gave my dad some of the first soup cans to hustle. That he did (my dad is mentioned in the early diaries, Andy wondering if he is selling the prints too cheap), and forged a livelihood for himself as a private art dealer. When Charlie Parker was asked his religion, he answered that he considered himself a very devout musician. In my family’s home, art (including music, dance, literature…) served the place of religion, politics and everything in between. My father often kept me out of school to visit Warhol’s Factory or any of the other artist’s studios, museum shows or gallery storerooms to look at Modigliani’s or Picasso’s for sale: my second education. But it was riding the subways between all these countless appointments that I discovered my own art. I asked my father who created the curious markings on the side of the train and he explained that young artists would sneak into the tunnels at night and steal exhibits. I said I wanted to do the same. He told me that when I grew up, I could do so with his blessing.
By the age of thirteen I had painted my first whole car with a friend from the Lower East Side I met at camp. We painted on the abandoned platform at City Hall, which was great because you didn’t need ladders to reach the train. It was rumored that Min and Rich RTW had been busted there the day before, so writers considered the yard hot, and we had the place to ourselves (besides the rats) which was some luxury. I can recall the sensation of putting the finishing touches on my terribly ugly masterpiece that the police could come bust me and I would follow them to jail happily. This sense of accomplishment, that I had tapped into an underground stream of vital culture and made my own contribution (however poor), propelled me past the many difficulties of a writer’s life, the vicious competition, the outright beefs and the real police chases. By then my father had a leg up in the art world and we moved to fancy Forest Hills. The kids there didn’t play with nunchucks and firecrackers but tennis and golf. I never fit in, all my activities played out on the “other side of the tracks”. Nevertheless in the graffiti culture I stuck out as being in the “white” minority, and at that a “rich kid”. In the end these were merely starting points for a lot of teasing, but again, almost everyone got teased about something. More than anything there prevailed in the culture an intrinsic egalitarianism, a true democracy, and anyone who put in the work could be sure to earn some degree of respect, if only for tenacity if not talent. Of the millions of writers who inspired me with their work alone, I entered into a more formal apprenticeship with the legendary Tracy 168, and then in high school I was under the wing of West One. Later I painted with Jon One and the 156 crew. He always treated everyone as equals, but the lessons I received from him served as a graduate school. For the last phase of my writing career, and the end of the subway era as a whole, I teamed up with Chama and created the crew WKS that lives on to this day under the leadership of VFR. Anyone who knew little Chama would tell you he was a bad motherfucker, and together with my diplomacy skills we had a very dynamic chemistry and were able to bomb in all boroughs with welcome from the local train yard gangs.
Parallel to the underground campaigns I also haunted the Fun Gallery. Patti Astor couldn’t chase me out of the place with a stick, so finally accepted me as a fixture. She even asked me to hang a piece in a big holiday group show. She said Keith Haring (whose work I knew from the black subway ad posters) wanted to buy my painting. When I went up to meet him he proposed a trade. My father brought me down to his studio the next day and I picked out a square head with two eyes I still have (Rene Ricard says a miscalculation painting at the Danceteria lead Keith to paint them from then on with three eyes). I stayed friends with Keith until the end. He’d let me come by the studio with my boys to bug him, watch him paint and beg for t-shirts with his loud designs. But at the Fun Gallery I also got to know Basquiat, Futura, Dondi and anyone who meant anything at that time.
I didn’t have a girlfriend (I didn’t even kiss a girl until I was sixteen) but my entire adolescence was devoted to graffiti. The obsession spilled over a bit into the other branches of Hip Hop, breakdancing and Rap music. My life consisted of very little besides that I can recall. This orthodoxy ruled over even my dress code. With my color-coded Adidas and fat shoelaces, Lees, Le Tigres, sheepskins and Kangol caps, even thoroughbred B-boys would tease me about what a walking caricature I was. I didn’t have a second set of clothes to wear in Forest Hills, so you can imagine that the kids there thought I was a strange sight. When they weren’t in groups shouting racist (!?) insults, they were alone staring blankly. A lot of my writing partners came from the ghetto or housing projects and loved to crash at my house, eat my mom’s big Italian dinners. My dad would even bring us shopping all together at Polo, or camping, teaching us to drive cars or shoot rifles. But I loved going to their neighborhoods too. Sure Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem were full of so much poverty that was depressing, but in response the people had sprung back with so much electric creativity that my rich neighborhood was poor in, respectively. I had begun feeling seduced by a lifestyle that bought its meaning with money. Then I saw Frosty Freeze dance on a filthy sheet of cardboard, every move was all his own, and like nothing on earth. These were the moves to accompany wildstyle graffiti, and rap, just as my parents had beat poetry, be bop and action painting. And it was in the worst neighborhoods that one could find the “mecca” of this new breed of cool. So when at the age of ten my family dissolved, I was glad to have extended stays in the ‘hood.
My father became very well acquainted with the culture. With the weight of authority that stemmed from being an established professional, he was the first to clarify for many of the great writers that they were in fact artists with a capital “A”. He even set up a street art gallery in the early eighties that was the scene of some epic gang fights but no sales. He used his own discernment to choose many of the artists, but my own tastes also played a part. I pushed for TC5, TAT, 156, and TDS. Because I was not only a writer but was also a fan, I enjoyed my first efforts at curating and saw it rightly as a creative act in itself.
At the end of the subway era in around 1988 it seemed as if the Hip Hop era was over, so I planned to go to college in Paris and find out what it meant to be an artist in a broader sense of the word. I neglected my studies but exploited my student’s pass to the Louvre. Sometimes I went there every single day of the week. Perhaps my biggest surprise in Paris was that Hip Hop was alive and well. Seeing my own culture reflected in Parisian’s eyes, I fell in love all over again. It was in Paris I saw the great concerts by KRS and Public Enemy. Backstage with Lucien (of Tribe Called Quest fame) at a De La Soul show I was excited to meet the band, but they were more excited about my being a New Yorker living in Paris, always asking “What was it like?” I dug what Mode 2 could do on a wall but wondered what he would have been like in the yards. Of all the Europeans only Delta struck me as having a truly novel talent, the likes of which I could not imagine emerging from NY. Jon One had been living in Paris for some years already and hooked me up in some cool circles. One night I went to the French train yards with Meo RTW and a duffle bag of paint. The best line (13) and we hit the trains until dawn without seeing another soul, and most of the trains we painted were spotless, but it came so easily that it was boring and made me long for home. One of the ways I treated homesickness was to go see old Hollywood movies. Either I was homesick a lot or I had developed a passion for cinema, but soon I was at the movies every day, even when the films were in other languages without subtitles. One day, just like that, my time in Paris drew to a conclusion. The legendary Bando spotted me the fare back to the city, and I took what could carry and returned to my roots.
I enrolled in Columbia University, and renewed my involvement in the new wave of Hip Hop. Puffy declared “Its all about the Benjamins,” but at this fork I veered towards the Wu Tang’s “Cash rules everything around me.” One night I met Jim Jarmusch by accident. In fact I smoked my first joint ever with him. That opened my mind and mouth, so soon I was telling him all about all the great movies. He knew all about them already. He knew more than me, it turned out. He even directed one of my favorite films. Changing the subject, I told him I had written a diary that turned into a novel about my trip to Italy with no money. The next day he called and asked to read the book. He liked my book enough to consider me a comrade in arms and allowed me to watch and learn, eventually in some small ways to collaborate in is creative process. With the dangers removed from making paintings the thrill was gone for me, and filmmaking, with all its impossible challenges took its place. In Paris I had become friends with Julian Schnabel. When he began to make films he allowed me to participate. I learned so many things from both him and Jarmusch that I applied when making my own underground experimental shorts. These past years I have been at work on a feature film called Night At The Opera that Jim Jarmusch executive produced. It will be done… when I am finished.
Most of my friends are artists of some kind, and when I am not busy with my own work I have always been happy to help them to make or expose their own. It was never about money, but when my son was born I shook off all shyness about accepting payment where funds were available. I had left Columbia University with just a few credits until graduation because things were starting to bubble for me and I didn’t want to turn my back on opportunity, and find myself after graduation flipping burgers. Besides my work in the movies I worked as a cultural consultant for hotels, restaurants or any company that didn’t find my fees for providing intangibles (what I called in the NY Times article “esoteric minutia”) ridiculous. Fulano not only needed clothes and food, but from an early age began to demand “surprises” on a regular basis. My father worked closely with Richard Hambleton through the 90s, and in the early 2000’s my father grew frustrated with him (which is easy if you know Richard!) so I stepped in and started bringing in deals to his studio. Around that time Andy Valmorbida and Vladamir Roitfeld were hunting for fresh talent and I brought them over to Richard’s studio. They walked away with a grand vision that led to some big shows for Richard, internationally. And though I was not involved directly in those shows, I was very proud to have been an integral part of his “rediscovery”. It was then I got it in mind that I could assist in getting other under-appreciated artists their due.
When I met Joseph Nahmad it was bromance at first sight. He seemed at the same time a tough businessman and a sensitive soul. The only person I’d ever met with that combination was Leo Castelli. And so young! There was no doubt in my mind Joseph would be the next great dealer, and discover major talents with or without my help. But since I did have some unfinished business with writing culture, I proposed a collaboration with Joseph that would take the graffiti tradition a step closer to the promised land of being accepted once and for all as fine art. I felt as though I owed a debt to the forefathers of the culture, as they had taken me in as one of their own despite any social differences. We do have another project in the works with Basquiat and his inner circle, but we also had to do something with our mutually beloved Matta. There are quite a few writers who have enough talent and historical importance to hang beside a Matta, but as this was to be an exhibit of abstract art, removed from figurative or language elements, three names stood out in my mind as representative of the movement as a whole. The first was the godfather Phase 2, who was “the great originator.” The second was Futura, who had been involved in the culture in the early seventies, returned like the prodigal son after a stint in the air force, and exploded back on the scene with his paradigm changing “Break” train; he was the “great innovator”. The third was Rammellzee, who was a great painter and sculptor, but was equally revered for his manifestos on Iconoclast Panzerism; so he was recognized as “the great theoretician” because every great movement needs its propaganda!
What happened on the subways in the seventies — to my understanding — ranks beside Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism or any of the great schools of the Western tradition. It has so far eluded definitive documentation partly because the outsiders (including art critics and curators) are not privy to the inner-meanings of the craft, and neither are the insiders taking measures to remedy this by properly explaining their arcane art. Again, Rammellzee came the closest to verbalizing the zeitgeist behind the forms, and Phase 2 wrote the fascinating (if confusing) Evolution Of Style, but there remains a need for a “Rosetta Stone” to hold up as a standard once and for all, to clearly delineate the divergence between Kase 2 and, say, Banksy.
I knew Rammellzee from the 80’s downtown scene. He was the definition for the term — somebody who “lives in his own world”. Everything about him was unique and wild. I also knew Futura since then, but he has such an easy-going friendly manner I was able to maintain a friendship with him to the present day in some capacity. Phase 2 in a series of personalized lectures spanning back to 1991 drilled me on the finer points of erudition (and he will take a ruler to my knuckles for my use of the misnomer “graffiti”), I can’t call him a “friend” despite our intimacy because he is more like a grouchy uncle and I even call him “sir”. But it was really no sweat to get them involved, as I don’t think they would ever doubt that I would do anything without their best interests at heart.
I had already committed to Joseph when Valmorbida approached me seeking to enter into a relationship with Futura. It was a harmonious cooperative for all involved, as Futura’s one man show in no way hindered the development of this more complicated group show. In fact since the moment Joseph and I decided to move on with the idea, we met with no major opposition. Even those stuffy older guys who wear tweed jackets with bow ties could not deny the connection, and some of Matta’s personal friends even said this is an exhibit Matta himself would have liked to have been involved with! Even the raw space we used for the show has the feel of a subway tunnel. And the phenomenal avant-garde Jazz band who performed at the opening was aptly named “Other Dimensions In Music”. The synchronicities in putting this show together, across the boards, were uncanny.
In retrospect, we can look to the past and see how each successive movement in the History of Art is at first rejected out of hand by the status quo. After the persistence of the visionary geniuses (what Motherwell called “storming the citadel”) the critics must at last relent. It may be said that Graffiti’s extended refusal into the pantheon of high culture is exacerbated by the age-old evils of classism and racism, but in time even those forces are powerless to keep the younger generation from seeing the beauty and poetry in graffiti.
The grass grows by itself, and I don’t know how much of my life I can dedicate to cultivating this heritage. I also recognize that my views are not entirely unique and often meet with others who share these views and have plans of their own to this end, so I am optimistic about the future, with or without my further participation. Of course, outside the realm of planners, there are artists whose work serves to bridge this divide. I enjoy the work of this art-world Mannerist graffiti as much as the next guy, even if I reserve a special reverence for those artists whom they derive their inspiration from, and to whom they owe a cultural debt, the OG writers. I am also much too busy with my family and personal creative life (a series of comic books I will expose when the time comes) to pay attention to every new talent that blossoms. I can’t help but notice the greatness of Richard Serra or the cutting edge brilliance of Anish Kapoor, Ai Wei Wei, or Matthew Barney, but mainly I am concerned with what my wife Kacey is cooking for dinner, or what my son Fulano is reading at school.
Valmorbida and I plan a Futura exhibit in Hong Kong this spring. Joseph and I plan Basquiat & Co for next year. And I have started talks about an exhibit in Europe that draws from examples as far back as Ancient Egypt to the present day I’d like to say more about, but right now I have to go to the store for my wife to get water and orange juice, and “a surprise” for the little man.
Text: Daniel Feral
Photo: Nemo Librizzi + Shadi Perez + Neil Rasmus, BFA (Noted under photos by their initials)