"ARTIST RICHARD HAMBLETON STALKED THE STREETS OF '80s NEW YORK AND LEFT A TRAIL OF HAUNTING GRAFFITI WORKS IN HIS WAKE, YET SOMEHOW ART HISTORY WROTE HIM OUT OF ITS PAGES. A NEW EXHIBITION PULLS HIM FROM THE SHADOWS AND REVISITS AN UNSUNG LEGACY
In oft-eulogized 1980s New York, it was not uncommon to encounter sidewalk crime scenes—stark, chalk-drawn outlines of fallen bodies fringed with even more ominous smears of bloody red. But were they real, or was it all just Richard Hambleton messing with us?
Hambleton began drawing his “Image Mass Murder” pieces in the early 1980s, a morbid public representation of the violent decay then plaguing his adopted hometown. Traveling across the U.S. and his native Canada, he drew these corpse outlines on sidewalks in purportedly low-crime areas in cities from Los Angeles to Winnipeg. The drawings were less political statements than aesthetic interventions, a jarring subversion of those locations’ docile environs.
Hambleton’s art was a sort of apolitical social commentary, a keen reflection of the times in which he lived. Following the chalk drawings, he initiated a series of quickly executed wall paintings of primitive figures, lurking like cave paintings in the city’s dark corners and side streets. Dipping into the night with a can of black paint hidden under his trench coat, Hambleton would execute each painting in a matter of seconds, his brushstrokes expressive and hypercool.
It is this second body of work that is being presented this September by curators Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, in collaboration with Giorgio Armani. Restoin-Roitfeld claims that Hambleton, as much as his friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, deserves credit for “classifying his work as public art and [turning] graffiti into commercial success.” Known as the “Shadowman” series, these paintings evoke both the playful sidewalk tribalism of the work of Haring and Basquiat and the harsh gallery gloss of Robert Longo’s 1980s “Men in the Cities” images of spasmodically tumbling yuppie stockbrokers.
Unsurprisingly, Hambleton quickly became a darling of the emerging East Village art scene. In 1982, he asked critic, curator, and fellow downtown denizen Carlo McCormick to contribute an essay for an exhibition in Milan. “Richard was good-looking and quite smooth,” McCormick recalls, “with a stunning array of beautiful girlfriends.” As evidence of this early success, Restoin-Roitfeld cites an International Herald Tribune article from 1983. “It spoke about the new craze in the New York art scene,” he says, “and how if you wanted to get involved you needed to spend at least $10,000 for a Basquiat or $15,000 for a Haring or Hambleton.” Before long, Hambleton was being exhibited in European museums and invited to participate in the 1984 and 1988 Venice Biennales.
But with success, a dark side to Hambleton’s smooth-talking persona emerged. “The more he attained a critical mass of recognition and reward, the more desperate would be his reactive need for self-destruction,” McCormick says, adding that his self-sabotaging urges were acted out “on an unimaginably perverse scale.” As with Haring and Basquiat, rock-star behavior was Hambleton’s MO. “This may be a trick of memory,” McCormick continues, “but I seem to remember snorting lines of heroin off of the issue of People magazine that featured him.”
After years of drug addiction, Hambleton still lives in the Lower East Side. He is a reclusive, slightly gaunt figure who disdains press but can be seen interviewed on YouTube, shakey but evidently flattered by the attention, however reluctant to discuss his work or recent personal history he may be. Begun in the mid-’80s, his “Beautiful Paintings” are morbidly lovely (and possibly inspired by his early encounters with Ecstasy, a novel drug at that time). Though the golden-hued seascapes promise escape, they are also acts of self-negation: some of his later canvases incorporate blood drawn from his own syringes.
"When Valmorbida and Restoin-Roitfeld first visited Hambleton’s studio, “We both had chills,” Valmorbida says. “The place is so unique, like entering into a page of history. The first thing Richard said to us was to please excuse the way he looked, as he had not slept or stopped painting for three days. We believed him.” After some cajoling, Hambleton began pulling work off the shelves, though after so many years in the shadows, he was—and still is—ambivalent about the idea of staging an exhibition.
As street-art expert Marc Schiller of the Wooster Collective says, “It’s surprising how many young, dedicated, and extremely talented street artists there are who have never heard of Richard Hambleton. It’s depressing, actually, because Richard is one of the true legendary figures [in street art].” Assessing the impact of those early paintings, Schiller is emphatic: “His haunting black silhouettes are truly iconic. They were part of the fabric of the city.” Hiding away in his studio, his public art long since painted over, Hambleton had seemingly blended into the urban landscape. This fall the outlines of Hambleton’s influence are once again there for everyone to see. Ken Miller
From top: Six Shadow Jumpers, 1997. Courtesy Valmorbida & Co.; Bar on Left, 1983.
Courtesy Woodward Gallery, NYC; Shadow Jumper, 2007. Courtesy Woodward Gallery, NYC; Standing, 2009.
Courtesy Valmorbida & Co
Artwork Richard Hambleton
“Richard Hambleton–New York” runs September 15–October 2, 2009, at 560 Washington Street, Door 37E, NYC"
VIA V MAG