Richard Hambleton, the Canadian-born conceptual graffiti artist died last Sunday. Kristine Woodward, co-owner of the Woodward Gallery in Manhattan, which worked with him, said he died in a downtown Manhattan apartment with a female friend. She said she didn’t know the cause but he had skin cancer and the spinal conditions scoliosis and kyphosis.
I arrived in New York City in the summer of 1980 and so did Hambleton’s startling black-splattered silhouettes. The life-size, menacing figures lurked and leapt out exploding.
Hambleton told People magazine in 1984.
“I painted the town black. They could represent watchmen or danger or the shadows of a human body after a nuclear holocaust or even my own shadow.”
He was part of the downtown art scene with contemporaries like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat at Club 57, a bar on St. Marks Place in the East Village that is the subject of a new exhibition at the MoMA. I was at the opening on Halloween night, and there was one of his works lurking again, just days after he passed. He made it to the Museum of Modern Art but didn’t live to see it.
He was success for a while in the early to mid 80s and had exhibits in Europe painting his shadow men on walls in Venice walls and even the Berlin Wall before it came down.
He battled addictions to drugs (mostly heroin) and was evicted from apartments and studios, forgotten then later rediscovered.
Ms. Woodward, along with her husband John, showed Hambleton’s work, found him studios and places to stay and even and cooked for him. A trained nurse, she also attended to some of his medical needs. She said,
“He was so charismatic and so manipulative, but once you were in his sphere you couldn’t shake him. He had it. He didn’t care about the periphery. He would live in a bag on the street. All he wanted was paint supplies.”
Hambleton first came to public attention in the mid-70s by painting crime-scene outlines of bodies on pavement and adding “blood,” in order to create the sense that maybe a serial murderer was on the loose.
Performance artist and actress, Penny Arcade, says in Shadowman, a documentary about Mr. Hambleton, directed by Oren Jacoby, that has yet to be released. (clip below)
“I remember stumbling on one of them and thinking it was a real crime scene… this may be something else, but I didn’t have any language for it.”
Hambleton says in the documentary,
“I began to think I was murdering people, going back to my hotel covered in paint, blood, blood-red paint… blood has a beautiful color.
Reviewing an exhibition of Hambleton’s paintings at the Piezo Electric Gallery in the East Village in 1985, Michael Brensonof The New York Times wrote that the violence inherent in his early work had not fully left him.
“There are three paintings called ‘Rainstorm,’ in which raging water seems to be rushing toward us from within the canvas. In each of the paintings, sea and sky rage a bit more until they seem on the point of swallowing everything.”
By the early 90s he withdrew from the art scene. Keith Haring had died of AIDS at 31, Basquiat of a drug overdose at 27. Ms. Woodward said, he had become
“paranoid about gallery culture and the impact on the artist and his freedoms.
His goal was to reach the sublime. He used drugs to get there. It was just who he was.”
In 2009, Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld partnered with Andy Valmorbidas and talked him into making new work, shadowmen wearing suits, added to a retrospective exhibition in New York sponsored by Armani. For his documentary, Mr. Jacoby filmed Mr. Hambleton as he procrastinated and battled with his anxious patrons.
The show traveled to Europe, was successful, and a comeback was possible. but it didn’t last. Hambleton kept painting almost until he died, but he was becoming increasingly frail with cancer was eroding his face and his back was bowed and lopsided from his spinal conditions. He used his folding bicycle as a walker. There were times he was homeless.
He says about himself in the documentary,
“At least Basquiat, you know, died. I was alive when I died, you know. That’s the problem.”
Richard Hambleton was 65.
(via NY Times)