The Tumultuous, Tragic Life of Street Art Pioneer Richard Hambleton

Tom Seymour
Aug 19, 2018 12:00PM
Hank O'Neal
Richard Hambleton Shadowman- Paramour, 2009
Woodward Gallery

“At least Basquiat, you know, died,” the quasi-forgotten New York street artist Richard Hambleton acerbically observes in the documentary Shadowman. “I was alive when I died.…That’s the problem.”

Hambleton is referring, of course, to Jean-Michel Basquiat, the street artist whose life was cut short at age 27, due to a drug overdose in 1988. In the years before his death, Basquiat was selling paintings for figures between $15,000 and $20,000—a little less than Hambleton’s own market value at the time, of around $20,000. (In May 2017, a now-iconic Basquiat painting of a skull sold to a Japanese collector in a Sotheby’s auction for $110.5 million. It was originally purchased in 1984 for $19,000.)

On October 29th of last year, just a few weeks after he saw director Oren Jacoby’s final cut of the documentary about his career, the 65-year-old Hambleton passed away in unconfirmed circumstances in a downtown Manhattan apartment, accompanied by a female friend.

Now, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work since his death is scheduled for September, opening at Leake Street Arches before moving to Maddox Gallery, and coinciding with the U.K. release of Jacoby’s film. Hambleton is being posthumously hailed for his achievements, and rightly cited as a precursor to the conceptual approaches of contemporary street artists like Banksy (who has publicly nodded to the inspiration) and French muralists JR and Blek le Rat.

Hank O'Neal
Richard Hambleton and Jean Michel Basquiat - Skull , 2015
Woodbury House

Richard Hambleton, Bucking Horse and Rider. © AVA Holdings Limited.


When he first moved to New York from his native Vancouver in the late 1970s, the smiling, good-looking, well-dressed Hambleton made his name on the street. Locating himself in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he became known only as The Shadowman, known for the dark figures he secretly painted on the walls of the city. The “Shadowmen” were life-size or larger, dripping and rough, with a kinetic, menacing presence, as if they could reach out from the wall and swallow you whole. Hambleton would carefully choose where he painted his figures: just around the corner of a dark alleyway; leaning from behind a street light; about to jump from a ledge. They were designed to exert a physical response.

They were unattributed, without any tag or identifier beyond their distinctive shape. But word got around, and Hambleton’s profile grew. (On one “Shadowman,” painted near 34 East 12th Street, Basquiat drew a skull over the shadow.)

Crepuscular, grainy footage in Jacoby’s documentary shows Hambleton, swaying precariously on scaffolding, smearing dark paint across the graffiti-covered walls of an alleyway. In a few seconds, we watch his brushstrokes yield one of the 450-odd “Shadowmen” he painted across New York: huge, looming figures that, according to director Jacoby, “would appear unexpectedly overnight and scare the living hell out of you.” Hambleton’s friends recall how the artist would often have to run from the police, paint can in hand, when they happened across him mid-creation.

Although Hambleton’s art was etched on New York’s built environment, he soon started to transfer his “Shadowman” motifs to canvas, thus opening himself up to a hungry art market.

His success was almost immediate. Hambleton was the first street artist to be embraced by the established New York gallery scene, with Keith Haring and Basquiat following in his wake. He exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984 and 1985, and at the Venice Biennale in 1984 and 1988, where he painted “Shadowmen” across Venice. A subsequent tour of Europe brought his figures to the streets of Paris, Rome, and London. He also travelled to Berlin to paint 17 life-size “Shadowmen” on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, returning a year later to paint more on the western side. He was twice featured on the cover of LIFE magazine. Andy Warhol repeatedly asked Hambleton to paint his portrait, and Hambleton, who thought of them as equals, always turned him down.

Richard Hambleton
Landscape, 1988

But success was marred by Hambleton’s deep interest in drugs. His habits “would make Basquiat look like a boy scout,” art dealer Rick Librizzi recalls in the film. As his addiction deepened, Hambleton became “more trouble to the art market than he was worth.”

After being diagnosed with skin cancer, a condition he refused to seek treatment for, Hambleton’s public life began to unravel. From the apex of celebrity, he would spend the next 30 years living in ever-deepening poverty and squalor. Jacoby’s film, with the help of footage from Hambleton’s friend, photographer Hank O’Neal, details a life of homelessness and squalor on the streets of the Lower East Side.

Any respite was fleeting. In 1995, Hambleton spent more than a year squatting on the lot of a gas station in the East Village that had been repurposed as a space for artists. It was stark—rats would nibble at his canvases while he slept—yet Hambleton entered a productive artistic period. But once the property’s owner got wind of his presence, Hambleton was evicted, and his work thrown into the trash.

Former acquaintances recall how they thought they might be robbed if Hambleton ever approached them on the street—such was his demeanor. Yet as the value of his work began to plummet and his reliance on drugs increased, Hambleton would always find ways to continue to create art, even using blood from discarded syringes when he ran out of paint.

If he sold a painting, he would celebrate his sales with delicacies from Russ & Daughters, an upmarket East Village restaurant, along with a bumper pack of heroin. At times, he would swap paintings in exchange for meals in restaurants. In the film, his friend Anne Hanavan, a recovered drug addict who lived with Hambleton in a squat on Orchard Street, set the scene: “Richard would walk in while I was shooting up in my leg, and offer me caviar.”

Richard Hambleton, Standing Shadow – Yellow & Red. © AVA Holdings Limited.

Richard Hambleton
Shadow Walker, 1982
Richard Hambleton

Although some gallerists stayed loosely in touch with Hambleton, the art world quickly moved on to new names and new trends. Robert Murphy, an art collector who bought large quantities of Hambleton’s work during the wilderness years of the mid-1990s, recalls in Shadowman: “I believe Richard was near death when I met him. He was a side note at that time, selling his art for nothing to anyone who would buy it.”

Hambleton remained on the periphery of the art scene until 2009, when the art dealer Andy Valmorbida, aided by his business partner Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, managed to track him down. Valmorbida, the heir of an Australian coffee and food empire who worked on Wall Street before moving into the art world at the age of 25, has made a career of spotting artists with entrepreneurial potential, and saw the opportunity to reintroduce Hambleton to the art scene. (Valmorbida founded the Richard Hambleton Archive after Hambleton’s death, and is curating the forthcoming London exhibition.)

With Valmorbida’s extensive prompting and funding, Hambleton created a series of new works, which became part of a major New York retrospective. The show subsequently toured the world, with stops in Milan and Moscow, as well as a Sotheby’s-sponsored auction at the Cannes Film Festival. The shows sparked a rush of interest in Hambleton’s works, and he benefited from a slew of new sales. Even then, his addiction led him to squander his new earnings, and he ended up back on the streets.

However he chose to live his life, and whatever the circumstances of his death, you could never accuse Richard Hambleton of selling out. As Jacoby commented to the New York Times after his death: “[Richard] was conscientiously fighting against the commodification of art and a generation of artists who wanted to be famous and make money.”

And, as time wears on, it seems the fame that eluded him in life will find him in death. “Richard was a pioneer,” Valmorbida told Artsy. “The first exhibition since his death will tell the story of a groundbreaking artist who paved the way for the phenomenon that street art has become today. His influence will only grow.”

Tom Seymour