Richard Hambleton: The American Pop Expressionist

Woodward Gallery
Sep 28, 2016 5:35PM

By Kristine Woodward

Much of what has been written on Richard Hambleton has focused on the artist’s early “public art.” As a conceptual artist, Hambleton produced work using the urban canvas to evoke public reaction. He was reputed to be an elusive genius. Hambleton is the original Pop Expressionist with unforgettable images that have permeated our collective consciousness for over three decades now.

From 1976-1979, Hambleton’s “Mass Murder” installation was secret- ly placed onto streets in over fifteen cities, created to mimic chalk-body outlines and blood-splattered crime scenes of what appeared to be “vic- tims.” Early on, Hambleton’s freshly discovered works in these major cities ignited an anxiety-induced phenomenon, as people were unaware of the identity of the artist. Graffiti been had long had seen in public spaces;, however, Hambleton was not engaging in random acts, but seri- ous art installations that engaged the general public’s observation and acceptance of the fragility of being. The immediate impact to his work ignited his form of popular expression–a social experiment. 

In the early 1980’s, Hambleton began his “Shadowman” series. Each of over six hundred dark, ominous, shadowy figures was painted in an unexpected corner, alley, or side street. The powerful blackened “Shadowman” works became legendary guardians in a secret mission to disable the emotional stability of our everyday life–seen in New York City, London, France, Italy and even on the East and West sides of the Berlin Wall. Hambleton has said, “...what makes them exciting is the power of the viewer’s imagination–that split second experience when you see the figures, that matter.”

Hambleton was at the flashpoint of the downtown New York art scene—–he was one of the founding contributors to that burgeoning art community. Along with close friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, he created a sensation in the early 1980’s that is relevant today. Hambleton’s army of shadow silhouettes are reminders of human life— vulnerable and intense.

Hambleton then left the U.S. to make his mark in Europe and Asia in the mid 1980s. He was embraced and celebrated along his travels. Hambleton’s “Shadow” series continued raising international awareness and critical acclaim of the artist who became known as “The Shadowman.”

Back in the U.S., his core circle of artists was changing. Death came early to Warhol, Basquiat, and Haring. Each artist left behind his signa- ture style, while Hambleton survived, eluding death, to continue his path of creativity. 

In the 1990s, Hambleton conceived to evoke another emotion, this time from work produced in his studio–The Beautiful Paintings. For those familiar with his earlier series, this art starkly contrasted with his previous dark shadows, with abstracted, colorful images of beauty with gold and silver leaf appearing to be seascapes, landscapes, oceanscapes— escapes. His followers were awed by a seemingly fluid transition to the sublime. Solo exhibitions at Woodward Gallery and the Art Gallery at Rockefeller State Park Preserve most recently showcased these paintings.

Hambleton has been featured in many international exhibitions. Since 2009, Hambleton has had major exhibitions travel from New York, to Italy, France, Russia, and London sponsored by Giorgio Armani. Numerous articles have been published about those shows. Hambleton’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the Check Point Charlie Museum and The Zellermeyer in Berlin, The Andy Warhol Museum, Austin Museum of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum, The Queens Museum, Harvard University, and the private collection of David Rockefeller. He was cho- sen twice for the Biennale di Venezia in Italy. Hambleton has been fea- tured in ArtForum, Art in America, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, French Vogue, V Magazine, Archi- tectural Digest, LIFE, and recently chronicled in the urban art book from Taschen, Trespass: A History of Un-commissioned Public Art, and Siman Media Works–XCIA’s Street Art Project: The First Four Decades by Hank O’Neal. Hambleton was featured on CNN’s “The Evolution of an Artist” (2009), and on cable television “Let Them Talk” (2007) and PCTV (2013). A feature film documentary by Oscar nominated director and producer Oren Jacoby is currently in progress.

Hambleton’s compelling art will continue to be collected interna- tionally and featured in exhibitions throughout the world, though he does not believe that social recognition is what defines a great artist. Therefore, despite, and in spite of, the fame that came to many of his peers and even despite his own personal success, Hambleton largely ignored celebrity. He wanted his art to be interpreted and reacted to. He was submerged in making important, lasting art, and not necessarily in the critic’s survey of the work. Hambleton today remains one of the only surviving members of that early cutting-edge downtown art movement. He continues to live and create in the neighborhood to which he laid claim for over thirty years. 􏰀 

Woodward Gallery