Shadow Man Comes Into the Light
Excerpts from Richard Hambleton 2007 Interview with Valerie Gladstone
On the opening night of Richard Hambleton’s show “The Beautiful Paintings” at the Woodward Gallery in 2007, the crowd spilled out on to Eldridge Street, chattering about the exceptional event. Mr. Hambleton exhibited sporadically at galleries and museums over the past twenty five years, but nothing up until then equaled the power and number of works gracing those walls. It was his first solo exhibition in ten years.
Aptly called beautiful, the paintings depicted wild, explosive, simmering and seductive nature, in luscious reds and oranges, steely, electric blues, luminous yellows and earthy greens, painted on wood, metal or mirrors. Almost as remarkable as the works was the fact that the famously reclusive Mr. Hambleton was still alive and capable of painting them.
“Is that Hambleton?!” was the question of the evening, as people turned to get a look at the debonair, delicate, then 53-year old painter. Young artists hovered around him like a hero, eager to hear how in the ‘80s he peopled the walls of downtown and later the world’s cities with his menacing shadow figures and fallen bodies silhouettes. In 1989, he even painted his shadow men on the Berlin Wall in Germany.
“That work had to be done outside,” he said. “It was a gift to the public. I wanted to combine site-specific earthwork and classic painting techniques. But all the time, I also painted like this. They’re not seascapes, rainscapes, or landscapes - they are escapes.”
Some critics immediately understood the connection between Mr. Hambleton’s street figures and art on canvas. “The looming violence in Hambleton’s earlier work is still present,” wrote Michael Brenson, “but now it has taken on an almost apocalyptic form. He is another contemporary artist whose work seems intent on changing the way we look at the heroic abstract paintings of the 1950’s and 60’s. In his waterscapes, it is as if the color zones of Newman had suddenly opened up to show us not the harmony and infinity of nature but a world on the verge of chaos and destruction.”
That chaos and destruction wasn’t only on his canvases, hence the constant rumors of his death. His party buddies throughout the ‘80s, fellow street artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, died long ago from substance abuse, and though he survived, his addictions took their toll. Physically ill for over a decade, he lived at the Chelsea Hotel, other places and sometimes in the street throughout the '90’s, without owning a permanent address.
“The party was over,” Mr. Woodward said, “and Richard went forward into the future alone. The 90's were a period of huge adjustment and self-representation. He became a mature artist after much loss. He moved away from the hyped, gallery experience. It was a very prolific period where he used his art as currency to survive.”
Only the persistence of the Woodwards, long time admirers of his work, brought him back into the light, providing Hambleton with needed surgery and a new studio. “Kristine and John are taking care of things for me,” he said a few days after the opening back in 2007, walking into the gallery with a portfolio of articles and sketches under his arm. “They’ve made it possible to continue. I use every last bit of energy in my paintings.”
Then came “Richard Hambleton New York” sponsored by Giorgio Armani in 2009, a huge exhibition organized by young curators Andy Valmorbida and Vladimer Restoin- Roitfeld featuring paintings from the Artist’s personal and Woodward Gallery’s own collection. Impressive major exhibitions of Hambleton’s Shadowmen, Horse & Riders, and Beautiful Paintings followed in Milan, Cannes, Moscow and London with a new cache of collectors taking notice. Life size photographs by Hank O’Neal of Richard Hambleton’s shadowy silhouettes on LES streets from 1981-1982 exhibited in homage to the power, the actual paintings once held when Hambleton placed them on the darkest corners of city street walls.
An artist from childhood, Mr. Hambleton grew up in Vancouver and studied at the local art schools. Immediately drawn to public art, he joined a group of local artists who engaged in performance art. “I wanted to be a painter,” he said, “but conceptual art was then the thing.” Eventually he left Canada for New York with his girlfriend at the time artist Jenny Holzer. By the late 70s, he had already made a name for himself, by deciding to stage murder scenes, painting the chalk outlines police usually draw around the bodies of murder victims.
“I’d go out with friends,” he said, “in the middle of the night. They’d carry my paint and I’d look for a good spot and then have them lie in suitable positions and locales. I’d paint their outlines on the pavement. After they had gotten up, I’d splash some very realistic looking blood, matching the area in which I figured that they had been stabbed or shot. I’d have to work fast. My theory was that the city is not a blank canvas. It’s a picture; a motion picture containing sociological and psychological elements. My urban work was added to and became a part of the picture. After awhile I created a persona. ”
A very famous one at that. He gained notoriety even outside the art world. In fact, he could have qualified as a psychic terrorist, by increasing the anxiety levels of urban dwellers. Life and People magazines picked up on him and ran big stories on his activities. He also knew how to coach his friends into realizing their potential as artists and writers. Nonetheless, he was broke. “Other people made tons of money then,” he said, “Keith, Basquiat. I should have been more aggressive. I was kind of shy. Actually, the only thing I want money for is good food – I love good food and it’s expensive.”
Shyness and illness did not prevent Mr. Hambleton from producing in the ensuing decades though. “I work all the time,” he said, taking a few moments to look at the paintings on the walls of the gallery. “Paint goes everywhere. Everything is dripping with paint in my studio. And wet too. I use a lot of water. I don’t use regular art supplies. I put ten brushes together. I have to shave off half the hairs to make them thin enough. I also use straws and toothpicks. I pick up the canvases and tip them around to make the paint run.”
Stopping in front of a large gold canvas on that opening night back in 2007, he said, “The accidental shapes are really, really important. And getting the light right. I use bright transparent paint so the light will bounce off the canvas. And I used gold powder. I loved it when I walked into Woodward Gallery the first time after they’d been hung. Everything gleams. My next show will be called The Sublime Paintings. I want to capture life and light – that’s what the sublime is all about, painting with love.”
The once nameless artist known only as The Shadowman remains as elusive as ever. He makes brief appearances, at best, these days stepping out into the light only to meet his most basic of needs. A long career of successful exhibitions, notable friends, a CNN interview, a Life Magazine spread, worldwide receptions and auctions honoring him, and current press churning out articles and photographs from the Valmorbida- Restoin-Roitfeld/ Armani sponsored events are experienced all over the internet, as a public memoir for the growing followers who seek to learn more about Hambleton’s genius.
Through August 8th, 2011, gracing the first room of the highly anticipated “Art in the Streets” exhibition at the LA MOCA curated by Director Jeffrey Deitch, Richard Hambleton’s shadow figures are historically documented in the photographs of Franc Palaia referencing NYC back in the day. The exhibition will travel to The Brooklyn Museum where it will be on view March 30- July 8, 2012.
The Woodwards remain ardent believers…. Woodward Gallery remains steadfast supporters, representing Richard Hambleton's artwork and sharing his story with the world.