Richard Hambleton, 65, ‘The Shadowman’ of Downtown

Richard Hambleton, here in happier times, went through periods where he was in the public eye and then spells when he dropped out of the art scene. Photo by Clayton Patterson

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Richard Hambleton, the artist known as “The Shadowman” for the hundreds of featureless dark figures he painted on Downtown’s streets in the 1980s, died at the end of last month. He was 65.

Kristine Woodward, vice president and co-owner of the Woodward Gallery, on Eldridge St., which worked with Hambleton for two decades, said the artist died at a friend’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Hambleton suffered from skin cancer and had battled heroin addiction, but his cause of death wasn’t immediately known.

Originally from Canada, Hambleton started having an impact on New York City in the ’80s, when he was colleagues with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. One of Hambleton’s “Shadowman” works is currently featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition on Club 57, the seminal St. Mark’s Place East Village “art scene” nightclub of the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Hambleton is also the focus of a new documentary, “Shadowman,” by Oren Jacoby, that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, which will be released in the Village at the Quad Cinema on Dec. 1.

Known by some as “the godfather of street art,” Hambleton was a conceptual artist who wanted to evoke reactions from his work.

For his “public-art social experiment,” as Kristine Woodward, called it, Hambleton set out to paint 450 black silhouette figures on New York City building walls, “from the South Bronx to the South Ferry.”

“He continued this Nightlife Project in 26 cities worldwide,” she said in an e-mail to The Villager, “with 17 ‘Shadowman’ figures painted directly on the east side of the Berlin Wall.

“When he embarked on the Nightlife series of ‘Shadowman’ figures, he understood that the New York City Downtown social scene was important,” Woodward noted. “He quickly became friends with Arturo Vega, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renee Ricard, Joey Ramone, David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring.

One early street-art project by Richard Hambleton featured images of him that soon faded to leave a “white shadow” of a standing figure.

“He was a very attractive, blue-eyed, Canadian young man,” she said. “He conversed and dressed very well, smooth operator. He attended the Mudd Club, C.B.G.B.’s, Club 57, Paradise Garage, Palladium, ABC No Rio, Save the Robots.

“Richard’s deal would be to show up and leave — ‘The Shadowman’…hard to pin down…elusive, mercurial. The ‘Shadowman’ figures were created at night. Nobody knew who did them.”

Before the series of faceless figures, Hambleton also did a different series in 10 cities called “I Only Have Eyes for You.” These featured an image of the artist in “a Napoleonic pose,” as Woodward put it, with one hand tucked inside his jacket and crazed eyes.

A canvas with one of Hambleton’s “Shadowman” artworks.

According to Woodward, the images in the “Eyes” series were produced by black-line printing, a process similar to blueprinting, which results in the entire image fading uniformly over a three-month period. Printed on paper that stretched when moistened to conform to the wall’s texture, it left behind what looked like a “white shadow” of a standing figure.

“Richard already was a legend when he left the West Coast and Vancouver before he even arrived in New York City,” Woodward added. “Because of his Image Mass Murder Project, his reputation preceded him.”

For the Image Mass Murder Project, Hambleton had painted crime-scene-like outlines of bodies in white paint on sidewalks, adding touches of red paint to look like blood.

Also in the early ’80s, after the “Shadowman” project, Hambleton did a series of paintings based on the Marlboro Man and rodeo riders.

“He was a smoker,” Woodward noted. “He appropriated the physical ad and painted over the Marlboro Man in shadow. It was cultural commentary of the romance and perceived macho charisma of the cowboy. He would keep the surgeon general’s warning labels in his Marlboro artwork.

“From there,” Woodward continued, “he largely embarked on studio work, from the Marlboro to horse-and-rider series to ‘Shadowman’ canvases and ‘Shadow Head’ portraits to wave paintings — like ocean or seascapes — then landscapes in gorgeous colors with shiny gold and silver leaf known as ‘The Beautiful Paintings.’ ”

However, according to an obituary in The New York Times, in the early 1990s, with Haring and Basquiat both having died, Hambleton began to withdraw from the art scene. He had come to distrust the galleries, while his drug use continued and his skin cancer worsened.

At the Club 57 show opening at MoMA last month, Theodora Richards, Keith Richards’s daughter, posed in front of what looked like the same “Shadowman” artwork as the one above. Photo by Bob Krasner

The Beautiful Paintings were presented at Woodward Gallery in 2007 and eventually at the art gallery at Rockefeller State Park Preserve, as well as the Four Seasons restaurant.

“This would be the beginning of the revival of Hambleton’s career,” Woodward said. “He was ‘coming out of the shadows.’ ”

Hambleton lived and worked at numerous Downtown locations over the years, including a garage at E. Second St. and Avenue B, Essex and Eldridge Sts., and various places on Orchard, Rivington and Chrystie Sts., Broadway and Bleecker St. The Times said that he was frequently evicted from apartments.

“The Shadowman,” left, and John Woodward, co-owner of the Woodward Gallery, hanging out in 2012 at Ghost Bar, on Eldridge St. Photo by Clayton Patterson

Woodward and her husband, John Woodward, the eponymous gallery’s director, found studios and lodging for the artist and cooked for him, while Kristine, a nurse, tended to his many medical needs, according to the Times.

“We put Hambleton in hotels for lodging all throughout Downtown, including at the Trump Soho — pre-Trump presidency,” Kristine Woodward wrote in her e-mail to The Villager.

Woodward said that, as Hambleton’s skin cancer progressed, “Richard lost his entire face and one of his eyes was closed in the end. He needed the heroin to help with pain control.”

Through his struggles over the years, he remained dedicated to his art.

“Richard Hambleton lived to paint,” she said. “We never met anyone who was more committed to create. He was always out of the box, a nonconformist. Despite having many dedicated patrons over the years, Richard would sell or trade his paintings — primarily his ‘Shadow Head’ portraits — from his studios in order to survive.”

In the last decade of his life, Hambleton had several important solo exhibitions, including a retrospective, “Richard Hambleton New York,” sponsored by Giorgio Armani.

Woodward Gallery has mounted solo exhibitions of Hambleton’s art since 2007.

“No one actually represented Richard in the formal sense,” Kristine Woodward noted, “as Richard was his own spokesman.”

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