Hambleton died in his hometown of New York City, according to an announcement from the Shadowman Twitter account. The cause and circumstances are not yet known, a publicist for the film said.
The pioneering artist’s death came at a time when his career was on the brink of a renaissance. Shadowman premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April amidst two Hambleton exhibits, and is set to open theatrically at Quad Cinema on Dec. 1. In addition, one of Hambleton’s iconic “Shadowman” paintings, from 1982, is featured in a MoMA exhibit that opens today, “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983.”
— Bucky Turco (@buckyturco) October 31, 2017
Around the time that work was made, Hambleton’s paintings were valued higher than Basquiat’s, fetching $15,000 just like Keith Haring’s did. In 1983, a profile in People magazine described the “shadowman” paintings he had splashed onto walls all over Manhattan: streaks of black paint that created kinetic silhouettes. “They could represent watchmen or danger or the shadows of a human body after a holocaust, or even my shadow,” said Hambleton, who was then a “shy” 28-year-old, holed up in what the magazine described as a “cramped, dark studio near Manhattan’s rundown Bowery district.”
Hambleton had made his reputation, in the late 1970s, by painting fake bloodied chalk outlines on the streets of New York and a dozen other cities, a project he called Image Mass Murder. The San Francisco Examiner called it “the work of a sick jokester,” but fans like Lower East Side gallerist and documentarian Clayton Patterson appreciated the way it combined visual art with drama and performance art. It was a proper “murder mystery story,” Patterson says in Shadowman; it perplexed pedestrians and even police officers who wondered whether a crime had actually been committed.
— Shadowman Film (@shadowman_film) October 30, 2017
Three years later, Hambleton had moved on to another project, I Only Have Eyes for You, in which he plastered 800 life-sized, wide-eyed photos of himself around 13 cities. People were taken aback by these public displays; according to the People profile, cabbies hated the shadowmen because it seemed like they were trying to hail a cab.
Of course, graffiti artists were also plying their art during this time; a new documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat recently made its premiere at the New York Film Festival. Like Basquiat, Hambleton aspired to be a proper gallery artist. But despite his “arrogance and pride” (per Patterson) and his propensity for dapper dressing and womanizing, he never figured out how to play the schmoozing game that was so important in the art world, and he failed to ride the Wall Street boom that briefly bolstered the East Village scene of the ‘80s. Instead of capitalizing on his Shadowman paintings, he began painting romantic landscapes and seascapes in the vein of Turner. They were quite striking, but they weren’t what the art world wanted.
— Curt Hoppe (@curthoppe) October 30, 2017
Meanwhile, Hambleton’s heroin addiction drove him to increasingly desperate living conditions, and sometimes to homelessness. He began painting with his own blood, and sold his paintings to restaurateurs in order to be able to eat. When I met him during a rare public appearance at the Outsider Art Fair in January, he was clearly in poor health, though his paint-spattered shoes indicated he was still working. At the premiere of Shadowman, Hambleton wore a surgical mask to obscure his face, which had been affected by skin cancer, and walked with a cane and stoop due to scoliosis.
The premiere wasn’t Hambleton’s first reemergence from the proverbial shadows. In 2009, Giorgio Armani sponsored a celeb-studded comeback show produced by socialites Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmordiba. Shadowman followed their efforts to revive Hambleton’s career even as they quarreled with him over his perfectionism and failure to deliver paintings on time. After being evicted from his Orchard Street studio, Hambleton was briefly put up at the Trump Soho by a wealthy Russian, but that relationship also soured. He was living in a studio in the East Village this past April when the New York Post wrote a story about his “epic rise and disgusting flameout.”
Today, as word spreads of his death, Hambleton is being remembered by colleagues and admirers in the art world.
— Oscar van Gelderen (@OscarvanG) October 30, 2017
Very sad to hear that the #streetart #legend #richardhambleton the original #lowereastside #shadowman has passed away. Before #banksy #blek and even #jeanmichelbasquiat there was Hambleton. His style was uniquely his own, a scandalously overlooked artist born out of the 80s #graffiti scene who sadly never really achieved the fame he should have.
A few people say that Richard Hambleton is dead. This news, if it's true, makes me very sad. We were close friends, at some times he even called me his best friend. I knew him since 1976 and we have been "conspirators" in the early 80s through Neoist events in Montreal, New York, Baltimore. If this news is true there will be lots of memories of him online. I tell you only one right now: on his way to NYC in 1981 he stopped at my place in Montreal. He told us a secret that he was going to NYC to commit suicide. He was going to jump from the Empire State building on a large white canvas. But instead he became famous. Maybe that's what killed him. Last time I saw him a couple of years ago on Orchard street, aug/2015. I missed his movie premier "Shadowman" in NYC but I saw its Toronto premier in May. We were going to work on his biography with Michael Carter starting this summer but each time I called Richard he postponed our meeting. Here is a pic of our last meeting on Orchard street in NYC and a photo with him from 1981 in Montreal. #richardhambleton
Artist Richard Hambleton is remembered for his profound contribution to art history. Our thoughts are with those who knew him personally and all those whose lives were impacted by his work. (Artwork: "Angel of D.A.D.A" by Richard Hambleton, DEAD Issue, Volume 2, 1974, Vancouver; Woodward Gallery archives.) #richardhambleton #restinpeace #unique #shadowman #conceptual #artist #neoexpressionism #urbanart #archives
Sad day Richard Hambleton was a main inspiration to me as a kid running around NYC. Always thought they were the silhouettes of a nuclear blast. I believe he was referencing crime scene outlines? We used to skate Veterans Memorial downtown NYC and under the underpass towards the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel there was a piece of his I used to visit quite often, not sure if things inspire you and direct the course of your life but he definitely had an influence of all of us. #shadowman #streetart Original Photo:Hank O'Neal
RIP Richard Hambleton. Always remember seeing his shadowmen driving with pops on the way upstate in late 80's / early 90's on the west side highway. Whenever someone mentions or posts a #streetart photo it should include this mans work. Period. Thanks to @woodward_gallery for allowing me to print work for them last year that included images of Richards shadowmen. It was an honor. Sorry for your loss. Thanks to @mastermoodymutz for the hookup. Thanks to everyone who helps out. I appreciate you very much. #richardhambleton
Sad to hear about the passing of my old friend Richard Hambleton. From 1983 to 1988 I sublet a small studio from him on Rivington street just off the Bowery. He rented two storefronts, one to live in, and one was his studio. He was a kind of de-facto landlord for me. I was fortunate enough to see his creative process in the studio and hang with him and talk about art at any given time. When today's street artists are so preoccupied with their art careers you should know that at the very least you owe this man a nod. He opened the doors for you. Though his health declined over the years he never lost his artistic flair. Painting great paintings until the end. Photos by Roland Hagenberg. #untitled84#richardhambleton#eastvilage
This post was adapted from our review of “Shadowman,” which can be read in its entirety here.