(Photo: Ben Buchanan, courtesy of Storyville Films and Motto Pictures)

During a recent trip to Denver, I noticed that the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art was hosting two exhibits celebrating downtown New York: a solo show dedicated to Lit fixture Ryan McGinley and a retrospective of the art Basquiat made at his East 12th Street studio in 1979 and 1980.

To find a Basquiat exhibit in those snow climes wasn’t surprising, given he’s one of the most ubiquitous artists of all-time. But Richard Hambleton, a contemporary of his who in the ‘80s was on track to achieve a similar level of fame, remains comparatively unknown, even though he’s still creating striking paintings in the East Village. A documentary that premiered Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, Oren Jacoby’s Shadowman, seeks to revive interest in the artist, and it looks like that may actually happen. His works are currently on display at Woodward Gallery, on the Lower East Side, and on Sunday at Shop Studios there was a one-night pop-up exhibit of works that Hambleton created during the past year. Could he finally get his due as a precursor to Banksy, who has admitted to being influenced by Hambleton?

Becoming a #Shadowman @richardhambletonstudio

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In 1983, when the International Herald Tribune published a story about New York City’s street artists, Hambleton’s paintings were valued higher than Basquiat’s, fetching $15,000 just like Keith Haring’s did. That year, 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.”

(Photo: Hank O’Neal, courtesy Storyville Films and Motto Pictures)

This much is certain: The shadowmen were disconcerting when they started appearing in the East Village, which was then so bombed out that it actually did resemble the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. In the documentary, performance artist Penny Arcade, who showed up for Saturday’s premiere, recalls that she was “completely freaked out” when she first saw one. “I thought someone was going to jump me.” 

Back then, the East Village was a drug mecca, and it didn’t take long for Hambleton to succumb to heroin. He became a junkie whose habit, says one of those interviewed for the film, “would make Basquiat look like a Boy Scout.”

But let’s rewind a bit. In 1976, Hambleton was a young art-school grad who established a reputation for himself 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 in Shadowman, Lower East Side gallerist and documentarian Clayton Patterson, also there for Saturday’s premiere, appreciates the way it combined visual art with drama and performance art. It was a proper “murder mystery story,” he says, that perplexed pedestrians and even police officers who wondered whether a crime had actually been committed.

Richard Hambleton (Photo: Hank O’Neal, courtesy of Storyville Films and Motto Pictures)

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), which goes to show how young the genre of street art was in the early ‘80s.

Of course, graffiti artists were also plying their art during this time, but Hambleton thought of himself more as a proper gallery artist. 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’s 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’re quite striking, but they weren’t what the art world wanted. 

Meanwhile, Hambleton’s drug addiction drove him to increasingly desperate living conditions, and sometimes to homelessness. Shadowman features some of Patterson’s footage of the cramped, filthy quarters where Hambleton lived with his girlfriend and a sex worker. At the time, the artist was painting with his own blood, and it was splashed all over the place. He sold his paintings to restaurateurs in order to be able to eat. According to his former roommate, whenever he got money he’d return to his “living crime scene” with caviar from Russ & Daughters and bundles of heroin. Meanwhile, his health degenerated.

Hambleton currently suffers from cancer and severe scoliosis. I met him, briefly, at the Outsider Art Fair; he made a rare public appearance to check out Mark Hogancamp’s photos at One Mile Gallery’s booth. He was stooped over a cane and a surgical mask made him hard to understand. But paint splatter on his shoes indicated that he was very much still active and working.

One wants Shadowman to be a redemption story, and it briefly looks like it will be. Halfway through the film we meet Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmordiba, slick socialites and art dealers who take an interest in Hambleton and, in 2009, convince Giorgio Armani himself to sponsor a celeb-studded comeback show. Hambleton finds it “healing” when he’s feted at a party attended by Alicia Keys and Russell Simmons, during which one of his paintings goes for $400,000. But like others who’ve served as patrons and are interviewed in the film, Roitfeld and Valmordiba eventually lose patience. A good deal of the documentary consists of them banging on the door of Hambleton’s Lower East Side studio, or hovering over him and barking at him to stop being such a perfectionist and finish a painting already.

Even after Roitfeld and Valmordiba end their association with him and he’s evicted from the Orchard Street studio, Hambleton gets another chance when a wealthy Russian puts him up at the Trump Soho, of all places. Needless to say, that doesn’t work out either. Hambleton is currently living in a studio in the East Village, according to the New York Post. When I spoke to him in January, he said he was again facing landlord trouble.

Though the two exhibits happening in conjunction with Shadowman’s run at Tribeca are hardly as glitzy as the Giorgio Armani retrospectives put on in 2009, it’s not hard to imagine Hambleton getting another shot at the limelight. Among other things his art is expected to be featured in an upcoming MoMA exhibit about Keith Haring’s and Ann Magnuson’s East Village exhibition space, Club 57.