Streetwise

Richard Hambleton: The Life and Death of a Downtown Art Star

Richard Hambleton, who died aged 65, was famous for his ‘Shadowman’ images, painted in black on buildings and other structures. But drug addiction brought chaos to his life.

Susan Aimee Weinik/Getty/The Daily Beast

“If I’ve got nothing else at least I’ve got my art,” Richard Hambleton told me. This was in the early 90s in his big, ramshackle studio on Chrystie Street on New York City’s Lower East Side. “Which keeps me happy in a way. But it’s not a therapy process. It never has been. Just to be able to do it.”

Hambleton, who died from cancer on Sunday at 65, was one of the most brilliant Street artists of his generation. He, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat had been singled out early as comers and Hambleton had been the first to break out.

He had a famous heroin habit though and was bent over with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine widely attributed to his lifetime of “nodding out” (falling asleep, often as a result of drugs), and the state of his studio suggested the constant elbowing of crisis, the imminence of ruin.

But then there was the work. We were looking at his current project, small square canvases on woodblocks, gold-leafed, and brushed with dark-reddish landscapes. They were executed in blood, his own blood, expelled from a syringe, works of haunting beauty, and a development from his street art.

I asked Hambleton if he thought about the future.

“I don’t worry about my future,” he said.

I said I had meant the future of his—mostly ephemeral—work.

“Yeah! I do. I always have,” he said. “That’s the only thing.”

Hambleton was Canadian and grew up in Vancouver. He started a center for alternative arts there and Vancouver was where he made his first public art, sticking up pocket mirrors all over the city. “I was R. Dick Trace It,” he told me. The accompanying line was: Have you seen this face before?

Hambleton moved to San Francisco in 1976. He made Image Mass Murder soon after his arrival, getting friends to lie down in the road, tracing their outline and splattering red paint. “It seemed like I was a crazy guy in the street,” he told me. “But that was totally orchestrated and organized. I had a studio. An exhausting process.”

It took him three days to do up San Francisco, then he repeated the process in fifteen cities in the US and Canada.

In 1979 Hambleton moved to the Lower East Side. Where else?

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It was in New York that he became famous for his “Shadowman” figures, painted in black on the sides of buildings and other structures.

Hambleton, who had always been as smart and witty as any Conceptual artist, now showed that he could use raw materials as effectively as an Abstract Expressionist, and that for him black was a color. “You can create illusions with black,” he once said. “That’s why I use black on the streets.”

The world was Richard Hambleton’s for the taking. He went to Europe three times around 1984, and put up work in every major Western European city. Andy Warhol asked several times to do his portrait but he never found the time. He wouldn’t make that mistake again, he told me. He made others. Or the same one rather. Over and over and over.

I saw a fair amount of Hambleton about eight years ago because I was doing a catalog text for a show of his work.

The last time I saw him was when John Woodward, his art dealer, took me to his (then) studio at the end of 2014. He was paper-white and had a bandaged nose because a cancer was eating away his face but he was open, oddly positive. Then he died.

It can be confidently predicted that Richard Hambleton, being both an artist and a junkie, will have left his affairs in an unsightly mess. He often lived with a couple of prostitutes, also addicts, who did not conduct their business on the premises.

“He lived a disposable lifestyle,” says Clayton Patterson, the Lower East Side documentarian, in whose place on Essex Street Hambleton lived for a while. “He would always find somebody to support him. He had the expectation that people would always help and there were always people buying his art. But it started to get crazy. Doors were left open at three in the morning.”

That ended, Hambleton moved on. And, yes, he was good at finding people to support him. “We put him up in a lot of studios” says Kristine Woodward, John’s wife, who is, as she says, “a board-certified critical-care nurse” and found plenty of use for her skills in Richard Hambleton. “We put him up in hotels, including the Trump.”

He could only stay in each hotel for 29 days. “After thirty days they become a resident. He would always trash the place. He was getting weaker and more fragile. His facial structure was deteriorating. And he really needed the heroin to help him deal with the pain. But he was painting until the end but he was doing smaller work. And he was doing shadow paintings until the end. He had always used his art to cover his expenses.”

Others would move in on this difficult but tempting artist. The text I wrote was for a show organized by Andy Valmorbida, an Australian, and Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, a Parisian, and which was sponsored by Giorgio Armani.

In 2017 Oren Jacoby produced and directed an excellent documentary about Hambleton, Shadowman. Brian Kelly, an actor, who has made a documentary about another Lower East Side artist, was connected with Hambleton by MoMA.

He began to work with him and noted his declining powers. “He would paint in hotel hallways and on rooftops,” Kelly says. “He took three attempts to get a painting. He would attack it and refine it. I would be with him from 6 or 7 until dawn. I had the patience.” Kelly did Hambleton’s last show, a pop-up shop, after the premiere of Shadowman.

So Richard Hambleton died. “He would go as far as he could go,” says the performance artist, Penny Arcade. “He had no judgement. Richard never struggled with drugs. Richard was the struggle. The long line of artists addicted to pleasure like Caravaggio is ending. If you were bent over like a pretzel with scoliosis would you still be painting? Or dripping fluids from your rotting face?” She sang a couple of lines from Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.”

I spoke with one of the women who had lived with Richard Hambleton off and on, now clean and sober, and well off the streets. “We lived like a suicide pact,” she says. “But I thought he was indestructible.”