The mysterious ‘Shadowman’, Richard Hambleton is often called the Godfather of street art and was friends with all the legendary figures of the New York art scene of the 1980s including Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean Michel-Basquiat. Yet Hambleton’s name didn’t break into the mainstream until after his death from cancer in 2017 – the artist was never interested in the celebrity status of other peers in his circle, yet his pervasive legacy and influence on street artist such as Banksy and many others, is clear today.
Born in 1952 in Vancouver Canada, he attended the Vancouver School of Art until 1975. His first signature works gained him instant recognition with the art world and the police alike, as they mimicked the life-sized human outlines used in investigating murder cases, painted in white. He created the persona of R. Dick Trace-It, a detective investigating these artificial murder crime cases, as well as a fake perpetrator by the name of Mr Reee. He painted around 620 of these white outlines throughout his travels in Canada and the United States in the 1970s, as well as 4000 ‘wanted’ posters for the fictitious murderer, Mr Reee.
He eventually settled in New York in 1980, becoming enveloped in its dynamic Street Art scene. Hambleton’s eerie black figures, which later gave him the name ‘Shadowman’, started popping up on the streets of the city as a menacing reminder of the rising crime rates in New York. As described by the artist for People magazine around that time, the dark silhouettes “…could represent watchmen or danger or the shadows of a human body after a nuclear holocaust or even my own shadow.”
Much like his contemporaries Haring and Basquiat, who saw the Lower East Side as their canvas for making public and politically engaged art, Hambleton’s ‘shadow men’ quickly spread across the city and onto the pages of newspapers and art magazines that reported on New York’s graffiti boom in 1983. He continued his series internationally, travelling across Europe to make more public artworks on the streets of Paris, Venice and Berlin – he painted 17 life-sized black figures onto the Berlin Wall. He was starting to sell and exhibit his paintings and also embarked on a fashion collaboration with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in 1983 using his iconic imagery. His new variations on his ‘shadow men’ was the Marlboro Man, a similar figure often depicted mounted on a horse, painted on canvas. Around this time, his works were more sought after on the market than those of his famous peers - he was included in the Venice Biennale in 1984 and 1988.
He was shaken by the death of his friends Haring and Basquiat and many others during the AIDS epidemic, while himself also struggling with a heroin problem. Thus, he withdrew himself from the art world and the general public in the 1990s. His painting style shifted from his popular and well-known street art aesthetic to the more subdued ‘Beautiful Paintings’ , landscapes using bright colors and broad brushstrokes, which disappointed the New York art world and caused him to slowly sink into obscurity. A notable exhibition since then was Richard Hambleton – New York in 2009, spanning over his entire career and featuring all his famous series including Shadowman and Marlboro Man pieces and his later landscape paintings. The retrospective opened in collaboration with Giorgio Armani in New York and toured internationally in Milan, Moscow and London among other major cities. Other significant exhibitions include Art in the Streets at MoCA, Los Angeles in 2011, Richard Hambleton: I Only Have Eyes For You, a solo presentation at Woodward Gallery in New York and Richard Hambleton | Shadowman at Chase Contemporary in New York. His work is in the permanent collections of prominent institutions such as the Andy Warhol Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Queens Museum in the United States, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin.
Hambleton’s artistic work resurfaced posthumously through a documentary entitled Shadowman, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017. Shortly after there was an exponential rise in his market interest and prices. As described by New York gallerist Hong Gyu Shin:
“I believe he is one of the most important American figurative painters and street artists. I’m confident that his market will keep appreciating. People often compare Richard and Basquiat. Richard is Richard, though I think his market will become as big Basquiat’s, as big as Pollock’s, and as big as de Kooning.”
After his death, Hambleton’s pieces fetched record prices within months. The volume of his work is currently unknown, given he produced a vast number of public pieces and was also consistently selling his own works himself, which contributed to the rising popularity of the market.
As a prolific pioneer of street art, Hambleton is finally receiving the critical, commercial and popular recognition he deserves and the trend is set to continue.