Just In: Richard Hambleton
Though often neglected in popular memory, American-Canadian artist Richard Hambleton helped spur the New York street art movement. After studying at the Emily Carr Institute of Art in the early 1970s, Hambleton launched his career by painting imitation crime-scene chalk outlines on sidewalks throughout Canada and the US, using the pseudonym “Mr. Reee.” In 1979, Hambleton moved from San Francisco to New York and transitioned from outlines to full figured “Shadowmen” that he carefully painted near streetlights, ledges, and alleyways to startle and intrigue passersby. Marked by their threatening air, Hambleton noted that the images “could represent watchmen or danger…or even [his] own shadow.” It was at this point that he also began working in a studio and producing paintings with themes and forms closely resembling his ongoing street art.
Hambleton quickly rose to critical and commercial fame and opened the gate for other street artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, to be welcomed by the New York art establishment. In 1984, Hambleton was featured in both an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale. The same year he attracted global attention when he painted 17 of his then iconic life-sized figures on the Berlin Wall. Hambleton was featured on the cover of Life magazine twice, and participated in the Venice Biennale a second time in 1988. Hambleton’s mounting success, however, was unraveled by his battle with addiction. The artist fell out of the limelight and virtually disappeared from the New York art scene for nearly two decades. While Hambleton’s production waned dramatically and many of his works from the intervening decades were reportedly lost or destroyed, Untitled (Shadowman) (2002) offers a glimpse into the artist’s thematic concerns during these years. Hazily referencing the 18th and 19th century tradition of high art portraiture, the painter seems to ponder the use of the commissioned image as an expression of wealth and power. His vague outline presents a ghostly remnant of an otherwise recognizable custom. In denaturing the portraiture genre, Hambleton introduces a sinister reflection on the historical intersection of visual culture and political influence.
In 2009, collector Andy Valmorbida buoyed Hambleton’s career by reintroducing his works to the art market. Valmorbida helped organize a major retrospective for Hambleton that subsequently toured the globe and brought renewed commercial interest in the painter. Nevertheless, troubles within Hambleton’s personal life persisted and the artist struggled to maintain this exposure. Hambleton sadly passed away in 2017, mere months after Oren Jacoby’s award-winning documentary about the painter’s life, Shadowman, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. This cinematic attention, in addition to the artist’s posthumous exhibition at Leake Street Arches in London, have sparked yet another wave of enthusiasm for Hambleton’s work. Hambleton’s influence on his contemporaries and followers, including Blek le Rat and Banksy, is immeasurable, and his legacy is now fortunately receiving the attention that it deserves.
Carter, Felicity. “Major Richard Hambleton Retrospective To Open In London.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 31 Aug. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/felicitycarter/2018/08/30/major-richard-hambleton-retrospective-to-open-in-london/#4c2bea425dda.
Seymour, Tom. “The Tumultuous, Tragic Life of Street Art Pioneer Richard Hambleton.” Artsy, 19 Aug. 2018, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-tumultuous-tragic-life-street-art-pioneer-richard-Hambleton
Acrylic on paper
Composition/sheet: 23.375″ x 17.875″; Frame: 32.125″ x 26.5″
Provenance: Private Collection, New York, New York; Private Collection, New York, New York (acquired directly from the above through Rago, Lambertville, New Jersey, October 27, 2007, lot 282)
October 20, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction