Remembered as the 'godfather of street art', Richard Hambleton (aka Shadowman) emerged alongside Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York's underground art scene in the 1980s. Once outselling his peers and begged by Andy Warhol to sit for a portrait, he lost himself in his art and his tragic story was shelved in the archives of art history. Until now. Our Shadowman exhibition and limited edition collection sheds light on the genius of the man who lived his life in the shadows, inspiring contemporary artists like Banksy and Blek le Rat.
Although he considered his art to be conceptual, rejecting the term 'graffiti art', the streets are where Hambleton made his name. Prior to his arrival in New York, he had already gained notoriety for his Image Mass Murder series, executed as he worked his way along the West Coast, leaving behind what appeared to be a one-man killing spree in his wake. Hambleton took to cities under the cover of nightfall to situate his shadowmen in settings chosen to elicit the most startling reactions from those who passed them by. Lurking round corners, down alleyways or seemingly hovering ominously in doorways, the life-size black-silhouetted figures became a newsworthy phenomenon.
Fame beckoned, and Hambleton was exhibited in institutions including the Museum of Modern Art. After only a few years, and with over 400 shadowmen pervading the landscape of Manhattan, Hambleton took his art to Europe. Following invitations to exhibit at the Venice Biennale and paint on the Berlin Wall, interest in him had never been higher and his innate distrust of gallerists and art dealers catalysed his withdrawal from the art world. He retreated into his studio, away from the spotlight, and began a descent into poor health and substance abuse. The shadowmen’s founding father became little more than a shadow himself. Eventually living in squalor, painting to fund his drug habit and pay for food, Hambleton died of cancer in New York in October 2017.
In the years that have followed, Hambleton's shadowed figures have faded away, but his impact on the art world remains. An inspiration to a new generation of street artists - including Banksy and the French muralists JR and Blek le Rat - his work is just as shocking now as it was back then. These iconic limited edition graphics, exclusive to Castle Fine Art, mark the first time since his passing that - alongside the Hambleton estate - there is a distinct movement to keep alive the undertaking that he started over forty years ago. We are privileged to bring this cultural revolution from street to canvas.
Just like his shadowed figures, Hambleton preferred to exist in darkness. Whether it was stalking the streets of Manhattan with a lookout in tow, or painting frantically in his cramped and dimly-lit studio, his greatest creations were born of a darkness that pervaded his paintings. Never caught by the police, he was described by People magazine as 'a shy, ruddy-faced artist given to wandering the streets at 3 a.m. dressed in black, with jars of latex paint and a six-inch brush in his satchel.'
Whilst public art was a relatively new concept, Hambleton was already lightyears ahead of the scene. His installations came complete with a narrative, characters (a private detective called ‘R. Dick Trace It’ and the murdered ‘Mr Reeee’) and a sense of a murder mystery plot playing out across the country. His Image Mass Murder series - splatters of blood-red paint outlined in chalk in the shape of a body in 15 cities across the United States and Canada - provoked outrage, leading the San Francisco Examiner to proclaim: 'This is the work of a sick jokester.'
Hambleton's canvas was international: his shadowmen appeared in the streets of Rome, London and Paris, along with the east side of the Berlin Wall. His contrast between light and shadow followed him into his everyday life; in between painting in a disused petrol station, using blood from discarded syringes, and exchanging his artworks for food, he worked with the fashion designer Giorgio Armani, who said: “I have long been a fan of Richard Hambleton. Richard’s work is of the streets, and for me stands as a reminder that art in all its forms is first and foremost driven by individual passion and creativity.”
The Shadowman collection is now available online and in galleries. Click here to find out more. You can also go behind the scenes of Richard's fascinating story at our free immersive exhibition at our ICC gallery in Birmingham from 16th July until 22nd August.
From the streets of New York’s East Village to the walls of our galleries across the UK, the Richard Hambleton collection represents a decisive chapter in art history.
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