An Inside Story Behind Richard Hambleton: The Godfather Of Street Art

By June 12, 2018 June 15th, 2018 News

“I see two wires-Remington and Motherwell,” claims the long-time New York art dealer Rick Librizzi.

Rick says this while drawing two disparate index figures towards the fulcrum-like specter of his troubled but undeniably talented friend, the late artist Richard Hambleton.

Hambleton passed away in late October 2017 after a bout with cancer.

On June 14th, ACA Galleries (Chelsea) will present Eternity, a museum quality exhibition and memorial of sorts that speaks to Hambleton’s important contributions to the cannon of contemporary art.

“We felt a real obligation to cement his legacy,” says Mikaela Sardo Lamarche, ACA’s curator of 14 years. “Not that he needed us, but we wanted to honor him.”

Eternity focuses primarily on the artist’s large-scale paintings and works on paper from Hambleton’s two signature series, “Shadowmen” and “Horse and Riders.”

Culled from various private collections, much of the exhibition’s contents have never been shown before in public. “We didn’t want this show to only codify his passing,” adds Lamarche, “but celebrate it as a new beginning.”

If the splashy, lurking “Shadowmen” recall Robert Motherwell’s abstract, emotive black masses, Hambleton’s later “Rodeo” paintings evoke Frederic Remington’s romanticized American West by way of Franz Kline.

Many consider Hambleton, a true contemporary of the foremost radiant children of the booming ‘80s-Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat-to be the undisputed “godfather of street art.”

Where many graffiti artists were locked into what lay people might see as a singular, phonetic, script-based bomb aesthetic, Hambleton hijacked the shadow ethos of the Abstract Expressionists and took it to the darkest corners of the world’s most notorious streets. In all likelihood: without “Richie,” (as Librizzi affectionately calls him) no Banksy.

Four years after graduating with honors from the Vancouver School of Contemporary Art (Emily Carr University of Art and Design) in 1975 and creating the experimental art space, the Pumps Center for Alternative Art, Hambleton left his native soil behind and moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Recognizing the city’s gritty, drug-fueled, post-apocalyptic nature, Hambleton dove right into his Image Mass Murder series. These consisted of police chalk outlines of faux homicide victims, often traced around the bodies of his obliging friends. These existential, épater le bourgeois, guerilla works incorporated his earliest color splashes, as red paint doubled for fractal, wasted blood.

“I think the fact that graffiti was complex was the reason that it was such an innovation,” says Librizzi, gazing through his trademark, retro yellow aviators. “From the beginning of time graffiti existed. Cave people put up their hands to say they existed. These are humans across time connecting at a very human level. You don’t get more personal than a hand print.”

Hambleton wasn’t only crying out that he “existed,” to God, or the NYC bourgeoisie, indifferent to the plight of downtown’s lost children, he was expressing the paradoxical nature of the conscious, walking dead. As Hambleton himself said in Oren Jacoby’s thorough 2017 documentary about his life, Shadowman: “At least Basquiat, you know, died,” Hambelton proclaims in a 2014 interview clip. “I was alive when I died, you know. That’s the problem.”

With any heavy-handed artistic meditation on death, one invites the Darwinian “better him than me” instinct-a natural human coping mechanism. Perhaps that’s why the considerably less passive “Shadowmen” evolved from the Mass Murder drawings; they could more effectively shock the living into a state of residual, meditative hyper awareness; artist included.

Over 600 of Hambleton’s figurative ghouls, also his friends (Basquiat, Librizzi, etc.) or self-portraits, eventually graced the walls of 15 American cities and several European cities, including dozens of figures on both sides of the Berlin Wall, executed in 1984 and ’85 respectively.

Though Hambelton looked like a living Egon Schiele self-portrait-lithe, lucid, hunched, skeletal, vampish, twisted, but nevertheless handsome-he thought like Albert Camus by way of Marcel Duchamp.

“One day I spotted a street piece he had done on a staircase,” says Librizzi. “It had different levels to it. I commented on that and he said it was his rendition of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase [No.1], (1911). Richie was very well versed in art history. He had an active, creative imagination. I compare that to Christo’s take on Man Ray (Christo claimed he was unaware of May Ray’s Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920, when he unveiled Wrapped Reichstag in 1995). But Man Ray wrapped the sewing machine first. It doesn’t get better than that. Once the innovation is done, it’s done.”

Following this line of thought, Librizzi doesn’t exactly fawn over Warhol or Basquiat’s joint role in turning the art history wheel.

“Nobody transformed anything more than the Abstract Expressionists who were coming right out of Surrealism, Cubism and Monet, who got rid of the horizon line, which was major, because now you have Pollock and the wall,” Librizzi says, connecting more referential wires.

“Pop-art just superimposes imagery on that dimension. When Andy puts Marilyn Monroe on an empty space, it’s like putting Marilyn on a Barnett Newman.”

“Or on a Rothko,” Lamarche adds.

It should be noted that Hambleton saw financial success in New York and Europe years before Basquiat and Haring popped off. As the aforementioned radiant children were gaining notoriety, Hambleton’s “Shadowmen” were being appropriated for a Malcolm McLaren x Vivienne Westwood “jersey skirt” collaboration.

Amateur graphic designers were ripping his aesthetic for concert posters. His shadowy intervention on The Ramone’s first album cover was plastered across unlicensed CBGBs T-shirts.

He had some tumultuously short but successful runs at a few reputable galleries. He was invited to the Venice Biennale in ’84 and ’88, but by then, Hambleton’s first major breakthrough had become a meme.

It was time to move on.

“That’s the problem in art today; people want your logo-an American concept,” says Librizzi. “When Picasso moved away from the Blue Period into Cubism, his dealer’s left him. It’s a worldwide problem, but more intense here. But great artists can’t go there. They’re dealing with their psyches and trying to free themselves from their traumas.”

The Canadian-born Hambleton’s fascination with American Simulacra & Simulation, branding and general iconography can be best illustrated in his “Marlboro Man” paintings, which feature a rustic rodeo cowboy flailing valiantly atop a bucking bronco; the clearest confluence of Motherwell and Remington.

Archetypal ideas, more Jung than Freud, regarding “maleness,” sexuality, mortality, Joseph Campbell’s heroic ideal, and addiction, were coming into contact with the bubbling AIDS epidemic, which was beginning to decimate the gay community in New York.

At this same time, Hambelton was well into his own downward spiral of hard drug use.

“Because he was a street person and a drug person, a lot of people didn’t give him credit for his intelligence, which was vast,” says Librizzi, who was Motherwell’s dealer while acting as the first director of the storied Long Point Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “Of all the major artists I’ve met, Richie was right there with them as far as intelligence goes. He could lose me sometimes.”

“There were gang wars outside the gallery. I would bail kids out of jail. The landlord would freak out. I was losing money by not dealing with Andy Warhol and people like that.”

Librizzi, who also ran a graffiti-centric gallery, Crush City (aka Librizzi Gallery), on the formerly mean streets of SoHo (99 Watts St.) for roughly one year (1984), might be the most anthropologically well-versed living human on the nature of working with the creative street urchins of the 1980s.

“In dealing with the graffiti artists, you had to be a psychiatrist, a doctor, a father, a banker; it was impossible,” he says with a sort of manic humor.

“There were gang wars outside the gallery. I would bail kids out of jail. The landlord would freak out. I was losing money by not dealing with Andy and people like that.”

At that point, it was equally impossible to get your hands on a Hambleton “Rodeo” work or his “Shadowmen,” as most were sold before they left the studio.

But long after Librizzi shuttered his short-lived gallery and wrapped up his tenure as director of Long Point, he would continue on as the Virgil-like guide to Hambleton’s wayward Dante, who was ever-descending into deeper layers of a drug-fueled purgatory.

Hambleton wouldn’t reemerge in earnest until a sold out gallery show in London’s The Dairy Studios in 2009, which was backed by the fashion mogul Giorgio Armani. Earlier that year, his work sold for record numbers at the AMFAR gala during the Cannes Film Festival. Apparently Hambleton showed up at the last minute, as he had been waiting for his shoes, which he had painted matte black earlier that day, to dry.

“He had all the passion,” Librizzi begins. “I grew up with junkies, because I grew up on 10th street and Avenue A. I have known super-junkies and Richard was the king of junkies. He had no qualms about it. That’s what makes him so good, because of the turmoil that that lifestyle brings forth; all the dynamics, always on the edge of something, falling into an abyss.”

Eventually, Hambleton was diagnosed with skin cancer. He was forced to have a piece of his nose removed, leaving him with a Chinatown-style face bandage that lent the artist an even greater noir-like mystique. He was a character, neither good nor bad, but as an artist he was great, transcendent even.

In speaking with the jazzy, seemingly omniscient Librizzi, who worked with Warhol and Wesselman, and hung with many of the AbEx greats, his deep admiration for Hambleton is extremely telling.

Many who survived the ‘80s, especially those who rubbed elbows with Basquiat, Haring and the like, feel a seasoned raconteur’s responsibility to share authentic, “had to be there” anecdotes about this exciting time for New York City and contemporary art in general.

The following sample paints a jarring, but lucid portrait of Hambleton (as a man, something closer to a late 20th century Van Gogh) and the scene rather beautifully:

“I was in the East Village, sometime in ’92, and a guy rolled up on a little bike and asked if I wanted to buy a painting. I looked at the painting, I didn’t recognize it, but I knew it was good. It was a landscape. I said ‘All right. 50 dollars. Hey, aren’t you Richie Hambleton?’ Of course, he didn’t look like that blue-eyed boy anymore, the one I had known in the days of Civilian Warfare and Nature Morte [Gallery]. He was city-ravaged-living in the park.

So, I got him into a hotel in the ‘30s where if you paint the room you can stay there for a month. I kept him there for a year. I told them how great he was. I would talk to them and keep it going until one day they called me up. ‘It’s 4am. He’s going berserk! Please, it’s time for him to leave.’ He was in that room, chock full of materials, painting against the wall. He was living with his girlfriend and a prostitute. You had to climb over all this stuff to get on the bed. You didn’t know if someone was under the covers and all that stuff or not, or cooking something up. There was blood all over the place-needles everywhere.

Sometimes it was really difficult to do business. One day, he needed money-called me up. No matter how much money you gave him, it would dissolve into thin air. ‘Richie, I just gave you a thousand dollars yesterday.’ ‘Yeah that was yesterday,’ [he replied]. He was painting a horse and rider and I said, ‘I’ll give you money, but I’m taking this work.’ ‘It’s not done.’ ‘What’s not done about it?’ ‘The leg is wrong.’

So he paints out the leg in front of me. Blood is running down his arm, the girls are moaning in bed. Eventually, with one stroke, he painted the leg. It was like a Zen thing. He came down with the brush, snapped it and made the hoof, and it was perfect.”

Courtesy Kurt McVey, ACA Galleries

ACA Galleries is pleased to announce Richard Hambleton: Eternity on view June 14 through July 27, 2018.

View gallery hours and contact us here.

Exhibition highlights include: a colossal unstretched canvas with five life-sized Shadowmen figures; several large single Shadowmen; and Rodeo paintings on canvas. Coming out of private collections the majority of these works have never been exhibited before.

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