Hero in Art: The Vanished Traces of Richard Hambleton
Dressed in his characteristic black business suit, Richard Hambleton skulked like a fugitive, flitted like a wraith, and scampered like a rat across the burned-out eighties moonscape of the Lower East Side, in service both to his twisted artistic vision and to another, equally dark master. Choosing the doorways of shooting galleries and the shells of abandoned tenements as his canvas, Hambleton labored in the dead of night, slapping paint up quickly in the shifting glow of homeless trash fires, to create what Istvan Kantor, in his new “bio-novel,” Hero in Art: The Vanished Traces of Richard Hambleton, describes as “. . . an elaborate, permanently transmuting labyrinth.” Kantor is referring to how Hambleton’s “Shadowmen” would appear suddenly, strikingly, their sinister, black, anthropomorphic shapes outlined against the crumbling brickwork, only to immediately commence their inevitable devolution, the elements fading the silhouettes and other street artists tagging over them, until they gradually melded into the surrounding graffiti, disappearing beneath the newer layers of paint—just as others black figures, down the block or around the corner, took their place. Hambleton’s “public art”—the term he preferred—represents an alternative to the more familiar wild style graffiti, and serves as an important precursor to the work of Banksy and his myriad imitators. Eventually, Hambleton would go on to clandestinely introduce the Shadows to the streets of several cities around the globe, including a striking group of seventeen that he painted on the east side of the Berlin Wall in 1984.
The shock value of the Shadowman paintings has been often remarked upon, as Hambleton sometimes placed the pieces in doorways or around corners so that passersby would be startled by what they initially mistook for a lurking malefactor, perhaps a nodding junkie or a knife-wielding mugger, lying in wait to spring out upon his unsuspecting prey. As for myself, I didn’t see the shadows until the mid-nineties when I moved to New York. I don’t remember ever stumbling upon one unexpectedly in the dark, and in any event the era, that of Mayor Giuliani and his “broken windows” policy, was one of gentrification and a concomitant reduction in street crime. I do, however, remember being struck by the uncanny power of the shadows, which have an exuberant energy reminiscent of Kline or Pollock, and puzzling over them, wondering who would go to the trouble to paint such things, and why. The shadows are unobtrusive in the sense of blending in with the other elements of the street wall, appearing at home in that milieu, while at the same time exhibiting an alien strangeness that marks them off as intruders, standing out from the general sameness that tends to characterize even the most colorful graffiti.
To me, the shadows seemed, initially, not obviously “art,” but more like some kind of weird hoax or prank, or perhaps a commentary of some sort, a graphic editorial. But my sense of confusion is at least part of the reaction that Hambleton intended. As we learn in Kantor’s book, Hambleton considered himself a conceptual artist, and as such the unspoken allusion is at least as important as the physical artifact, and context is most definitely key, the overall milieu and even zeitgeist being every bit as determinate as the grungy street “canvas” which Hambleton chose carefully and indeed regarded as an integral part of the work. And the Lower East Side in the eighties—as opposed to the tamer era when I arrived—was a place and time when social neglect, slum clearance, and a deliberate lack of policing contributed to an anxious air of tension, danger, and the palpable threat of violence.
A shadow signals an absence: of light, as well as of the form casting it, which form must necessarily be standing at some remove, occluding the source of light—be it the sun, the moon, the street light, or the roaring barrel fire—from the crumbling canvas of the tenement wall. A long shadow looming up from behind evokes dread and a creeping feeling; you shrink from it even as you know you must turn to confront the presumably ill-intentioned figure skulking up silently at your back. It’s difficult to contemplate these dark traces without evoking images of the mysterious, nebulous character who stole up in the dead of night to cast the shadow—to paint it, rather—slipping out of the “real” shadows to slap up the deep black, tar-like paint with a broad brush (and many of these shadows, particularly the early ones, do seem to have been executed in great haste), only to meld just as silently back into the sheltering darkness, evading capture as well as easy categorization. Although, given the ephemeral nature of graffiti, the quest is quixotic, it’s as if Hambleton had set out to extend the life of his own his dark side, like the shadow of Nosferatu (to whom Kantor compares the artist more than once) that lingers eerily after the monster has moved on. Or perhaps, like the charred human forms burned into the walls of Hiroshima, they can be seen as constituting a memorial for the missing, for the vanished, for the poor and working class people, many of them immigrants—Hispanic, Ukrainian, and Italian, Jewish, and Irish before them—who made this spot on earth their home before social priorities shifted and politicians, claiming “urban blight,” decided to withdraw support and services from their neighborhood. (For some striking examples of the early Shadowman paintings, consult Frank Palaia’s Nightlife: Shadow Paintings by Richard Hambleton, Netpub, 2011.)
Those who come to Hero in Art looking for a straightforward biography of Richard Hambleton—an artist often cited alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring as part of a visionary street trinity of graffiti pioneers—will be sorely disappointed. What the book offers instead, in a series of loosely connected chapters comprised of interviews with artists, musicians, and grunge revolutionaries, is a haphazard, scattershot, though nonetheless deep dive into the twisted psyche of a singularly elusive character, together with a fascinating tour of the Lower East Side of the eighties, nineties, and early aughts, from Orchard street to the Bowery to Tompkins Square Park, and from the Rivington School and No Se No, to ABC No Rio, the Gas Station, and the notoriously filthy First Avenue dive known as the Mars Bar. (Heck, we even stop in for a spell at my own longtime stomping ground, the Chelsea Hotel—though this particular Bohemian flophouse is way uptown, and even upscale, as far as Hero in Art is concerned.) We also get quite a bit of material about Kantor himself, who has led, to say the least, an unconventional and uncompromising life. While Kantor describes his book as a “bio-novel,” suggesting that perhaps it’s a take on the nonfiction novels of the sixties by such giants as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, any expectations of this sort are quickly dashed as well. Rather, the book is a sort of oral history interspersed with impressionistic outbursts, though it does have a plot of sorts, which may indeed qualify it as a novel or memoir if you’re not too picky about labels. What plot there is revolves around Kantor’s years-long attempt to secure a sit-down interview with the slippery Hambleton, who doesn’t party with the gang, doesn’t hang out, and is there one minute and gone the next. The subtext is that Kantor, sensing his kinship with the promising, and then famous artist, wants to know Hambleton better and be closer to him, both as a friend and as a professional collaborator, while the stand-offish Hambleton (who frequents prostitutes for his sexual relief so as to avoid entanglement), prefers to keep both Kantor and most other members of the pesky human race at arms-or-greater length.
But the heart of the book is undoubtedly the series of interviews that Kantor conducts with Hambleton’s “friends” (if indeed he had friends in any ordinary sense, a question that runs throughout the book) and associates on the downtown underground art scene. In no particular order, we meet with artist, photographer, and hat maker Clayton Patterson, sculptor, 3-D street artist, and Gas Station owner Linus Coraggio, photographer Hank O’Neal, and mail artist David Zack (although, since he had passed before the inception of the project, Kantor writes him a letter), as well as lesser-known figures such as painter, poet and teacher Eileen Doster, musician, poet, and performance artist Julius Klein, art dealer and collector Rick Librizzi and his son Nemo, and Hambleton girlfriends and caretakers Gigi and Mimi. Presented in a non-linear, overlapping, and repetitive manner that sometimes grates, and interspersed with narrative—explanatory and otherwise—Kantor’s interviews are as much portraits of these fascinating people themselves, and of the heady, disorderly downtown art scene they helped create, as they are of Hambleton. As the book is partly autobiographical, the other main character is Kantor himself, a mail artist, performance artist, “blood artist”, and co-founder of the Rivington School, a loose coalition of artists who gathered in and around a squatted building at the corner of Rivington and Forsyth Streets, next to which they erected a massive metal junk sculpture. Kantor is most well known for splashing his own blood on the wall at MOMA and various other galleries, and it helps to keep in mind how remarkably consistent this early disciple of Zack’s “Neoism”—a deliberately indefinable art or anti-art movement involving pranks and hoaxes—is across forms, employing a slapdash, throw-some-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to writing. As I perused the book, I kept thinking of Allen Ginsberg’s “First thought, best thought” dictum, and wondering if it quite held true in this case, or if perhaps a bit more editing might have been in order. In any event, while no Ginsberg, Kantor can certainly wax lyrical at times:
The ruined, apocalyptic Lower East Side was to him a fertile field from which a new creative strength would spring. It was an absurd, neo-biblical paradise in the middle of a post-world war zone, under the black night cloud of the threatened approaching nuclear war. The rubble beneath his feet might well have been a golden carpet, and each peeling wall a background for a miracle.
After a few discombobulating chapters, one learns to settle in and take this “bionovel” on its own terms, to savor passages such as this as we enjoy the wild ride through an exciting era in art history and bohemian life. Despite being somewhat sloppy in its execution, Hero In Art is an intelligent and insightful book, written by someone who lived a similar life of devotion to art, granting him the insight and empathy necessary to offer a consummate insider’s portrait of a difficult, complex, self-mythologizing, and deliberately mysterious individual.
Perhaps Kantor’s point in writing as he does is that some lives just don’t progress in a straight line. Hambleton, for one, decidedly did not take the path of college, job, marriage, children, and comfortable retirement. And so, for what it’s worth, what more can one ask than to get the “biography” one deserves? There’s not much here on Hambleton’s childhood, as Kantor admits that he tried and failed to get in touch with the artist’s family and early friends, who may have been reticent due to the Shadowman’s well known association with drugs and the junkie lifestyle. Hambleton did actually go to college, art school to be exact, in Vancouver, British Columbia, from which town he originally hailed (born in 1952). He had a couple of solo shows there, including one at the artist-run Western Front arts center, but as a young man he was already restless. Rejecting the gallery system, he joined the international mail art network, corresponding with various other alternative artists, including Kantor, and traveling to several North American and European cities, where he attended underground art events when he was not busy working on his first great graffiti project, the “Image Mass Murder” series. The chapters dealing with this period, when Kantor was also touring the US and Canada doing his performance art, mostly concern Kantor’s near encounters (or very brief meetings) with the enigmatic Hambleton. Kantor isn’t exactly chasing him, and Hambleton isn’t exactly running away, but they keep narrowly missing each other, and never get to know one another well until both men move to New York City at the end of the seventies, Hambleton arriving in 1979.
“I’m the specter of subversiveism,” Hambleton informed his incredulous father—who disapproved of his son’s plans to become a professional artist—during an argument. Soon after that the young Richard took to the road, going as dark and subversive as possible with his “outside art” project, Image Mass Murder, which he began in 1976, eventually painting six-hundred-twenty images on the streets of various North American cities. The paintings are simple enough in their execution: Hambleton would draw the outline of a body on the sidewalk, the limbs posed in contorted positions as if the subject—presumably the victim of a violent crime—had fallen that way, and then finish it off with a splash of red paint to signify blood. The paintings were meant to suggest crime scene outlines drawn by the police, and apparently did manage to fool quite a few horrified passers-by, some of whom might have even called the police station or started asking questions about the supposed “murder,” or about the safety of the area. These outlines evoke a distinct aura of menace, and, as the “body” is missing and the “crime” hidden, they too suggest an absence and a hidden history of the neighborhood—especially as Hambleton executed many of these figures in upscale or gentrifying areas—and maybe even a cover-up.
Between Image Mass Murder and the Shadowman series, and overlapping to some extent with both projects, Hambleton installed his second major street “intervention,” “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Consisting of life-sized, cheaply mimeographed images of Hambleton himself, attired in his black business suit, these depict the artist gazing back at the viewer with a wide-eyed, fixed stare as he reaches into his breast pocket. As many of these works were wheat-pasted on the walls of buildings in the Chelsea gallery district, the implication seems to be that Hambleton represents a businessman reaching into his pocket for a gun (or a fountain pen!) to rob the artists whom the gallery system is set up to exploit. Or perhaps it’s to rip off the public who are cheated by being force-fed inauthentic art. On the other hand, maybe Hambleton’s gesture implies that he’s a Napoleon figure, announcing to the gatekeepers of the galleries, “I will conquer.” As Kantor informs us: “Being illegal and ephemeral, graffiti was a truly anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial form, it disrupted corporate leadership of the arts and diminished the stardom of gallery artists.”
New York City in the early eighties was in the throes of mayor Ed Koch’s ill-conceived “war” on the “crime” of graffiti, a war that has continued, with varying degrees of heat, ever since. The notion of crime is central to Hambleton’s endeavor, and he was heavily influenced by the Noir films and pulp detective books and comics of his youth. When Hambleton painted the Image Mass Murder outlines, he often signed them as “Mr. Reeee,” the mystery involved apparently being threefold: the identity of the victim, as well as of the killer, and of the true identity of the artist, Mr. Reeee, himself. And while the Eyes project may suggest an answer to one or more of these questions, it was with the Shadowman series that Hambleton really sought to elaborate on the concept, attributing these images to yet another alter ego, “R. Dick Trace It.” The reference is to Dick Tracy, the detective who, with his trademark chiseled features, fedora, and handy dandy “two way wrist radio,” stars in the eponymous comic strip that began its run in 1931, quickly branching out into a radio program, a movie serial, and even a few full-length movies. Though one interpretation is that Mr. Reeee is the killer who has slipped away and that R. Dick Trace It is the detective searching for clues in the shadows, who then is the Shadowman? Part of Hambleton’s genius was the shifty ambiguity he nurtured in both his art and his persona:
He enjoyed the spooky nights on the Lower East Side, where he was surrounded by the mystery he created for himself. . . . There was a symbiosis between him and the darkness, him and the debris. He loved ruins and highly valued them. ‘Great ideas are hidden in the holes of the walls and under the rubble.’
In his two punning alter egos, Hambleton is both a criminal (evading capture as he pursues his art, always one step ahead of the cops) and a secret agent, an investigator, himself by necessity a deeply shady character, on intimate terms with the seedy underworld denizens, and seeking out the truth where it’s hidden, in the shadows. But he’s also the victim, the absence or negation implied in both the chalk outlines and the Shadows. Though I’m a decade younger than Hambleton, I remember reading Dick Tracy in the Sunday Paper as a kid; I also remember collecting “The Shadow” comic books, unaware that the hero, also a detective, was the subject of an earlier radio program and series of pulp novels in the thirties. Significantly, the Shadow, through deep immersion in the dark arts, is said to have mastered hypnotism, using it to cloud men’s minds and thus become invisible. Meaning is malleable in Hambleton’s hands and the deliberate ambiguity of his conceptual framework continues to keep us guessing, opening up deeps wells of meaning even to this day.
Istvan Kantor is rail-thin and surprisingly spry, and for these reasons stands out in the crowd of mostly overweight old subversives and underground artists—what the newcomers like to call “the leftovers”—who have gathered on an autumn evening in a vacant storefront on Avenue C in the East Village to revel in past glories and hopefully extend them a bit into the future. With a shock of white hair standing defiantly atop his otherwise balding head, and a silver grill on his teeth, Kantor wears a sort of makeshift Red Guard uniform of black stovepipe pants, military-look jacket with a red armband, and Adidas track shoes. His energy and enthusiasm belying his seventy-plus years, he strides around the space getting things in order, yelling, in his thick Hungarian accent, to the people milling around by the door: “We’re ready to start! Shut up, you motherfuckers or get out of here!” I’ve come here tonight to have Kantor sign my copy of Hero in Art, and to see what happened to the loose-knit group of artists and hell-raisers who lived, worked, and partied in the shadow of the gigantic scrap metal junk-art sculpture of the Rivington School. But I’m here mostly just because I love underground events like this—which have become scarce in Manhattan, even though, as Kantor tells us, perhaps slightly exaggerating, there used to be hundreds of events like this every night, all over the Lower East Side, in the eighties. The bare concrete walls of the Grace Exhibition Space at 182 Avenue C are decorated with cryptic “revolutionary” banners adorned with such slogans as “Power to the Maggots” and huge photos of Kantor engaging in various art interventions—or being arrested for such—including his infamous invasion of MOMA, when he splashed his blood in an “X” between two Picassos. This photo, in turn, has itself been splashed with a “X” of red paint to mirror the one depicted. There’s water and stale bread on offer on a table near the door. Turns out I’ve forgotten my book, so I buy another. Kantor is friendly and graciously signs my book—on an interior page, curiously enough, and with three colors of marker. Though I won’t say he seems exactly harmless, I get that his aggressive cursing—which came a little later than the signing, by the way—was done in the spirit of anarchism, nihilism, or perhaps Neoism, and definitely to provide an edge to the proceedings and warn off the random gentrifier who presumed to stick his or her head in the door.
I regret not stopping by the night before, for the opening on October 6, when Kantor, as part of a performance in which he reportedly swung by his feet from gymnasts’ rings, slung the red paint upon the aforementioned MOMA picture. Tonight he’s just the host of this “Red October” event, but he’s still a showman, directing our attention to the back of the room with a flaming iron (a Neoist “trademark”) as he introduces Clayton Patterson, who in turn shows three heavy metal-scored films, the most effective being the final one, which—in a montage suggesting a return to the bad old days of government neglect—juxtaposes trashed dining sheds and abandoned storefronts with the blanket-strewn cardboard encampments of the homeless. There will be a couple of performance artists next, namely Angel Eyedealism and Perpetua Rodriguez, and Kantor will “interrogate” Patterson in the basement torture chamber—making for an interesting, enjoyable, and nostalgic evening—but I don’t want to leave Paterson so quickly. When the final film ends, Patterson talks about all three films, and about the radical history of the Lower East Side, at length. Kantor butts in several times, and Patterson deflects the host’s repeated attempts to redirect the discussion to the Rivington School and to (the sometime member) Hambleton in particular, before finally giving in and saying that at the Rivington School it was always six o’clock, as that was the time to start drinking, and that the gigantic scrap metal sculpture, long since demolished, should’ve been landmarked. As to Hambleton, Patterson says he was a great artist, and “the worst, most drop-dead junkie” he’d ever met in his life. (For more on the Rivington School, see Rivington School: 80s New York Underground, Istvan Kantor, ed., photography by Toyo Tsuchiya.)
After his heroic efforts of the eighties, and disillusioned by his failure to subvert, reform, or destroy the gallery system, Hambleton seemingly vanished from the art scene for a decade or more in the nineties and early aughts. He continued to operate underground, however—being most at home there, after all—living for his art as always, though nonetheless becoming increasingly addicted to heroin and the self-destructive lifestyle that went with it. Essentially, he was draining himself for art, negating himself, and this would soon come to manifest in his physical form. It was during this time that he gradually developed the scoliosis that would curve his spine, rendering him a hunchback, and the skin cancer that would eventually eat away his face, destroying the movie star good looks that aided his career and made it easier for people to overlook his eccentricities. The chapters of Hero in Art that deal with this period—during much of which Kantor seems to lose touch with Hambleton—are scandalous, disturbing, heart-rending, and among the most engaging of the book. Sculptor Linus Coraggio recounts how Hambleton moved into the corrugated tin shed on the lot of his Gas Station studio on Avenue B, immediately inviting in his “psycho zombie junkie friends” and turning the place into a shooting gallery, at one point attempting to pimp out an unconscious junkie girl to Coraggio for the rent. After they had been kicked out of the Gas Station lot by developers, Corragio visits the artist Fa-Q at the third Rivington School sculpture garden on E. 6th St. (where the School had relocated after being evicted from its first two locations on Rivington Street), only to notice that Hambleton has taken up residence there: “Richard would be in a found blanket in the dark, on the dirt, with the garbage and the rats, lying motionless as if he was dead.” In a slightly later period, Hambleton moves into the musician and artist Pat Ivers’s building on Orchard Street, once again bringing his junkie friends with him. When Ivers would come home late at night, junkies would rush past her and up the stairs. They were pimping out teenage girls, and, in the most disturbing incident, they roll a dead body down the stairs, out the door, and into the trash. Finally, Ivers and some of the other tenants unite, go to court, and have Hambleton evicted. When Ivers looks in the apartment after he has gone, she finds it completely trashed, the kitchen stained with blood and shit, and a huge mountain of apparently stolen handbags in the living room. In response to a question from Kantor, one which was also on my lips when I read this, she says of the handbags: “It was not a fucking art installation.” Concluding that Ivers had been behind the eviction, Hambleton follows her around, threatening her. “Yes, I know he died,” Ivers says. “That was the best thing that could happen to him, and to us as well. I don’t fucking care how great an artist he was. For me he was nothing but a scumbag, the lowest of the low, a monster, vermin.”
As he withdrew from the art world and commenced his long decline, Hambleton switched the focus of his art from the street to the canvas, executing his series of Beautiful Paintings, paradoxically seeming to re-embrace the very gallery system he was so keen on rejecting. While it’s hard to resist the notion that this was a cynical junkie ploy to produce objects that he could more easily sell for drug money (especially with the later ones, to which he added the ever-popular Shadowman figures), as with all his projects, Hambleton was up to something a bit more complex, refusing, as always, to be pinned down or categorized. Consisting of simple landscapes and seascapes with luminous, golden or copper colored skies burnished to a sheen, the Beautiful Paintings live up to the superficial connotation of their name, while at the same time exhibiting a near inexhaustible depth and richness. Hambleton always insisted that he was a conceptual artist, and even here he remains true to his roots. This becomes clear when we discover that he used his own blood, which dried to a rust-colored tint, to achieve part of the swirling, glowing effect of the “Beautiful Paintings.” At more than one point in the book, Kantor discusses the junkies fixation on blood, for instance when he quotes Clayton Patterson, who, “documented people shooting up drugs, watching them boot the drug, push the needle in and draw it out:
They stared at it with total concentration and fascination, as the blood rolled in slowly into the clear liquid inside the shaft of the hypodermic needle. I see the relationship of this rolling blood as parallel to the skies in his gold leaf and blood based paintings.
As Kantor notes, the junkie is also addicted to the lifestyle, including the ritual of seeking out and finding his poison of choice in dark, dangerous, out-of-the-way nooks and corners of the city. And so here, it seems, the Shadowman has come full circle.
We’ve already seen what a punster Hambleton was, and how he used humor to layer various shades of meaning onto his projects. Thus, it’s hard not to suspect that he intended a dark irony when he called his later paintings “Beautiful.” Looking beneath the glossy surface, there’s something ugly and very “street” to the paintings, or, as Kantor says: “. . . they had a full on force, but there was something threatening, menacing, and troubling in them, partly because of the blood.” Notice too that, in a way that highlights the bonds of kinship between the two men, Hambleton (who once, to Kantor’s astonishment, called Kantor his best friend) seems to have borrowed Kantor’s idea of splashing his own blood on the gallery wall in order to call the art dealers out as Vampires or blood-suckers, complicit in the ghoulish act. Critics at the time called Hambleton’s midlife switching of styles career suicide, but to Hambleton, the conceptual artist, there was a deep continuity. To the end, Hambleton was still the subversive, still the criminal, but he was also still the detective, still down with the shadow people, and still searching for clues to the crime, even where that crime involved his own act of self-destruction.
Kantor remarks at one point that he considers Hambleton to be a “Romantic Existentialist.” When he first came to New York, rejecting bourgeois strictures of morality and propriety, Hambleton was young and handsome and he lived for his art—rather like a Keats or a Byron. He was even willing to die for his art (much like Goethe’s Young Werther sacrificed himself for love), even going so far as to cook up an elaborate plan whereby, at the height of his fame, he would wrap himself in a canvas and jump from the top of the Empire State Building, literally dying to create his final, blood-soaked masterwork. But he never went through with it, and as he aged out of his twenties Hambleton came to realize that the window of “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” had closed behind him. As Sartre says, “Man is a nothingness,” meaning he has no fixed essence but is instead radically free to remake himself as he sees fit. And that’s what Hambleton did, going into seclusion and doubling down on his work and his heroin use, still sacrificing his comfort and wellbeing as he pushed his art as far as he could humanly take it. Health problems inevitably followed, including the cancer that eventually claimed him in 2017. In a poignant recounting of his last meeting with the Shadowman, Kantor writes:
He was thin, pale, wobbly, and I could see his skeleton under his black, semi-transparent tulle sweater. Parts of his face and nose were missing due to skin cancer, and he covered them with bandaids. . . . He had a hard time talking because of his condition. I also had a hard time looking at him, seeing his once handsome figure wretched and morphed into a creep from a horror movie.
Despite having remade himself into a hunchbacked monster for his art, Hambleton remained—pun intended—unbowed. In this last meeting between the two men, the closest thing resembling the interview that Kantor had been seeking for decades, the Shadowman reiterates his point that he is not primarily a visual, but rather a conceptual artist, and that he has remained true to his concept throughout his whole life, because a concept, unlike a painting—or the human body—cannot be so easily ravaged.