Spotlight: How 18th-Century Romanticism Inspired Artist Richard Hambleton, the ‘Godfather’ of Street Art

The artist's work is now on view in "Beyond the Shadowman" at Chase Contemporary in New York.

Richard Hambleton, Untitled (Green Seascape) (1986). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.
Richard Hambleton, Untitled (Green Seascape) (1986). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

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About the Artist: Canadian-born artist Richard Hambleton (1952–2017) was a fixture of New York’s downtown art scene in the 1970s and ‘80s, best known for his street art interventions, which earned him the nickname the “Godfather of Street Art.” 

Part of a circle that included Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Hambleton continued to create works until his death in 2017. Now, a recently opened retrospective titled “Beyond the Shadowman” at New York’s Chase Contemporary brings together a range of works by Hambleton created over 40 years between 1976 and 2017, including the artist’s shadow paintings, seascapes, and never-before-seen photographs.

Richard Hambleton, Standing Shadowman (1999). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

Richard Hambleton, Standing Shadowman (1999). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

Why We Like It: The wide-ranging exhibition is an insightful overview of Hambleton’s career and provides unique insights into the artist’s creative life. Hambleton’s career-defining shadow paintings, which the artist began putting onto downtown Manhattan buildings overnight, remain haunting decades later. In that sense, the show is a fitting inaugural exhibition for Chase Contemporary’s just-opened 10,000-square-foot gallery in SoHo, as the artist’s legacy is so deeply tied to the history of the neighborhood. 

Richard Hambleton, Clooney (2016). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

Richard Hambleton, Clooney (2016). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

But as the exhibition title suggests, the show goes “Beyond the Shadowman,” providing windows into lesser-known aspects of his career. The exhibition traces four bodies of work—”Image Mass Murder,” “Nightlife,” “Marlboro Man,” and “Seascapes”—across the decades. The seascapes, particularly, capture the artist’s engagement with Romantic painters of the late 19th century. These expressive images simultaneously incorporate Barnett Newman’s signature “zip” mark, the vertical band used to define the spatial structure of his work.

Richard Hambleton, Untitled (Red Seascape) (1986). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

Richard Hambleton, Untitled (Red Seascape) (1986). Courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

According to the Gallery:  “The exhibition will show the artist’s work in its origins, as many of the public shadow figures of the early 1980s were painted in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and SoHo. Hambleton began painting his shadow figures—the “Nightlife” series—across the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, for which he received extraordinary recognition. The mystery of the man working at night and the feral black figures popping up around the city echoed the mystique of Hambleton’s earlier Mr. Ree character and his murder scenes from 1976–79. During the peak of his fame, Hambleton pivoted away from the shadow figures for a time to focus on modern landscape painting. The landscapes were painted in the style of 19th century Romanticism with moody horizon lines and ferocious waves.”

Richard Hambleton: Beyond the Shadowman” is on view at Chase Contemporary, New York, through May 29, 2022.


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