This movie is intense. But then again, Richard Hambleton was kind of intense. Also much like the artist, the documentary itself is infuriating at times, emotionally compelling, and a bit sad. As an early pioneer of the legendary Lower East Side art scene of the early 1980’s, Hambleton cut quite a figure. Stylish, handsome, brilliant, and troubled. He had demons and great ideas. He was friends with Basquiat and Haring. He basically invented a genre — conceptual graffiti. He was famous at home and abroad, in the galleries and the glossies. He had great clothes and gave extensive interviews. He had a slow-moving drug problem that eventually became unmanageable. He disappeared. He was homeless, addicted, evicted. He never stopped painting. “He followed his muse I guess,” says performance artist Penny Arcade at one point in the film. “But Richard’s muse was a cracked out junkie ho.”
His star burned bright and then burned out and then flared up for a moment some 20 years later — around the point at which the filmmakers enter his storyline. The structure of the movie is such that it is anchored in the “present” which is to say roughly 2009-2013, with Hambleton himself guiding listeners through the labyrinth of memories and studio archives that traced his early fame and tragic decline. As the movie witnesses the unlikely and very high-profile comeback through which Hambleton was then living, at what everyone knew was the end of his life, the story is structured with a treasure trove of archival footage, including interviews, parties, graffiti postings, studio practice, and private disgraces.
The primary sources are almost all black and white and have the feeling of crime video — because in a sense that is what it was. In the 1980’s street art was still very much about vandalism and trespass, even on the Lower East Side streets where all sorts of other crime and misery was playing out daily. It’s atmospheric in a sort of Weegee/newsreel way that makes sense as a criminal aesthetic, all pale skin and big eyes in the camera flashes, artists and drug dealers all caught in the act. One thing the film succeeds at in spades is the setting of the scene, the establishment of the ethos of the time and place — NYC in the 1980’s — that gave rise to Hambleton’s career. The context of those heady days is key to understanding the frustrations that characterized his career and personal relationships both in the past and later, in the film’s present, as history began to repeat itself.
The filmmakers also do justice to the artwork itself, tracing the evolution of his ideas and his style in a way the encapsulates and honors the artist’s intentions and the integrity of his vision throughout all the tempests. The paintings are powerful, raw, real, and bursting with profound intentions, all of which deepens both the tragedies and the triumphs of his life and career. An early project in which he painted crime scene body outlines and splashed them with red paint made national newspapers. It mirrored a genuine murder spree; it freaked people out for real. It was conceptual performative graffiti that was really about the media. Later he posted life-size self-portraits, leaning on walls at random in public places. This was a clear precursor to Banksy, who claims Hambleton as a profound influence, and to his own Shadowmen — lurking figures quickly rendered in black paint, with raw edges and just enough presence to psych people out, startling them in the streets. He called all of these projects his way of “adding to the picture” of the city, conceiving of it as the urban canvas as it would soon be embraced by street artists. The media was slightly obsessed.
He did that for a decade and people loved it. He was a star. The Warhol scene was not quite his deal, although Basquiat was a crossover friend. But he deeply mistrusted anything that looked like the system, and then the Big 80’s started to become a problem. And heroin. “He became more trouble than he was worth,” and one day in the early 1990s he just bailed. His two closest comrades were Jean-Michel Basquiat, dead at 27; Keith Haring, dead at 31. “At least Basquiat died,” he says at one point. “I was alive when I died. That was the problem.” A series of patrons and reluctantly indulgent landlords, deals that went wrong for him, evictions, galleries that did their best, and periodic windfalls saw him through to 2009, when it was thought a miracle that the man was still alive and still painting, and the young art dealers Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, backed by Giorgio Armani found him. Seemingly amenable to a comeback, and apparently a movie, frustrating greatness ensued for about three years. But of course that all went wrong soon enough. Another eviction and a final push to finish the film happened in about 2013-14, and those final interviews punctuate the film. He was alive when it screened in TriBeCa in April, but in October of this year, literally about two days before the opening of the MoMA show “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983” in which he is featured, they found him dead for real.
It’s an archetype in a way, the tragic genius, the re-discovery by a new generation, the should-be happy ending that almost materializes. Is it better or worse, the sense that he was his own worst enemy? A contrarian by nature, his work was always dark and it was made in darkness and it highlighted absences and intended disruption. Chalk outlines and shadows. Murder and mystery. The disappearing man. Transient art for a transient setting — the city, the built-in awareness of its (the art’s) own mortality a mirror for his own. An existentialist democratization of the experience of art, and ironically a sense of place created. I lived in those neighborhoods in those years. I saw those Shadowmen (and the Basquiats and the Warhols and the others) and thought, well what is that? But I think I knew, even then. Everyone knew, we just didn’t have words for it yet.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, as well as HuffPost, Vice, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake,Artillery, Juxtapoz, ALTA Journal of California, Palm Springs Life, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.