On the subject of “great artists are not always great human beings,” I went to see the documentary Shadowman about the artist Richard Hambleton last night at the beautifully renovated Quad Cinema.
If you were in New York City in the early ’80s, you could not have missed Hambleton’s “shadow” paintings, quickly dashed off silhouettes that seemed to creep up on you out of nowhere. (His first project was actually his “Mass Murder” series that resembled the police department chalk outlines of murder victims.) These paintings are remarkable for their power to suggest something with just a few strokes, as were his subsequent paintings based on the Marlboro Man and rodeo riders.
At the height of his “shadow” paintings, he dropped out of the New York art scene and started painting landscapes and seascapes that were out of step with the graffiti and street art that were popular in New York City and for which he was known. It’s hard to describe how beautiful these paintings are. Someone in the film compared them to the landscapes of Turner, but even that doesn’t do them justice.
Eventually, Hambleton is rediscovered by two art dealers (including the socialite Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld) and is feted with two large shows, studded with models and movie stars. His paintings eventually sell for several hundred thousand dollars.
The flip side of this success story is Hambleton’s copious drug use and schizophrenic personality. (I know someone who lived in his Lower East Side building and she described it as a living nightmare.)
It’s hard not to read this movie as a commentary on mortality, as we see the beautiful, vibrant young Hambleton ravaged by skin cancer and scoliosis. The movie is both tragic and heroic, in that Hambleton keeps painting, right up until his death.
During a Q&A after the movie, the film’s director posited that Hambleton had “mental health issues” and, according to some psychiatrist friends, fit the profile of someone who had been abused as a child, because of the way he drew people to him and then pushed them away.
But I think Penny Arcade puts it best in the movie when she says that some artists (she mentions Van Gogh as another example) we “just can’t understand.”
Hambleton passed away on October 29, just three days before the “Club 57” show at MoMA, which features one of his paintings.