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“Shadowman” Lures Artist Richard Hambleton into the Light: Interview with Filmmaker Oren Jacoby

By Laura Blum

“Who is the Shadowman?” asked 80s headlines about the black, phantom-like figures haunting the New York landscape. Now along comes an impressive answer in the documentary Shadowman, about their creator. Given that he is the elusive street art pioneer Richard Hambleton, mysteries still abound after the closing credits. But that’s much to the film’s credit. A beguiling portrait of the artist and his era, it leaves us raring to fathom more.  

Some eight years in the making, Shadowman follows Hambleton through both the exhilarations and devastations of his often homeless, strung-out life. How the disease-stricken junkie is still breathing, much less churning out exquisite work, defies reason, unless that reason is pure creative impulse. As we watch Hambleton attack his surfaces each time anew, one thing is patent: his love of painting is his lifeline.

Enriched by vivid archival footage and stills and insightful conversations with devotees, the takes show Hambleton as a doer and not so much an explainer. Not that we’d especially need chatty annotation from a subject whose work packs such a visceral punch. To fill in some blanks, caught up with the film’s director, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Oren Jacoby (Constantine’s Sword, Sister Rose’s Passion). We spoke by phone during the Tribeca Film Festival (April 19-30), where Shadowman is vying in the documentary competition. What drew you to Richard Hambleton as a documentary subject?

OJ: In the early 80s, when I came back to New York, I started to do a film about the imminent West Side Highway, which was disturbing the ghosts of the surrounding neighborhoods. When I began making Shadowman, I didn’t consciously connect it to that film. But it was then, while I was crashing with friends in what was just beginning to be called Tribeca, that I was first exposed to Richard’s work. Tribeca was this strange, desolate neighborhood that was violent and scary at times. But it was also kind of exciting. You’d stumble on an open bar that’d be like an oasis in the desert. At night you’d be wandering around and you’d come across one of Richard’s images. It made a strong impression on me. I didn’t know who painted them. Later, when I discovered who Richard was, it connected with my sense of what New York was like back in 1980 and 1981.

th: Your film is as much a portrait of New York during that era as it is of Hambleton.

OJ: I wanted the City to be a character in the film.

th: For a Vancouver boy, his work explodes with a quintessentially New York energy.

OJ: It’s full of these fast, gestural strokes. Right now I’m looking at one of his paintings that was done to imply movement, and there are these drips that are coming out of the leg of these shadows. If you tried to do it perfectly, you couldn’t make it that good. There’s a moment in the film when Richard is painting the hook of a horse, and he says he doesn’t want it to look too good. There’s something about the fact that it’s not perfect that makes it feel more real.

th: How did the aesthetics of Hambleton’s art influence the film’s aesthetics?

OJ: There’s something very immediate and gestural about how he paints. I thought it was very important that the camera be a participant -- not carefully contrived, just witnessing what was happening. The realities of the shoot were that you often had to deal with very little light. Richard moves around the scene like a lion in his lair. The camera has to be fluid and reactive to what’s going on.

th: How did the wealth of period footage inspire your verité work?

OJ: I wanted to make the connection with the style of archival shooting featured in the film. Some of that footage was from art students who shot on the street and some was by the artist/photographer Clayton Patterson, who filmed Richard in his Orchard Street studio. A lot of that footage looks like home movies. We wanted to have an informality and a directness so that you felt that you were close to Richard. We certainly were! It was often just me and one other person shooting.

th: What was your strategy for teasing him out on camera?

OJ: When I saw him a couple of weeks ago, he confessed that he thought I’d never finish the film because he thought the camera looked so cheap. He’d ask, “Why didn’t someone buy you a fancier camera?” What he didn’t necessarily understand is that I took the smallest possible camera so it’d be the least obtrusive and the most flexible. When I filmed his interaction with the CNN correspondent you see in the film, Richard was preening and showing off to the camera. Maybe if I’d had something less assuming, I wouldn’t have been able to capture him as candidly. This way I probably got a more accurate picture of what he’s like.

th: One of Hambleton’s most sobering on-camera moments is when he says, “At least Basquiat died. I was alive when I died.” How do you read that comment?

OJ: I think he was referring to the way his reputation died. Richard found amazing fame when he was young, yet he didn’t quite step over to that category that Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring did, partly because they died and partly because Richard is temperamentally incapable of doing that. The film is about the new opportunity that has arisen for him, and his ambivalent feelings about taking it. We cover five shows and all the models and hedge fund people – all the bold face names -- attending these openings. For the big opening in New York they had to go to his studio and drag him down. He really had very mixed feelings. He likes his art to be accepted, but he clearly has difficulty accepting what comes along with it.

th: But could his comment also have been literal, given the scoliosis and cancer ravaging his body?

OJ: Richard was a tall, handsome guy in his prime. He was very appealing and very admired. With his scoliosis he became much shorter, and moving around has become increasingly difficult in the nearly eight years that I’ve known him. His cancer is devastating. He has lost a good deal of his face, so he has a lot of feelings about loss of self, loss of identity.

th: But he also seems to embrace his entropy creatively, as if art imitates death and death imitates art. How do you think his self-aware process of dying is reflected in his work?

OJ: Ever since his Image Mass Murder series (of chalk outlines around homicide victims doused with blood-red paint), his work has been imitating death, but like the rest of Richard’s work, it also tries to engage the viewer. It finds a way of connecting that penetrates the usual protections and filters that come from our cognitive defences. There’s a darkness and a danger to some of his imagery, but it’s also very much alive. It really is about life and death, but I think you have to include the part that gets at life.

th: When asked to comment on his paintings made with his blood, he says they’re about “life and death, ugliness and beauty.” He’s known as a seminal conceptual artist, but at least these days he doesn’t seem to be much of a verbal exponent of ideas and isms. How articulate was he with you?

OJ: In his early career Richard was much more obviously a product of an art school education. He has since refined and simplified the message just as his work is a process of stripping away. He’s very knowledgeable about art history, and he’ll talk about the influence of Abstract Expressionism on his work. The New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote aobut Richard in the 80s as the closest thing to someone who merged Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline with the pop and conceptural sensitbilities of Andy Warhol. Richard is also aware of influences like Turner in the later work. He talks about quoting artists like Elsworth Kelly in his black strips. A lot of what passes for art is intellectual, but the impact of Richard’s art -- its beauty, its fight-or-flight response – is more dramatic.

th: Speaking of drama, who are the antagonists in this story?

OJ: I would say that the antagonist in the film is partly Richard himself, his self-destructive impulses. The other characters, the art collectors and art dealers, reveal their attraction to Richard and their devotion to his work -- and also their self-interest. We let them speak for themselves. The viewer will get a clear idea of their relationship to Richard and his work.

th: Were you surprised by how open Robert Murphy was about withholding payment for Richard’s work?

OJ: I was kind of amazed by how forthcoming he was about details of his history with Richard, but like all the dealers, he felt that he’d helped him. They all felt they were acting out of love for his work and wanting to get it out to the world.

th: How do you see art dealers Vladimir “Vlad” Restoin Rotfield and Andy Valmorbida, who produced Hambleton’s show for Giorgio Armani? Vlad says they “were able to revive a ghost,” but he and Andy also profited from brisk sales.

OJ: Andy is one of the executive producers of the film and he helped finance it. There were intense things going on between Richard and the dealers who were working with him.

th: How do the themes in Shadowman echo some of the themes you’ve dealt with in previous films, such as My Italian Secret, about Italians who rescued Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution during WWII?

OJ: My Italian Secret is a film about people who opened their hearts to help refugees. We made Shadowman right as the refugee crisis was hitting this country. Something many artists relate to and find ways to project imagery about is people who are outsiders. Richard is in that category. He doesn’t fit into the mainstream group, so it’s harder for people to classify him.

th: Hambleton’s Image Mass Murder and Shadowman series were made during a time of anxiety. Do today’s uncertainty and malaise give the work fresh resonance?

OJ: I think art serves a different function in times of confusion and anxiety. It’s important that we have art to speak to those emotions.

th: Do you see your film as a redemption story?

OJ: That’s a quote from the Tribeca program. I don’t think you can characterize the film that way. He’s still on his journey. His response to the film being completed has been the biggest surprise for me in eight years. He’s so happy, so excited. For years people have been saying that he’s about to die any minute. It’s sad to say, but I think Richard is in his last months now. He’s currently working and living in Lower Manhattan, where someone found him a place. He’s been painting on a rooftop and there’s been a flurry of work. It’s brilliant. He may be coming to peace with himself and the struggles he’s been through. We’ll see. He’s been revived, and I’ve been amazed by his excitement about Tribeca.

th: When the film is over, we’ve both had enough of this self-saboteur and we want to know more about what makes him tick.

OJ: I don’t think anyone can get to know Richard and think he’s a warm and cuddly character they’d like to snuggle up to. He’s got rough edges and he’s difficult. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult making the film was on on every level. I’m very happy to wrap up this experience, but I obviously felt a compulsion to continue with it. You can’t hep but care about Richard and want him to make it, because the art is so moving. I respond to it on such a profound level. Nothing will stop him from wanting to make these images.

th: In the film performance artist Penny Arcade says we don’t understand the Van Goghs and the Caravaggios of the world. What understanding do you want Shadowman to give us?

OJ: I can’t seek a specific response from the audience. Everyone has to make up their own mind. I just hope people will be open to the art and the drama of Richard’s life and come away from that with something positive.


1)    Photo of Richard Hambleton’s “34 E 12th Street” Shadowman by Hank O’Neal. Courtesy of Storyville Films and Motto Pictures.

2)     Photo of “Standing Man 22” by Hank O’Neal. Courtesy of Storyville Films and Motto Pictures.

3)    “HO” Photographer: Hank O’Neal. Courtesy of Storyville Films and Motto Pictures.

Filmmaker Oren Jacoby filming Richard Hambleton.