MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Painting the Town Black

In the 1970s, graffiti emerged as a powerful form of self-expression on New York City streets. Our recent exhibition City as Canvas offered a window into the origins of this movement, and its evolution as graffiti artists like Lee Quinones and Lady Pink moved from the streets to canvases and gallery walls – and gained prominence in the art community.

These young ‘writers’ were not the only artists shaping the city’s visual landscape at the time. Trained artists also began to take their practice to New York’s streets, many with themes of social consciousness in their work. John Fekner stenciled messages of urgency and despair (“Decay” and “Broken Promises”) in the South Bronx, Jenny Holzer wheat-pasted Truisms – one-liner phrases such as “A little knowledge can go a long way” – on walls around the city, and Richard Hambleton created a shocking series of fictional murder scenes on the city’s pavement.

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York Photo by Hank O'Neill

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York
Photo by Hank O’Neal

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Richard Hambleton began working in New York’s streets in 1976 with body outlines in chalk dashed with red paint along the city’s sidewalks. He quickly moved on to wheat-pasting life sized photographic self-portraits and eventually settled on a series of street paintings of silhouetted figures called shadowmen. Painting more than 450 kinetic works on the streets in the early 1980s, which verged on abstract expressionist, Hambleton was quoted saying, “I painted the town black.”

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York Photo by Hank O'Neill

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York
Photo by Hank O’Neal

Hambleton went on to explain the open-ended nature of his work. “I’m not trying to make a specific statement with them,” he said. “They could represent watchmen or danger or the shadows of a human body after a nuclear holocaust, or even my own shadow. But what makes them exciting is the power of the viewer’s imagination. It’s that split-second experience when you see the figure that matters.” (Read more on Hambleton in People.)

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York Photo by Hank O'Neill

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York
Photo by Hank O’Neal

Noted image makers Andreas Feininger and Hank O’Neal meticulously documented Hambleton’s street paintings in the context of the urban landscape. For Feininger, a LIFE magazine photographer who had spent more than 40 years working in New York City, photographing Hambleton’s art served as a means to depict the idiosyncrasies of the modern city in the 1980s. For Hank O’Neal, a portraitist and jazz photographer, Hambleton’s paintings fueled his budding interest in street art. O’Neal pursued what became an obsession for him for 40 years. It resulted in the publication XCIA’s Street Art Project, which depicted imagery of public art made around the world.

Andreas Feninger (1906-1999) Graffiti - Shadowman, 1983 Museum of the City of New York, 90.40.86

Andreas Feninger (1906-1999)
Graffiti – Shadowman, 1983
Museum of the City of New York, 90.40.86

Hambleton experienced a rush of interest from galleries seeking to show his street work, but promptly disappeared from the art world by 1985. Only in recent years has he resurfaced. Currently, the Dorian Grey Gallery in the East Village is showing paintings by Hambelton, on view until November 9th.

–Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs, Museum of the City of New York

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