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“At least Basquiat, you know, died. I was alive when I died — that’s the problem.” That’s the late artist Richard Hambleton speaking late in Oren Jacoby’s heartbreaking doc Shadowman. It’s the 2010s, and Hambleton, long ago a fixture of the early-Eighties underground art world at the very dawn of street art, now is gaunt and hunched, his face bandaged over — he refused to get his skin cancer-treated. Hambleton’s life tacked between homelessness and toast of the world, the heroin-addicted painter still commanding top prices for his shadow paintings but often dropping off the grid. Jacoby assembles thrilling footage of young Hambleton painting his “shadowmen” on the Lower East Side in 1981; these lean, life-size, brush-painted silhouettes loomed in dark corners of the cities, less graffiti than presences. The film then follows Hambleton’s life chronologically, nudged along with revealing interviews with the artist himself, plus the people who knew him best. At the height of his fame, the restless, irascible, never-satisfied painter turned from his shadowmen to sea- and landscapes, a drug-fueled search for the sublime that art buyers weren’t interested in. Soon, Hambleton was crashing in hovels, celebrating his occasional sales with heroin and caviar. (We see scarifying video of some of his homes.)
In 2009, Hambleton enjoyed a comeback, touring the world with new shadow art that sells to celebrities and Wall Street swells and oligarchs, none of whom much impress Hambleton. In 2013, a Moscow businessman offers the then-homeless Hambleton a trade that might interest Robert Mueller. For one painting a month, Hambleton could live at the Trump Soho. Six months in, we learn, Hambleton — true to form — got booted for trashing his room.
Directed by Oren Jacoby
Opens December 1, Quad Cinema