By Michael Small
Updated June 04, 1984 12:00 PM

After dark in Manhattan an army of silhouettes looms in half-lit doorways or stands against walls of burnt-out buildings. One night a black shadow appears in a new spot, and startled passersby mistake the shape for an attacker. Up close they can see it’s only a smudge of thin, black paint. Like some 450 similarly painted figures that now enigmatically stand guard around Manhattan, this one is unsigned.

The man behind the mystery is Richard Hambleton, 28, a shy, ruddy-faced artist given to wandering the streets at 3 a.m. dressed in black, with jars of latex paint and a six-inch brush in his satchel. “I painted the town black,” admits Hambleton of the figures he calls Nightlife, mostly created in the last three years. “I’m not trying to make a specific statement with them,” he adds. “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.”

Opinions vary widely. Some people react angrily. One cabbie told Richard, “They drive me crazy. I keep thinking it’s somebody trying to wave down a taxi.” But, notes Hambleton, “Other people look at the silhouette and say, ‘He frightened me at first, but now he’s like an old friend.’ ”

Hambleton’s Nightlife paintings, which he has also splashed on walls in Venice, London and other European cities, prepared an appreciative audience for his work at Manhattan’s Salvatore Ala Gallery; more than 1,000 people trudged through a March snowstorm, some even queuing up outside, to attend the jam-packed opening. If they expected to see replicas of the artist’s outdoor figures, they were surprised. Hambleton’s life-size paintings on canvas, linen and mirrored Plexiglas revealed a greatly expanded cast of characters, including soldiers and cowboys. With varying thicknesses of black paint and a few deft brushstrokes, he had captured the gestures of bodies in motion. “Hambleton can handle paint,” wrote New York Times art critic Michael Brenson. “When he throws white or black on the canvas, his waves break, his rodeo rider bucks, a man shot seems blown apart.” (Paintings, some as large as 10 feet by 11 feet, were priced from $2,000 to $15,000.)

Hambleton spends nearly all his time now painting indoors. Still, his street art continues to create controversy. Accused by some of vandalism and promoting graffiti, the painter, who never has been caught in the act by police, defends his work. “I don’t go out of my way to deface someone’s property,” he says. “I just know there are some forms of expression that work so well in the city that they have to be done out there.”

A graduate of the San Francisco Institute of Art, Hambleton always favored street work. In 1976 he began a three-year series in 15 cities called Image Mass Murder. Mimicking the signs of a real murder scene, he secretly painted sidewalks at night with splatters of blood-red paint and outlined in chalk the spots where imagined victims fell. As with Nightlife, some people reacted with shock. The San Francisco Examiner ran a front-page photo with the caption: “This is the work of a sick jokester.” Says Hambleton, “If you paint a murder scene on canvas, it just looks like a painting.” He was delighted when viewers responded to his work as if it had the intensity of a real murder.

From 1980 to 1981 Hambleton plastered 13 cities with some 800 life-size unsigned posters, a wild, staring photograph of himself in disguise, titled I Only Have Eyes for You. Turned out on blueprint paper, the mysterious portraits faded to white silhouettes, a prelude to his later black-shadow series.

Currently preparing for gallery shows in L.A., the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, he paints sometimes for 24 hours nonstop in his cramped, dark studio near Manhattan’s rundown Bowery district. His paintings start serenely: a seascape or a figure study. Then to the tranquil sky, islands and palm trees, he adds the Hambleton touch. A bucket of white paint is splashed on the canvas to depict a wildly breaking wave, or a figure is brushed in with a few strokes of black paint. Then with his fingers, he flicks thick gobs of black at the edges. The process takes minutes. But the artist—himself speckled with paint—looks at his work as if at a mirror. Staring back at him is a vivid shadow, a figure that sometimes cowers, sometimes leaps, an image all his own.