Paintings by Martin Wong
Born in Portland, Oregon in July of 1946, Martin Wong was an American painter of Chinese-Mexican ancestry whose work was a studious blend of visionary and social realism art styles. His work explored different ethnic and racial identities, and acknowledged his own queer sexuality.
Raised by a supportive family in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, Martin Wong began to express his artistic inclination at an early age. He entered California’s Humboldt State University and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Ceramics in 1968. Wong won a competitive ceramics exhibition held in 1970 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.
Wong resided in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district from 1964 to 1978. While at home, he studied art history and became interested in subjects such as modern painting and Asian decorative objects. During this period, Wong was active in the art scene of the Bay Area, often painting portraits under the pseudonym of Human Instamatic. He also served as the set designer for the art performance group The Angels of Light, a social trope that was part of the emerging gay consciousness of the period.
Encouraged by his friends’ response to his art, Wong made the decision in 1978 to settle in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for a career as an artist. Largely self-taught, his work was inspired by his immediate surroundings and ranged from uncompromising renderings of the Lower East Side’s decay to colorful paintings of the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco. Wong also painted a series of work entitled “Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired”, artworks identical in color and shape to standard city traffic signs that utilized sign-language of the deaf to express their message.
In 1982 at the group exhibition “Crime Show” held at the collective gallery ABC No Rio in the Lower East Side, Martin Wong met poet Miguel Piñero, a leading member of the Nuyorican literary movement and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Short Eyes”. Shortly after their meeting, Piñero moved into Wong’s apartment which began a relationship that would last until Piñero’s death in 1988. Through Piñero association, Wong became more integrated into the local Latino community; he began a series of collaborative work with Piñero that became entitled “Urban Landscapes”. This series of paintings combined Wong’s meticulous cityscapes and stylized sign-language with Piñero’s prose and poetry. Wong presented these paintings at a solo exhibition in 1984 at curator and recording artist Barry Blinderman’s Semaphore Gallery East.
In 1985 and 1986, Wong began a series of work entitled “The Last Picture Show”, a series of life-size images of shuttered storefronts. He amassed a large graffiti collection while living in New York and, in 1989, co-founded with friend Peter Broda the Museum of American Graffiti on the East Village’s Bond Street. By the 1990s, Wong’s work became quieter and more grim as gentrification took over the neighborhood and his peers were dying for drug addiction and AIDS.
In 1993, Matin Wong had a solo exhibition, “Chinatown Paintings”, at the San Francisco Art Institute. In these works based on his own memories and experiences, he presented an outsider’s view of Chinatown that lent itself more to myth than reality. Following complications in his health in 1994, Wong donated his graffiti collection to the Museum of the City of New York. In 1994, he was diagnosed with AIDS and, with declining health, moved back to San Francisco. He died under his parents’ care at the age of fifty-three from AIDS-related illness in August of 1999.
A retrospective of Martin Wong’s work was held at the Bronx Museum of Arts in 2015. His work can be found in many public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Syracuse University Collection, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.
Note: Martin Wong’s 1984 painting, “My Secret World”, included in the above images, is an image of his first residence in Manhattan, a cheap hotel bedroom on the Lower East Side with a view to the South Street Seaport. The bedroom pictured is tidy with three of his earlier works on the walls. One depicts a series of hands sprouting from white cuff=links, The hands spell out in American Sign Language the words “Physiatrist Testify: Demon dogs drive man to murder”, which references the serial killer Son of Sam who stalked New York in 1983. Included in the books presented on the dresser are fictional works by Raymond Chandler and John Cheever.
Second Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Starry Night”, 1982, Oil on Canvas, 55.9 x 76.2 cm, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York
Third Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Crossing Sign”, Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired Series, 1990, DOT Aluminum Steel Signs
Fourth Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Angelito”, 1992, Acrylic on Canvas, 61 x 56.2 cm, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball”, 1978-1981, Acrylic on Canvas, 122 x 122 cm, Private Collection