Martin Wong

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Martin Wong
Born(1946-07-11)July 11, 1946
Portland, Oregon, United States
DiedAugust 12, 1999(1999-08-12) (aged 53)
San Francisco, California, United States
Alma mater Humboldt State University
Known forPainting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics

Martin Wong (July 11, 1946 – August 12, 1999) was a Chinese-American painter of the late twentieth century. [1] His work has been described as a meticulous blend of social realism and visionary art styles. Wong's paintings often explored multiple ethnic and racial identities, exhibited cross-cultural elements, demonstrated multilingualism, and celebrated his queer sexuality. [2]

Social realism international art movement flourishing in the interwar period; reacts to the hardships suffered by people after the Great Crash; involves realist portrayals of anonymous workers or celebrities as heroic symbols of strength in the face of adversity

Social realism is the term used for work produced by painters, printmakers, photographers, writers and filmmakers that aims to draw attention to the real socio-political conditions of the working class as a means to critique of the power structures behind these conditions. While the movement's characteristics vary from nation to nation, it almost always utilizes a form of descriptive or critical realism. Taking its roots from European Realism, Social Realism aims to reveal tensions between an oppressive, hegemonic force, and its victims.

Visionary art

Visionary art is art that purports to transcend the physical world and portray a wider vision of awareness including spiritual or mystical themes, or is based in such experiences.

Queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender. Originally meaning "strange" or "peculiar", queer came to be used pejoratively against those with same-sex desires or relationships in the late 19th century. Beginning in the late 1980s, queer activists, such as the members of Queer Nation, began to reclaim the word as a deliberately provocative and politically radical alternative to the more assimilationist branches of the LGBT community.



Early years

Martin Wong was born in Portland, Oregon on July 11, 1946. An only child, Wong was raised by his parents Benjamin and Florence Wong Fie in the Chinatown district of San Francisco. [3] Demonstrating a proclivity for artistic expression at an early age, Wong started to paint at the age of 13. His mother was a strong supporter of his artistic inclinations and kept much of his early work. [2] Wong attended George Washington High School, graduating in 1964. [4] He continued his education at Humboldt State University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in Ceramics in 1968. Through college and for another 10 years Wong would continue to travel between Eureka and San Francisco practicing his artistic craft. During this time, Wong had an apartment in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and was active in the Bay Area art scene, including stints as a set designer for the performance art group The Angels of Light, an offshoot of The Cockettes. While involved with The Angels of Light, Wong participated in the emerging hippie movement and engaged in the period's climate of sexual freedom and experimentation with psychedelic drugs. [2] By the late 70s, Wong made the decision to move to New York to pursue his career as an artist. According to Wong, his move to New York was precipitated by a friendly challenge:

Portland, Oregon City in Oregon, United States

Portland is the largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Oregon and the seat of Multnomah County. It is a major port in the Willamette Valley region of the Pacific Northwest, at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. As of 2018, Portland had an estimated population of 653,115, making it the 25th most populated city in the United States, and the second-most populous in the Pacific Northwest. Approximately 2.4 million people live in the Portland metropolitan statistical area (MSA), making it the 25th most populous MSA in the United States. Its Combined Statistical Area (CSA) ranks 19th-largest with a population of around 3.2 million. Approximately 60% of Oregon's population resides within the Portland metropolitan area.

Chinatown, San Francisco Neighborhood in San Francisco, California, United States

The Chinatown centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street in San Francisco, California, is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. It is also the oldest and largest of the four notable Chinatowns within the City. Since its establishment in 1848, it has been highly important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is an enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. There are two hospitals, several parks and squares, numerous churches, a post office, and other infrastructure. Recent immigrants, many of whom are elderly, opt to live in Chinatown because of the availability of affordable housing and their familiarity with the culture. San Francisco's Chinatown is also renowned as a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.

George Washington High School (San Francisco) school in San Francisco

George Washington High School is a public high school in Richmond District, San Francisco, California. In 2011, Washington High was ranked by Newsweek's Jay Mathews Challenge Index as the 497th best high school in the United States.

I made ceramics and did drawings at arts fairs. I was known as the 'Human Instamatic.' It was US$7.50 for a portrait. My record was 27 fairs in one day. Friends said to me, 'If you're so good, why don't you go to New York?' [5]

United States dollar Currency of the United States of America

The United States dollar is the official currency of the United States and its territories per the United States Constitution since 1792. In practice, the dollar is divided into 100 smaller cent (¢) units, but is occasionally divided into 1000 mills (₥) for accounting. The circulating paper money consists of Federal Reserve Notes that are denominated in United States dollars.


In 1978 Wong moved to Manhattan, eventually settling in the Lower East Side, where his attention turned exclusively to painting. Following his arrival, Wong moved into Meyers Hotel on Stanton Street where he cut a deal with the manager for three months of free rent if he completed repair work on three structurally damaged rooms. As it would turn out, three months turned into three years when he picked up a job as a night watchman for the building. He would later move into a six-story walk-up apartment on Ridge Street that was occupied by heroin dealers and addicts in 1981. [2] [6] Wong initially supported himself after his move to New York by working at the bookstore in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [1] Largely self-taught, Wong's paintings ranged from gritty, heartfelt renderings of the decaying Lower East Side, to playful, almost kitschy depictions of New York's and San Francisco's Chinatowns, to Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired. In self-describing the subject matter of some of his paintings, Wong once said: "Everything I paint is within four blocks of where I live and the people are the people I know and see all the time." [7]

Manhattan Borough in New York City and county in New York, United States

Manhattan, often referred to locally as the City, is the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City and its economic and administrative center, cultural identifier, and historical birthplace. The borough is coextensive with New York County, one of the original counties of the U.S. state of New York. The borough consists mostly of Manhattan Island, bounded by the Hudson, East, and Harlem rivers; several small adjacent islands; and Marble Hill, a small neighborhood now on the U.S. mainland, physically connected to the Bronx and separated from the rest of Manhattan by the Harlem River. Manhattan Island is divided into three informally bounded components, each aligned with the borough's long axis: Lower, Midtown, and Upper Manhattan.

Heroin chemical compound

Heroin, also known as diamorphine among other names, is an opioid most commonly used as a recreational drug for its euphoric effects. It is used medically in several countries to relieve pain or in opioid replacement therapy. It is typically injected, usually into a vein, but it can also be smoked, snorted, or inhaled. The onset of effects is usually rapid and lasts for a few hours.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Art museum in New York City, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City, colloquially "the Met", is the largest art museum in the United States. With 6,953,927 visitors to its three locations in 2018, it was the third most visited art museum in the world. Its permanent collection contains over two million works, divided among seventeen curatorial departments. The main building, on the eastern edge of Central Park along Museum Mile in Manhattan's Upper East Side is by area one of the world's largest art galleries. A much smaller second location, The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan, contains an extensive collection of art, architecture, and artifacts from Medieval Europe. On March 18, 2016, the museum opened the Met Breuer museum at Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side; it extends the museum's modern and contemporary art program.

Wong's paintings of dilapidated tenements were a direct interpretation of the environments in which he lived. In the late 1970s the Lower East Side was a working-class neighborhood inhabited by a sizable Puerto Rican population and other ethnic minority groups including African Americans, Dominicans, and other Hispanic and Latino communities. Although a gentrification effort was starting to take hold in the Lower East Side, intentional landlord neglect and arson crimes left numerous buildings in deplorable conditions. In addition to the dismal urban landscape, Tompkins Square Park became a hub for illicit activities like heroin peddling. [6] Likewise, Wong's focus upon African American and Latino subjects was not intentional but rather circumstantial to the communities that he observed in his daily life. A prevailing identity-based theory in the art world during this time was for artists to restrict themselves to themes native to their own ethnic and racial heritage, but Wong subverted this claim in many of the paintings he made. [2]

Tompkins Square Park park in New York City

Tompkins Square Park is a 10.5-acre (4.2 ha) public park in the Alphabet City portion of East Village, Manhattan, New York City. The square-shaped park, bounded on the north by East 10th Street, on the east by Avenue B, on the south by East 7th Street, and on the west by Avenue A, is abutted by St. Marks Place to the west.

American Sign Language was a focus of Wong's for a series of paintings he made in the early 1980s. He appropriately called them "Paintings for the Hearing Impaired." One of his most remarkable paintings from this period was Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder (1980) which was derived from a news headline regarding the Son of Sam murders. These paintings were some of his first works to draw critical attention. In 1990 Wong was given residency at New York City's Department of Transportation where he created the Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired. Mayor David Dinkins presented Wong with a Special Arts Award in 1992 to commemorate the inclusive nature of these works. [2]

American Sign Language Sign language used predominately in the United States

American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language that serves as the predominant sign language of Deaf communities in the United States and most of Anglophone Canada. Besides North America, dialects of ASL and ASL-based creoles are used in many countries around the world, including much of West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. ASL is also widely learned as a second language, serving as a lingua franca. ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language (LSF). It has been proposed that ASL is a creole language of LSF, although ASL shows features atypical of creole languages, such as agglutinative morphology.

David Berkowitz American serial killer

David Richard Berkowitz, known also as the Son of Sam and the .44 Caliber Killer, is an American serial killer who pleaded guilty to eight separate shooting attacks that began in New York City during the summer of 1976. Using a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver, he killed six people and wounded seven others by July 1977. As the number of victims increased, Berkowitz eluded the biggest police manhunt in the history of New York City while leaving letters that mocked the police and promised further crimes, which were highly publicized by the press. The killing spree terrorized New Yorkers and achieved worldwide notoriety.

David Dinkins former mayor of New York City

David Norman Dinkins is an American politician, lawyer, and author who served as the 106th Mayor of New York City, from 1990 to 1993. He was the first and, to date, the only African American to hold that office.

Wong's Artist Statement for Semaphore Gallery, 1984. Martin Wong, Artist Statement for Semaphore Gallery, 1984.jpg
Wong's Artist Statement for Semaphore Gallery, 1984.

Wong is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero. He met Piñero in 1982 on the opening night of a group exhibition, Crime Show, held at ABC No Rio. [2] Shortly after meeting, Piñero moved into Wong's apartment where he would live for the next year and a half. Piñero helped show Wong aspects of the Lower East Side that he was unfamiliar with and Wong credited Piñero with enabling him to feel more integrated into the Latino community. While they lived together, Wong produced a significant body of work that he would eventually display in his first solo exhibition, Urban Landscapes, at Barry Blinderman's Semaphore Gallery East in 1984. [8] Their collaborative paintings often combined Piñero's poetry or prose with Wong's painstaking cityscapes and stylized fingerspelling. [9] Attorney Street (1982–84) was an especially lauded collaborative painting that officially established Wong as a significant participant in the New York art scene. [2] Wong's Loisaida pieces and collaborations with Piñero formed part of the Nuyorican arts movement.

Wong held a solo exhibition entitled Chinatown Paintings at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1993 that showcased his own memories, experiences and interpretations of the "mythical quality of Chinatown." [3] Included among these works, the painting Ms. Chinatown (1992) featured a sensual depiction of his aunt Nora and the piece Mei Lang-Fang (1992) portrayed the Chinese opera singer performing female impersonation, something he was esteemed for in his career. By mixing affection, fascination, and distortion in these pieces, Wong exemplified "a tourist idea, an outsider's view" of Chinatown that was prevalent for those distant from the reality of the city. [10]

Wong was a collector and connoisseur of everything from graffiti to Asian antiquities. For a time in the 1980s he made ends meet by buying underpriced antiquities at Christie's and selling them at Sotheby's for a fairer price. [5] Wong amassed a sizable graffiti collection while living in New York and with the help of a Japanese investor, he co-founded with his friend Peter Broda the Museum of American Graffiti on Bond Street in the East Village in 1989. During this time, graffiti was a highly contested form of art and city officials had removed much of what had previously been in the New York City Subway system. In response, Wong set out to preserve what he considered to be "the last great art movement of the twentieth century." The Museum held two exhibitions but would only last for six months as a result of real estate difficulties exacerbated by an economic recession related to the market crash in October 1989. [11] In 1994, following complications in his health, Wong donated his graffiti collection to the Museum of the City of New York. Among his collection were pieces from 1980s New York-based graffiti artists including Rammellzee, Keith Haring, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, and Lee Quiñones. [12]

Personal life

Wong was openly gay. [2] As a child, Wong had a strong fixation with firefighters and this carried into his adulthood, manifesting itself in a few of his paintings like I Really Like The Way Firemen Smell (1988), Big Heat (1988), and Sanja Cake (1991). [2] Each of these paintings displayed either an overt or implied sense of homoeroticism.

In 1994 Wong was diagnosed with AIDS. With his health in decline following the diagnosis, he moved back to San Francisco. He died under the care of his parents in their San Francisco home at the age of 53 from an AIDS related illness on August 12, 1999. [13] Miguel Piñero, Wong's former partner, died a decade earlier in 1988 from cirrhosis. [14]

Wong's aunt, Eleanor "Nora" Wong, was an active participant in the San Francisco Chinese nightclub scene in the 1940s. She most notably had a host of duties, including principal singer, at Forbidden City. [15]


Once nearly overlooked by the art establishment, Wong was acknowledged in his New York Times obituary as an artist "whose meticulous visionary realism is among the lasting legacies of New York's East Village art scene of the 1980s". [13] Critical esteem has sustained since his death, and Wong's works can be found in collections worldwide, including the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the de Young Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Syracuse University Art Collection and in the cities of New York and San Francisco. The Martin Wong Papers reside at the Fales Library, New York University, and include among other things sketchbooks, correspondence, biographical documents, videocassette recordings, photographs, graffiti-related materials, and parts of Wong's personal library.

The catalog of a joint exhibition of Wong's work at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Illinois State University Galleries was published by Rizzoli in 1998 in Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong.

Two of Martin Wong's paintings are in the collection of the Whitney Museum in New York City. The Museum of Modern Art has three of Wong's works in its permanent collection. [16] One of his paintings is in the collection of the state of California and displayed permanently at the California State Building in San Francisco. The Society of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago acquired the painting "Sweet Oblivion" in May 2012.

Founded by his mother in 2001, the Martin Wong Foundation was created to help fund art programs and young artists through collegiate art scholarships, art publications and active art education programs. In particular, the Foundation has an Art Education Program directed by Lady Pink who works with students at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York. The Foundation's scholarship competition recognizes excellence in both painting and ceramics, the interests Wong had first pursued in his art. Since 2003, the scholarships have continued to be offered at Humboldt State University, Wong's alma mater, San Francisco State University, New York University, and Arizona State University. [17]

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  1. 1 2 Smith, Roberta (August 18, 1999). "Martin Wong Is Dead at 53; A Painter of Poetic Realism". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved January 3, 2016.
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  3. 1 2 "Martin Wong". SFGate. Retrieved May 3, 2016.
  4. "Guide to the Martin Wong Papers ca. 1982-1999 MSS 102". Retrieved May 3, 2016.
  5. 1 2 "The Bricklayer's Art", by Guy Trebay, May 26, 1998, The Village Voice
  6. 1 2 Jones, Henry (November 24, 2014). "Signs and Systems of Communication in the Oeuvre of Martin Wong". Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. SSRN   2536817 .
  7. Nash, Steven (1995). Facing Eden: 100 Years of Landscape Art in the Bay Area. San Francisco: University of California Press. p. 155. ISBN   0520203631.
  8. "Barry Blinderman: The Downtown Art Scene - NYC,1981". NYC,1981. February 16, 2015. Retrieved May 6, 2016.
  9. Mallory Curley, A Cookie Mueller Encyclopedia (Randy Press, 2010)
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  11. "Art, Archives, and Activism: Martin Wong's Downtown Crossings". Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University. 2009.
  12. Anonymous (August 12, 2013). "City as Canvas". Retrieved May 5, 2016.
  13. 1 2 Roberta Smith (August 18, 1999). "Martin Wong Is Dead at 53". The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2008.
  14. Bennetts, Leslie (June 18, 1988). "Miguel Pinero, Whose Plays Dealt With Life in Prison, Is Dead at 41". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved May 5, 2016.
  15. Spiller, Harley (January 1, 2004). "Late Night in the Lion's Den: Chinese Restaurant-Nightclubs in 1940s San Francisco". Gastronomica. 4 (4): 94–101. doi:10.1525/gfc.2004.4.4.94. JSTOR   10.1525/gfc.2004.4.4.94.
  16. "Martin Wong | MoMA". The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved May 5, 2016.
  17. "Martin Wong Foundation". Retrieved May 4, 2016.