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 materHumboldt 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]


Early years[edit]

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:

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]


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]

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]

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]

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[edit]

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]


  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Mann, Richard G (July 4, 2007). "Wong, Martin" (PDF). Retrieved October 15, 2007.
  3. ^ a b "Martin Wong". SFGate. Retrieved May 3, 2016.
  4. ^ "Guide to the Martin Wong Papers ca. 1982-1999 MSS 102". Retrieved May 3, 2016.
  5. ^ a b "The Bricklayer's Art", by Guy Trebay, May 26, 1998, The Village Voice
  6. ^ a b 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)
  10. ^ Cotter, Holland (June 5, 1998). "ART REVIEW; The Streets of a Crumbling El Dorado, Paved With Poetry and Desire". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 6, 2016.
  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. ^ a b 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.

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