A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York showcases works by Martin Wong and his street-artist friends Keith Haring, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Dondi, and many more
Lady Pink’s 1982 painting Manic Depression depicts the New York street artist—then just a lanky teen—vulnerably slumped on the floor of a jail cell, which she shares with two prostitutes. The walls of the cell are scrawled with notes and graffiti tags, the largest of which reads, “Lady Pink.” The work isn’t as self-assured or psychedelic as Lady Pink’s later canvases, which often feature ghoulish creatures navigating trippy, urban wonderlands, but artist and collector Martin Wong knew he had to have it. Why? Because it is the first painting the artist created using a brush, rather than an aerosol can.
This canvas is one of many that Wong procured from his graffiti-writer friends. A fixture of the Lower East Side art scene in the ’80s and early ’90s, the Portland, Oregon–born Wong was deeply and personally connected to the graffiti movement. Tags and other street-art motifs even crept into the artist’s own paintings of prisons, redbrick tenements, and downtown neighborhoods. (The Estate of Martin Wong is now represented by P.P.O.W and his paintings are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Metropolitan Museum, among others. An exhibition of Wong’s personal possessions was on view at the Gugenheim Museum last spring.)
Through trading his paintings and buying work directly from his friends, Wong amassed a vast holding of sketches, photographs, notebooks, and early paintings by graffiti writers including Futura 2000, Daze, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, and Keith Haring. After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, Wong donated his expansive collection to the Museum of the City of New York and moved back to the West Coast. Beginning February 4, the museum will present Wong’s collection for the first time in a new exhibition titled “City as Canvas.” The show demonstrates Wong’s dedication to collecting artworks that not only highlight his personal taste, but that, together, tell the story of New York’s graffiti movement. “City as Canvas” is curated by Sean Corcoran and is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Corcoran and curator Carlo McCormick.
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Wong was a true believer in graffiti and its enduring qualities as an art form. After moving to the city from San Francisco in 1978, the gay, Chinese-American painter was captivated by the transgressive subculture of New York’s East Village. He befriended and mentored young artists by patronizing their work, inviting them into his home to watch him paint, and stealing spray paint for them from the art-supply store where he worked. Wong even offered artists a place to sleep when they didn’t have one.
The photographs in Wong’s collection document his friends’ public projects. Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s 1980 shot Lion’s Den by Lee, for example, captures Lee Quiñones’s fierce Lower East Side mural of a growling, muscular lion on a chain. By acquiring this photo, along with Quinones’s preparatory sketches for the project, Wong gave permanence to a mural that has since been destroyed.
Other works are a record of what life was like in downtown Manhattan during this period. Daze’s cartoonish painting Hotel Amazon (1988), for example, depicts the jam-packed Lower East Side club of the same name. The dance floor features a boozy crowd of tattooed, scantily clad men and women smoking cigarettes and moving to the music. The painting reflects a merging of graffiti, punk, and hip-hop scenes. Charlie Ahearn, director of the 1983 film Wild Style, writes in the exhibition catalogue that Wong spent years convincing Daze to let him have this grotesque yet enthralling canvas.
Wong also made a point to obtain graffiti writers’ black books, or sketchbooks. In these journals, writers executed preparatory drawings of future projects and practiced their lettering. It was common for writers to share their black books with close friends in order to swap and disseminate different styles. Wong’s collection boasts black book pages from artists and street-art crews such as the Ex-Vandals, LAII, Dondi, Wicked Gary, and Ghost.
According to McCormick, artists did not part with these highly personal artifacts easily, but Wong was notoriously persistent. “He could bully you into what he wanted,” says McCormick. “He had an insane passion that guided him.”