Martin Wong, one of the most distinct documentarians of New York City, loved underdogs. In his art, he portrayed loud people hanging in dank stairwells, graffiti artists who worked in the dark, and men who lost, especially those who had lost big, with years of their lives in the state prison system. At a 1984 exhibition at New York’s Semaphore Gallery, he displayed an artist statement scrawled on cardboard. In it, he wrote: “Taking down to street level this time, I wanted to focus in close on some of the endless layers of conflict that has us all bound together… Always locked in, always locked out, winners and losers all…”
In the years since, Wong’s paintings have slowly gained greater recognition through shows like a 2015 retrospective at the Bronx Museum of Arts. They have been admired for their mix of the real and the fantastic, the religious and the erotic. In his raw yet romantic works, a lover’s poetry fills the sky, and firemen embrace beneath a burning tenement. Only rarely within art history have urban spaces seemed as full with possibility as they do in Wong’s canvases.
During the ’80s, in an era when Neo-Expressionism was the dominant mode, the largely self-taught artist stood out in subject and style. He sported a long mustache and cowboy duds. He was an openly gay Asian-American man during a period when the city’s Asian diaspora was treated as invisible. (Only 10 years prior, Chinese activists had realized the state census hadn’t bothered to even count hundreds of immigrants living in downtown tenements.) He also made it so that pinning him down on the basis of any one identity was impossible. Wong wasn’t deaf, but he used ASL. He hung out with Puerto Ricans, though he didn’t speak Spanish. He often felt anxious, but he used parody to sublimate his insecurities. In some outsider circles, he was an insider.
The ‘Eureka Years’
Wong was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1946, and grew up in San Francisco. His parents were Chinese American, but his father had Mexican heritage, so Wong labeled himself ethnically Chino-Latino. He graduated with a degree in ceramics from Humboldt State University and won a competitive ceramics exhibition at the de Young museum in San Francisco in 1970. But he abandoned the medium for painting after the museum barred him from the exhibition for using glitter in his entry. He later worked as a street portraitist under the moniker the “Human Instamatic.”
Wong termed this nomadic, freewheeling era his “Eureka Years,” the name a reference to the city of Eureka, California, as well as to the word for a burst of discovery or invention. From beatniks and bohemians, he observed sexual and creative liberation. At home, he absorbed art history, building expertise in subjects like Asian decorative objects and modern painting. He created posters and sets for the gay street performance troupe the Cockettes and joined their mystical offshoot, the Angels of Light. He traveled through Asia and Europe. He never returned to school—not, at least, in a conventional sense.
Hearts on Fire
In 1978 Wong traveled to New York and lived a cheap hotel room with a view of the crumbling South Street Seaport. By his account, he got free rent in exchange for working as a night porter. His bedroom there is the subject of a meticulous 1984 painting, My Secret World (1978–81), that recalls similar works by Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Wong’s bedroom is tidy, its walls decorated with miniatures versions of three of his early paintings. One depicts a series of thick hands sprouting from white cuff links; in ASL, they spell out, “Physiatrist Testify: Demon dogs drive man to murder,” a reference to the serial killer Son of Sam, who had stalked New York the prior summer. On the bookshelf is fiction by John Cheever and Raymond Chandler, as well as texts on astrology and sports.
Later, Wong moved to an apartment on Ridge Street the Lower East Side, supporting himself with a job in the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art uptown. He started showing his work downtown and got to know the local graffiti artists. By the end of his life, he had amassed a significant holding of street art. In 1994, he donated it to the Museum of the City of New York.
Wong also started hanging out with the poet Miguel Piñero, whom he met in 1982 at the underground art space ABC No Rio. Piñero, a cofounder of the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café and the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play Short Eyes, introduced Wong to the music, poetry, and art scene of the Lower East Side, known to the Puerto Rican community as Loisada. Wong fell in love with Piñero—and Loisada as seen through Piñero’s eyes. They often collaborated, as they did with Attorney Street (Handball Court With Autobiographical Poem by Piñero), 1982–84.
In that painting, Wong offers a detailed vision of a graffiti mural done on a handball court wall. Floating in the grey sky is a handwritten poem by Piñero: “KNOCKED OUT LIGHTNING, DROWNED A DROP OF WATER, PUT HANDCUFF ON THE WIND, LOCK THUNDER IN JAIL, SLAPPED JESUS IN THE FACE AND RAN SATAN OUT OF HELL.” Below, Wong responds in gesturing hands and verse with his own intentions: “IT’S THE REAL DEAL NEAL / I’M GONNA ROCK YOUR WORLD / MAKE YOUR PLANETS TWIRL, AIN’T NO WACK ATTACK.”
Many of Wong’s ’80s works stress New York’s verticality, causing tall building to appear to oppress or entrap the city’s inhabitants. In Attorney Street, chainlink fences surround the handball court, and red-brick tenements loom like prison watchtowers. Big Heat (1988) blows up that landscape—literally. In Wong’s painting, towering tenement apartments are set ablaze. The brick is scorched black, and the windows burns pink, yellow, and red. The heat of the flames is felt not only physically but also metaphorically: two firemen share kiss beneath the flames. Whether they’ve created the chaos or simply given in to it is left unclear.
Wong’s firemen were often Black or Brown, and it is possible to read into these works an unsavory form of fetishization. (In 1988, he wrote, “I really like the way firemen smell when they get off work. It’s like hickory smoked rubber and B.O.”) His works from this era are at their best when desire, often confined to dreams, overtakes reality. Penitentiary Fox (1988), created the year Piñero died of liver disease, shows the entirety of Short Eyes appearing to the poet in his sleep. Piñero, dressed in white, hovers outside Sing Sing’s gates, freed only in body.
By the ’90s, Loisaida was losing a battle against gentrification. Lovers, friends, and peers had died or were dying from AIDS or drug addiction. In response, Wong’s work grew quiet, grimmer. In 1985 and 1986, he started making the “Last Picture Show” series, a group of life-size images of shuttered storefronts. In a 1996 interview with Yasmin Ramírez, who co-organized the 2015 Bronx Museum retrospective, Wong explained how he had purposefully waited to explore Chinatown in his paintings. He admitted to her feeling like a “tourist.” Belonging was a point of anxiety for him, and that sense of apprehension comes through in his Chinatown series. In Chinese New Year’s Parade (1992–94), eyes are everywhere, watching a young boy at its center. The dragon, the deities, and the crowd of Chinese New Yorker stare with gazes that accuse or question. His earthy palette was traded in for red and fluorescent blue hues.
As Wong himself began dying of AIDS during the mid-’90s, he returned to San Francisco. He made three paintings in 1998, the year before his death. In these black-and-white works, cacti from his mother’s garden are reduced until they appear alien, and not a single human is present. The mood is somber and spiritual. It’s the kind of work only a mystic peering inward could produce after a lifetime looking out.