In September 1984, notices appeared around New York City’s Lower East Side offering a reward for ‘missing paintings’. They were posted by Barry Blinderman – ‘as if for some lost pet’, he later recalled – the owner of Semaphore Gallery, where a solo show of work by Martin Wong was due to open within days.
It was meant to be Wong’s moment. The exhibition would confirm his compelling urban vision, commingling murky social realism and otherworldliness through crumbling brickwork, chain link and fire escapes, with teenagers finding love on rubbish heaps beneath zodiac skies. One of his most accomplished works to date, depicting a palimpsest of graffiti tags on a local handball wall, had just been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Wong once worked in the bookshop. It would be installed opposite Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.
Yet the artist, having imbibed LSD as part of The Acid Test exhibition at Sensory Evolution Gallery, had decided to give away the rest of his paintings. He made it down the six flights of stairs from his apartment with, depending on who’s telling the story, about a dozen. Those not intercepted by his downstairs neighbour were bestowed upon passers-by, along with the refrain of one of his painting’s titles: Everything Must Go. Any canvases remaining in Wong’s place could not be accessed; he’d tossed his door key off the Brooklyn Bridge. Appearing likely to leap himself, Wong was apprehended by police and admitted to Bellevue hospital. Soon Blinderman was staring down an officer’s gun, caught in the act of climbing from the fire escape through Wong’s kitchen window to retrieve more art.
Wong would not attend that particular opening. But his fugitive mystique has endured, and it’s tempting to announce his time has come. This year, the retrospective Malicious Mischief travels from Madrid to Berlin, London and Amsterdam, following Stanford University’s launch of a monumental online catalogue raisonné charting Wong’s prolific output and influence.
The artist was raised in San Francisco’s North Beach then lived in Eureka, a foggy Northern California port city with a logging industry in decline – here he was drawn to the air of desolation and alluring fishermen. In Manhattan, he turned his attention to firefighters. And b-boys, skateboarders and graffiti artists. A group of adolescent drug dealers pointed out the vacant apartment occupying half the top floor of a 1920 tenement at the corner of Ridge and Stanton. There was an aptness to the brick building, with its views – ‘through 20 windows’, Wong overstated to the Village Voice – of yet more brick, already pervasive in his paintings, so meticulously executed they seem more material than motif. The artist, who dropped out of architecture school and obtained a ceramics degree, understood the city from the perspective of clay.
Wong rented the apartment at 141 Ridge Street from 1982 to 1994. It turned out that the drugs continued up the stairwell, as did the graffiti that engulfed the entryway. Wong’s collection of graffiti art and ephemera is today held by the Museum of the City of New York. Because he took the art form seriously, positing it as a new form of psychedelia, young street artists began to show up at the apartment to flog their ‘black books’. Also known as ‘piece books’, these constitute the pages where form and colour are rehearsed before a public work is carried out.
These were piled high alongside Chinese ceramics, tatty souvenirs, traffic signs and the antiques Wong purchased below value at Christie’s East to resell at Sotheby’s. Then there was the worn fire-fighter gear: uniform coats, helmets and boots likely attained on Wong’s social visits to the local station. (Rumour has it he once boasted: ‘It’s a felony to impersonate a fireman. So of course I wore them.’ )
Like so many more souvenirs from the street, the graffiti kids lingered in the apartment, tagging the refrigerator as if it were the cast on a friend’s broken limb. ‘Once you went into Martin’s lair, it was pretty much a sanctuary inside,’ recalls legendary street artist Lee Quiñones, as distinct from the reeking stairwell, where addicts slept off hangovers and overdoses. ‘The gauntlet of hell,’ Quiñones used to call it. ‘If you could get through that, you pretty much wanted to stay upstairs.’ He wound up crashing on the sofa for a year, falling into an unlikely domestic arrangement in which he did the cooking: Puerto Rican beans, sofrito from scratch, stewed chicken and cod.
Wong developed a more amatory relationship with another house-guest, Miguel Piñero, a former prison inmate and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Piñero’s braggadocio further inflamed Wong’s Jean Genet-like fantasy life, played out in austere yet erotic prison paintings. Two of these hung over the bathtub, which was adorned in glyphs by Angel Ortiz, known as LA2 or Little Angel.
While it was a refuge to many, the place had its unsettling aspects. The colour red dominated, distorting traditional Chinese cultural associations of auspiciousness. Wong’s possessions sit in wicked, zany dialogue with each other, amounting to a kind of scuzzy baroque. One thing the crowded apartment wasn’t, recalls Charlie Ahearn, director of the classic graffiti film Wild Style, was ‘a useful space for painting canvases’. But its inhabitant, Ahearn avows, ‘loved to create amid chaos’.
In 1992, the director began documenting the artist, including filming him addressing a canvas with two thin brushes. Wong claimed that years of work with iron oxide, amassed in gnarly clumps of dried paint on the handles, sent a constant volt-and-a-half of electricity between his hands. He gathered a bunch of these paintbrushes together in a bouquet, recalls Ahearn, ‘and gave them to me in a vase’.
At the time, Wong was focusing on paintings of San Francisco’s Chinatown, indulging the noise, spectacle and perennial tourism he’d experienced as a youth. In 1994, he was diagnosed with Aids and returned to the city, where he attempted bed-rest at his family home and found a calmer muse, the cacti in his mother, Florence’s, garden. In the year before his death, in 1999 at the age of 53, Wong served as grand marshal of the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade and attended the final exhibition of his lifetime, which he titled Sweet Oblivion.
From 16 June–17 Sept, ‘Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief’ runs at the Camden Art Centre, Arkwright Rd, London NW3. Details: camdenartcentre.org
A version of this article appeared in the June 2023 issue of The World of Interiors.