Born in 1946 in Portland, Oregon, Martin Wong was an openly gay, mixed race, autobiographical painter, whose subjects were unabashedly homoerotic, original, electric, occult, and challenging. They included references to his sometime lover, the Puerto Rican poet, actor, and ex-convict Miguel Piñero, and the crumbling tenements and empty lots that defined the drug-infested Lower East Side neighborhood where they both lived and loved. Wong painted each squalid and burned-out building brick by brick with the same affection as he did his portrayals of his Puerto Rican neighbors, men kissing, and prisoners in jail cells.
Considered illegal, graffiti makes an appearance in Wong’s oil on canvas Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero) (1982–84). Like a painting within a painting, the grey wall of a handball court, whose graffiti tags have been meticulously replicated, stands in front of a line of red-brick apartment blocks. A poem by Piñero is written in black letters over a gunmetal grey sky: ‘I WAS BORN IN A BARREL OF BUTCHER KNIVES,’ reads the first line, ‘SLAPPED JESUS IN THE FACE AND RAN SATAN OUT OF TOWN,’ reads the last. Beneath the court, painted hands gesturing letters in American Sign Language transcribe the words on the ‘cartouche’ affixed to the painted wooden frame: ‘IT’S THE REAL DEAL / IT’S GOING TO ROCK YOUR WORLD / MAKE YOUR PLANET SWIRL / AINT NO WHACK ATTACK.’ Bringing together poetry, tagging, and sign language, Wong recognized what marks people as outsiders in the United States. Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he was aware of the consequences of not speaking English properly, or at all.
Wong celebrated the diverse, multilingual, multicultural worlds he lived in. He moved to New York from Northern California in 1978 – first into a room housed within the formerly grand Meyers Hotel in the dilapidated South Street Seaport, now a tourist destination. Always interested in the close-at-hand, Wong’s well-known, trompe l’oeil, autobiographical painting My Secret World, 1978–81 (1984), gives us two views into that hotel room behind its red-brick walls, allowing us to scrutinize his interior world. Looking into the window on the right, a series of books placed neatly on his bureau give a sense of what made him tick, from Flying Saucers, The Universe, and How to Make Money, to Unbeatable Bruce Lee, Picture Book of Freaks, and Anti-Gravity. Looking into the window on the left, Wong presents clipped views of his paintings. Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball (Eureka) (1978-81), depicting Wong’s recurring eight-ball motif against a red brick ground, is hung above a neatly made bed.
By suggesting his interior life and truncated examples of his art might be of interest to the viewer, Wong brims with self-confidence. Underscoring this equanimity, he has chiseled the date My Secret World was completed, the years it took to finish, and its title into the street-facing stone ledges of each window. On the left lintel, his room number is inscribed, while on the right the following words proclaim: ‘IT WAS IN THIS ROOM THAT THE FIRST PAINTINGS FOR THE HEARING IMPAIRED CAME INTO BEING.’ Wong memorialized himself long before critics and curators recognized his genius by ‘carving’ his address and accomplishments into stone. That self-reverence – which he openly and humorously expressed – sets him apart from his contemporaries, the Neo-expressionists and postmodern artist-theorizers, all of whom took themselves seriously. At the height of Neo-expressionism’s celebration of white masculinity, Wong staged his first solo show at Semaphore Gallery in 1984, ‘Paintings for the Hearing Impaired’. Using his distinctive hand images gesturing in ASL annotated with their corresponding letters, the header for his press release read: ‘NOT FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE,’ below which he announced, ‘PANIC HITS ART MARKET ON EVE OF EXHIBITION; C U THERE!’
As Wong wrote in a 1967 letter to his lifelong friend Gary Ware, he was ‘always the outsider wandering the edges.’ This status would never change. He did not fit into the aesthetic tendencies of the 1980s, nor was he the heir to Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, or any of the internationally recognized post-war schools that preceded him. It is crucial to never lose sight of this aspect of Wong’s accomplishment, as it reminds us that being an outsider is not the same as being neglected or overlooked. Rather than assimilate into the mainstream, Wong embraced, celebrated, and mythologized his queerness, his identification as a Chino-Latino, his friends, Bruce Lee, and the neighborhoods he lived in. Although he was not a graffiti artist, he befriended many and collected their work, even opening the Museum of American Graffiti in 1989 on Bond Street in New York. In 1994, shortly after he became HIV positive, Wong donated his graffiti collection to the Museum of the City of New York, totaling over 300 paintings by artists like Keith Haring, Futura 2000, and Lady Pink.
Of course, the passage of time has made Wong’s art more acceptable and even celebrated. The first European museum tour of his work opened at Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, Madrid in 2022, travelling to the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin and the Camden Art Centre, London, and concluding with a show at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, which opens in November 2023. But the world that Wong painted has disappeared – indeed it feels like the places he immortalized never existed. And while he never tried to identify with or appeal to the collector class, he has now been embraced by them, along with those who have comfortably settled into the now-gentrified neighborhoods he once lived in. What, then, might Wong have to say to the dispossessed and marginalized today, whom he lovingly painted throughout his life, as the gap between wealthy and poor continues to widen?
Perhaps the answer lies in the statement Wong penned for his Semaphore show in 1986, where he presented paintings of Lower East Side storefronts chained and closed – a harbinger of gentrification. ‘TAKING IT DOWN TO STREET LEVEL THIS TIME, I WANTED TO FOCUS IN CLOSE ON SOME OF THE ENDLESS LAYERS OF CONFLICT AND CONFINEMENT THAT HAS US ALL BOUND TOGETHER,’ he wrote, conscious of time and change. ‘ALWAYS LOCKED IN, ALWAYS LOCKED OUT, WINNERS AND LOSERS ALL.’