Martin Wong was a cowboy in style and spirit. An artist, he dressed in jeans, a western shirt and boots, sometimes a Stetson hat, and embraced the nickname ‘China Malo’ (Chinese bad boy), playfully bestowed on him by friends. From when he started making work in the 60s, he was drawn to the figure of the outlaw, seeking them out among the counter-cultural hippies of California, the petty criminals and graffiti artists of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the many marginalised communities he would come to inhabit throughout his three decade-long career. A queer Chinese-American who didn’t speak Chinese, he felt an affinity with outsiders like himself.
He gravitated towards firemen too, fetishising them in his irreverent yet tender painterly style, and taking pleasure in the illegality of wandering the streets of New York in firefighter uniform — I.D. badge and all. But the figure of the astronaut would have been equally fitting for Martin, given the epic cosmos of signs and iconographies that he created in his paintings. Brimming with ancient, erotic and astrological codes, he constructed a multiverse of meaning that expanded outwards and invited others in. It was through this multiplicity that he explored the complexities and contradictions of his own identity and that of the world around him.
A quarter of a century since his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1999, KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin is celebrating his life and legacy in the most ambitious presentation of his work outside the US to date. Malicious Mischief is structured like a visual biography, encompassing his trippy California creations from the late 60s and early 70s, paintings of urban realities and imaginaries on the Lower East Side in the 80s and early 90s, and collage renderings of East and West Coast Chinatowns in his final years. His visionary approach to queerness, race, class, identity and discrimination reverberates in the contemporary space.
Martin was born in Portland, Oregon in 1946 and grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He spent the 60s bouncing between art degrees at Humboldt State University in Eureka, California, and partaking in the Summer of Love revelries of San Francisco. In the early 70s, he began collaborating with gender-fluid theatre group, Angels of Light Free Theater, translating their aesthetic of myth and psychedelia into heavily glittered sets, costumes, props and flyers.
The low-ceilinged rooms at the start of the exhibition contain paintings, sculptures and memorabilia from those euphoric years on the West Coast and his travels along the ‘Hippie Trail’ in 1971, through Europe and Central and South Asia. His diet of psychedelia, acid drag, and Chinese, Indo-Nepali and Tibetan culture reveals itself in his gnarled ceramic creatures and poetry scrolls. Part acid trip, part critique of the American dream, his pivotal poem “Firefly Evening” (1968) is a stream-of-consciousness outpouring inscribed on a two-metre-long scroll in spiky script evocative of Chinese calligraphy.
In 1978, Martin left the hippie reverie of California for the grit and grime of New York City. He spent his first years there in relative isolation, living and working as a night porter at the Meyer’s Hotel. He read voraciously in his small room, consuming news articles, erotica, astrology and mythology. Fascinated by sign systems and alternative modes of expression, he incorporated stellar constellations and American Sign Language (ASL) fingerspelling into his work as signature motifs, while dice and magic eight balls became code for chance and destiny.
Martin began creating his most famous paintings in the early 80s when he moved to the Hispanic working-class neighbourhood of Loisaida. Immersing himself in its burgeoning creative scene, he formed friendships with graffiti artists like Daze and Lady Pink, whose work he collected and championed. But it was his relationship with Nuyorican poet, playwright, and actor Miguel Piñero that became his most formative. “Piñero pretty much introduced the neighbourhood to me as subject matter,” Martin once said, weaving Miguel’s poems and stories of street life, prison, and community activism into his paintings.
As Martin’s perspective opens up, so does the gallery space. Fiery urban night-scapes hang in a cavernous hall — tableaux depicting tenement buildings, dilapidation and drug addiction, but also tales of love and longing among Loisaida’s immigrant community. Characters caress in the rubble and cry out beneath the stars, intimacies writ large and infinite. Life-size paintings of boarded-up storefronts from his immersive pictorial installation, “The Last Picture Show” (1986), project the ravages of gentrification. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times and the times we had they gone now,” he wrote in the press release.
Lining the walls are vitrines full of intimate ephemera, spanning postcards, doodles, graffiti sketchbooks, and exhibition catalogues. “40 BRICKS, 40 DICKS, 40 LICKS,” reads one goofy sketch of Martin with his tongue out. Lovingly painted, Loisaida’s reddish-brown tenement bricks dominated his aesthetic at the time. They were at once an ode to the neighbourhood, and the building blocks of homoerotic fantasies, abstracted into visions of celestial anuses and erect dicks in flamboyant faux-gold frames.
Both realist and fantasist, Martin portrayed Loisaida in all its rawness, refiguring it into a dreamscape of queer desire. Just as bricks become dicks, firemen become lovers, kissing passionately among the flames. They feature in comic, confessional works like "I Really Like the Way Firemen Smell", and are presented in pairs beneath the constellation of Gemini — with twins symbolising same-gender queerness.
The more integrated Martin became into the New York underground, the more his fascination with carceral aesthetics grew. But unlike his paintings of the communities he was part of, his jail scenes portray an environment he did not experience firsthand, only learned about through friends like Miguel. Depicting Puerto Rican and/or Black inmates, he renders the steel and concrete around them in roiling, cloudy brushstrokes that have a dreamlike air. Full of porny posters, soap bars, and power play between prisoners and correction officers, he casts the prison cell as an imaginative space of intimacy, isolation, eroticism and violence.
There’s tension here. Martin humanises his subjects — men of colour on the margins like him — while also rendering them as objects of desire. But he is always critical of incarceration and the state structures that support it. His mischievous fetishisation of men in uniform, whether police or firemen, becomes a tactic of resistance. These bold works of queer fantasy were radical in a decade defined by the AIDS epidemic, ridden with attempts to suppress queer expression.
Martin himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, and seemed to approach his diagnosis with the same humour he displayed throughout his life. “WE COULD JUST CONCENTRATE ON EATING GOOD AND DRINKING LOTS OF CARROT JUICE”, he writes in his all-caps style to a friend who is also positive. He spent the last decade of his life creating an expansive body of work about Chinatown, intertwining family stories and photographs of Chinese New Year parades with pop-culture icons like Bruce Lee. These ambivalent works display an effort to reminisce his childhood and uplift his community, while also reckoning with the received images of Chinatown — both authentic and Hollywood — that constructed his understanding of his identity and heritage.
In a basement beneath the gallery, Charlie Ahearn’s short film, Portrait of Martin Wong (1998), plays on loop, capturing the artist in his final months when he was being cared for by his parents back home in San Francisco. Singing along to karaoke at a restaurant in Chinatown, Martin’s magnetic energy shines on screen, as it does across his artworks. Whether you encounter him as a cowboy, fireman or astronaut, Malicious Mischief is a wild ride worth accompanying him on.
'Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief' is showing at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin through 14 May 2023. It will show at Camden Art Centre, London, 16 June - 17 September 2023, and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, November 4 2023 - April 1 2024.