by Robert Atkins
Martin Wong’s paintings depicting tenements, people of color, prison cells, gated storefronts, constellations labeled in gold, firemen (the fetishized objects of his affection) and dialects ranging from American Sign Language to visual poetry, are remarkably resonant. They infuse the Berkeley Art Museum (BAMPFA) and the Anglim Gilbert Gallery with the pungent flavor of the street. Wong’s deceptively simple art encapsulates a culturally seminal place and time—the East Village of the 1980s –as fully as any artist’s output. Between the BAMPFA’s comprehensive offering of paintings (Martin Wong: Human Instamatic on view through December 10) and Anglim Gilbert’s exhibition devoted to Wong’s, post-student years as craftsman and draftsman (Martin Wong: California Years on view through December 9), it’s unlikely that a more comprehensive view of this artist’s work will again be available to viewers.
Born in Portland in 1946 and raised in San Francisco, Wong studied ceramics at Humboldt State University in Eureka, beginning in 1964 and mosaics, in 1970, in Afghanistan. During the 1970S, he split his time between San Francisco and Eureka, producing poems in stylized calligraphy on scrolls, and sets for the gender-bending theater troupes, the Angels of Light and the Cockettes. (A photo at BAMPFA shows Wong with Divine, the iconic drag-queen-star of John Waters’ films and the Cockettes’ psychedelic extravaganzas.) Wong playfully advertised his services in Northern California as the “Human Instamatic,” an artist available to produce portraits priced according to their size. Wong’s cheeky gesture evokes Andy Warhol, who famously announced his desire to be a machine, capitalizing on the Polaroid Instamatic camera’s capacity for party-ready spontaneity and documentary veracity. It’s not an especially apt moniker, however, for a show about an artist who paid obsessive attention to labor-intensive detail and devotion to fact, rather than to any brand of realism or naturalism, as they are conventionally understood.
The California Years is a nearly monochrome show consisting of small ceramic plaques, many with texts and glitter; a handful of graphite self portraits in a hoary, Gothic psychedelic style; a cartoonish drawing, Insomatic 314 (1970), that suggests signage; a delicate cityscape of North Beach; and—mainly—words: Words in the forms of poems, texts and “fairy tales” (Wong’s term) rendered in florid, graffiti-like scripts. (Wong’s extensive collection of photos of graffiti is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.) The works in the show are lettered in a variety of eccentric styles that might have been limned by more than one artist. Sometimes it was the appearance of words that seem to have primarily interested Wong. The often over-written scrolls tend toward the indecipherable, while the short texts on conventional
square or rectangular formats are the easiest to make out. Looking sometimes beats reading, however, as with the undated, Untitled (Love’s Sweet Residue), which notes with sentimentality worthy of a Shakespeare sonnet: “Love’s sweet residue lingers on and on immune to time itself.”
Of the two shows, Martin Wong: Human Instamatic is clearly the main event. Apart from a few early works, archival documents and a must-see video portrait of Wong by the artist Charlie Ahearn, the exhibition presents dozens of paintings created during the last two decades of Wong’s life: a decade-and-a-half in New York and his final five years in San Francisco, preceding his death in 1999 from HIV-related causes. New York was Eden for him as evidenced by the letter he sent his parents immediately upon his arrival. Illustrated by a wonderful drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge, it announces his delight with his new downtown nabe and playfully describes the Museum of Modern Art — with its then-inexpensive artist’s membership — as a “drop-in center for artists.” He reveled in downtown’s bohemian, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered population and it showed in his work. Paintings produced the year of his move such as the droll Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball (1978) employ some or all of the new strategies that quickly came to characterize his practice: He retained words and signs but jettisoned visual poetry and the scroll format. He turned to painting friends and neighbors, rather than portraits for hire, which allowed him to explore a greater range of feelings. One perpetual characteristic of his sensibility was his attachment to materiality: It was expressed in his ceramics during the 1970s, and later, in his paintings by the carefully rendered faux-wood borders and the eccentrically shaped and ornate frames he sometimes appended to them. The effort entailed in collected those frames reflected the artist’s life-long passion for collecting.
(The word passion, however, may understate the savvy Wong brought to his obsession. His acquisitions ranged from a slightly battered Andy Warhol Brillo box to hundreds of kitschy salt-and-pepper shakers, which were showcased in I M U U R 2, Danh Vo’s 2012 exhibition about collaboration at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Vo acquired them from Wong’s mother, Florence Wong Fie, a collector who apparently passed on to her son — and sometimes financed — their shared pursuit. A postscript to the initial letter Wong sent to his parents from New York is telling: He suggested she consult Sotheby’s for an appraisal of a Mimbres bowl.)
Wong was a pioneer of the mash-up, of synthesizing strategies, styles and visual idioms. Sweet ‘Enuff (1987) is a large and paradigmatic example. The 6 x 11-foot diptych employs age-old tricks of the mural trade, evident in radically foreshortened figures, in rhyming curves of bodies and in parallel lines of architecture that contain and communicate his phantasmagoric vision of urban life. Wong combined many of his favorite motifs in this composition: A cityscape of dilapidated tenements and barbed wire inhabited by flying skateboarders, a sleeping convict (probably Wong’s sometime lover and collaborator, the playwright Miguel Piñero) and a pair of firefighters beneath the umbrella of a black sky dotted with a golden map of stars and stylized images of hands signing for the deaf. It’s Wong’s way of suggesting that painting — like signing and astronomy — is yet another abstract and symbolic language.
Fact, wit and complex shifts of tone characterize his art, sometimes even within a single work. The tragedy of ruined neighborhoods, for instance, seen in crumbling brick walls and in iron-gated storefronts, is rendered bittersweet by Wong’s loving depictions of them, the latter at almost actual size.
Elsewhere, he fesses up to an infatuation with firefighters in two voyeuristic canvases from 1988: The Big Heat, which depicts two burly men in firefighter uniforms smooching, and what may be the smallest — and certainly the most crudely painted work in the show — I Really Like the Way Firemen Smell. (Once they shower, the artist explains in text that fills most of the latter painting, it's only their unwashed uniforms that excite him.) For this casual, diaristic work he shows himself in silhouette from the rear, wearing his trademark cowboy hat. It reappears in Self Portrait (1993), an over-the-top tondo that depicts him as an unidealized, god-like figuresurrounded by a golden aura. The cowboy hat is emblazoned with a psychedelic-looking Christ, a man of sorrows set against what first appears to be a star-studded sunset, but is actually a wall of indigo-colored Buddhist demons. It’s a goofy riff on art and divinity.
Although this is an exhibition filled with charming, sensuous, and beautiful paintings, there’s also something essential missing—a lack of context, of an understanding of Wong’s identity and importance both within a community of artists and the continuum of history. I never thought I’d be troubled by a lack of information in a capacious monographic exhibition like this one. Wall-labels in many museums unfortunately instruct us in how to look at an artwork and what to think and feel about it. Not so here. Human Instamatic largely ignores the East Village milieu in which Wong operated and which helped ensure his success.
I use the term East Village — in favor of the exhibition labels’ occasional references to the Lower East Side – because it is a cultural as well as a geographical descriptor. (Lower East Side — aka Loisaida — takes in a larger geographical swath that includes the East Village but also extends south of Houston St.) When Wong arrived in Manhattan in 1978, these adjacent neighborhoods were similarly down-at-the-heels; by time he left in 1994 NYU had occupied the East Village and made it unaffordable (and unappealing) to many of those who’d lived there 25 years earlier. But more important, East Village was not only common parlance — as in East Village Art, artists, or galleries — but a signifier that transcended geography to describe the tumultuous moment when Modernism went PoMo.
The 1980s marked the return of figurative painting following the Conceptualism of the 1970s and the embrace of commerce by artists who opened funky storefront galleries such as Gracie Mansion, Fun, Civilian Warfare, Semaphore and PPOW. (Wong first showed at Semaphore; his estate is represented by PPOW.) The most successful galleries helped usher in our era of global art commerce by opening branches across the pond or across the country. The consummation of the marriage of art, money and real estate was symbolized by events like the 1983 opening of the swanky, white-walled Pat Hearn Gallery on then-derelict Avenue B. (The Architect Robert Venturi, in his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, documents the messy “complexity and contradiction” arising from diversity of every sort, including the blurring of high and low art, modernism and popular culture.)
The closest thing to an East Village style was the graffiti and cartoon-inflected work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. But there was no orthodoxy in operation. Jeff Koons exhibited his investigations of social mobility with pseudo-scientific pairings of basketballs and water; Peter Halley produced theory-heavy geometric systems; and Mike Bidlo
pioneered appropriation in his painting and performance, expertly mimicking the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and others. The essence of the East Village approach was psychic rather than stylistic. Its validation of diversity and a range of visions enabled a democratic expansion of art and foretold the era of identity politics ahead. By the end of the 1980s, however, the East Village art scene was decimated not only by gentrification, but by AIDS and drugs.
Wong’s complexity extended, of course, to his personality, as well as his art. Judging from my casual interactions over a 10-year period during my time in New York, he was neither naïf, nor naïve, nor cynical. He was a romantic, but a clear-eyed one. As a gay Chinese-American with HIV he was, of course, an outsider. Yet within the East Village community of outsiders, he was a consummate insider. Paradoxical? It’s a very Whitmanesque, very American sort of contradiction. He and his inclusive work “contain multitudes” that enrich us all.
# # #
“Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” @ BAMPFA through December 10, 2017.
“Martin Wong: California Years” @ Anglim Gilbert Gallery through December 9, 2017.
About the author:
Robert Atkins is presently at work on a volume of his collected writings, The Eternal Frame: Sex and Politics in Recent American Art, and is co-directing with Betti-Sue Hertz, On Susan Sontag: Media, Modernity & Morality, a city-wide project slated for fall 2019 sponsored by the San Francisco Art Institute.