Secret World: The Art of Martin Wong
Martin Wong: Human Instamatic at the Bronx Museum of the Arts
November 4, 2015 to February 14, 2016
1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx, (718) 681-6000
“The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present,” according to Baudelaire in “The Painter of Modern Life”, “is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of being present.” The passion of such an artist, he adds, is “to become one flesh with the crowd.” Both the subjects and the manner of their presentation in this generous survey of 96 paintings, many of them large, by Martin Wong (1946-1999) mark him as a perfect exemplar of that ideal. Early on he did self-portraits. Then he painted crumbling tenement walls, as in Iglesia Pentecostal (1986); prisons, of which Penitentary Fox (1988) is one and, also, sexual encounters in prison such as The Annunciation According to Mikey Piñero (Cupcake and Paco) (1984)—one of Wong’s great lovers was a jailbird; firemen, as in I Really Like the Way Firemen Smell (1988); street scenes, like Canal Street (1992); brick walls, sometimes shown behind men kissing, as in Sharp & Dottie (1984). His very distinctive dark palette – earth reds, burnt Siennas, ochers, and umbers—was derived from his experience as a potter. Wong loved to put words in his paintings, in book titles, signposts and captions which appear in English and Spanish, but also often in ASL (American Sign Language), as for instance in Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder (1980).
My Secret World, 1978-1981 (1984) nicely summarizes the world found in Wong’s art. Looking into his bedroom behind the brick wall in a down-and-out hotel, identified with a caption above the window, we see a bed; some of his books—he was a collector; and a number of the paintings in this exhibition. Another caption identifies this as the room where the first painting for the hearing impaired was made. Wong grew up in San Francisco, near Chinatown; went to school at Humboldt State University, studying ceramics; and then in 1978 moved to Manhattan.
Just as the Impressionists’ paintings of contemporary life don’t depict every scene found in their Paris, so Wong doesn’t show every subject found downtown in his New York. He doesn’t depict life inside the restaurants or stores. Nor does he usually show families—he focuses on the blank facades, and on gay men. He seems to have been exclusively an urban artist—like Baudelaire, he was resolutely uninterested in nature, or, even, in city parks, or the suburbs. That he associated the words in his paintings with writing in old master Chinese painting is unsurprising, for he was a connoisseur of that tradition. But how different his pictures are from any precedents. Wong was a graffiti collector—his large collection was displayed in 2014 at the Museum of the City of New York. His Sharp Paints a Picture (Collaboration with Sharp) (1997-98) shows a graffiti master with one of his works. But unlike most of those street artists, he benefitted from art school training. His uses of blankness and flat backgrounds and the scale of his best pictures makes him very much a late modernist—Heaven (1988) a big tondo, shows the bricks of a wall in lovingly close detail.
Wong’s first solo exhibition was in 1984. Unlike other East Village artists of that time, he does not appear to have been involved with any theorizing about art. The then much discussed concept of ‘postmodernism’ has nothing to do with his art. But, as often is the case with art rooted in contemporary life, some of his subjects now require identification. To understand Courtroom Shocker/Jimmy the Weasil Sings Like a Canary (1983), which is filled with ASL, you need to now that Jimmy Weasil was Jimmy Fratianno, the mobster who testified before a jury in 1981. Wong’s best pictures are immediately powerful because they are direct. “When I was younger,” he said near the end of his too-short life, “I was always paranoid that I would die before I could finish my paintings.” But, he then adds, “at a certain point I actually finished them.” He was a great painter –he created a picture-perfect presentation of a world that has mostly disappeared, Manhattan’s pre-gentrified Lower East Side.