Artwork: Martin Wong, Mitosis, 1985, Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 72 in. Copyright Martin Wong, Courtesy P.P.O.W.
Martin Wong (1946-1999) moved to New York City in 1978 at the age of 22, settling in on the Lower East Side. The son of Chinese immigrants, Wong was born in Portland and raised in San Francisco, where he first delved into the world of art as set designer for the Angels of Light, an offshoot of The Cockettes. When he arrived in New York, he moved into the Meyer Hotel on Stanton Street, where he lived for three years, doing repair work to the dilapidated hotel and working as a night watchman. In 1981, he moved to a six-story walk-up on Ridge Street populated by heroin dealers and their clients. In total, Wong stayed in New York for 16 years, moving back to San Francisco to live with his mother after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1994.
Wong’s time in New York was dedicated exclusively to painting, where he captured scenes on the Lower East Side that evoked the beautiful, casual, fleeting temporality of life itself. Set amid the desolate, desperate crumbling tenements that had been abandoned and left to disrepair in a city that had all but been destroyed by the government’s policy of “benign neglect” that denied minority neighborhoods basic services, Wong discovered the spirit and the soul of the people shining through.
An American realist in the tradition of Reginald Marsh and George Bellows, Wong’s paintings are documents of a people and a place that have all but been whitewashed and erased. And so it is that his paintings have transformed not only the world of art, but the way in which art becomes an artifact of a time that once was. And though it was not all that long ago, it is so very far away that to see the paintings at the P.P.O.W. booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach brings a lump to the throat.
The selection of works includes scenes of Latino and African-American boxers sparring in the concrete playgrounds behind chainlink fences, evoking the spirit of New York when only the tough could survive.
Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of P.P.O.W., observes, “Martin Wong’s paintings are complex. They are about desire: for achievement and sexual desire. That drove him to paint boxers, firemen, policemen, and graffiti writers. The paintings work on many levels and telescope different messages to different audiences: immigrants, gays, people of color, Chinese—they crisscross through these groups.”
Olsoff goes on to point out that Wong repressed the blatant visual representation of his desires out of respect for his mother but they came through in different ways. The boxers are not just pugilists slugging it out on the city streets; they are studies of masculinity in its ultimate, most physically dominant state.
In this way, Wong was speaking to and for the people of his world, transforming their experiences into profound narratives that could speak to a wide array of audiences in their own language. Now, as artifacts of a New York that once was and no longer is, they are voices from the grave, reminding us that the ancestors are still here, keeping watch over us.
The image of the Statue of Liberty in a moment of private repose, her heart broken from the pain and strain of seeing the people who welcomed treated so poorly in her home, is particularly poignant today, nearly three decades after it was first painted. Made of brickwork, she is not just the face of our nation but also of the city in whose harbor she proudly stands, knowing the fate of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free may be grave.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.