I knew I was unconditionally, irrevocably in love with Martin Wong halfway through the very first room of Human Instamatic, BAMPFA’s Martin Wong retrospective. I still had nearly an entire museum floor to go, but when you know, you know.
It was a piece of ephemera that finalized it. First letter home from New York (also I joined The Museum of Modern Art) is a handwritten letter from Wong to his parents, describing his activities upon moving from San Francisco to New York in 1978. “Hello Mom & Pop,” it opens cheerfully, his rambling block letters fitting themselves around a line drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge (or the “Brookline Bridge,” as Wong charmingly misspells it).
Wong details his excitement about finding good cheap food in New York, getting a complimentary catalogue for his MoMA membership, and his plans to rent an additional room from Meyer’s Hotel (“one for sleeping, the other for painting”).
He was in his early 30s when he wrote the letter. He would spend nearly two decades in New York — specifically on the Lower East Side — making paintings of his neighbors and neighborhood (“brick by brick and storefront by storefront,” he wrote in another letter home).
It’s hard to say what was so particularly moving about Wong’s letter. Perhaps it’s his openness and optimism. Or how he found the Chelsea Hotel “too artsy and too expensive.” The fact that the letter is addressed to his parents and contains all of the above captures a family relationship so supportive, so loving, it renders the “tortured artist” trope moot.
It’s one thing to love the person an artist was (Wong died of AIDS-related causes in 1999), but Wong’s lovability is compounded by the virtuosity of his paintings. Born in Portland in 1946 and raised in San Francisco, Wong studied ceramics at Humboldt State, but switched to painting after college, developing a style marked by earthy tones and obsessive detail — part cartoon, part trompe l’oeil.
Before he moved to the Lower East Side, Wong worked as the night porter at Meyer’s Hotel, living and painting without any real friends or artistic community — an isolation that caused him to identify with the city’s deaf-mute community. He incorporated the sign language alphabet into his paintings, rendering sensational news headlines like Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder (a reference to serial-killer David Berkowitz) in rows of bubbly hieroglyphic hands.
Many of Wong’s paintings contain such systems of describing and mapping the world: constellation names, stacks of science books, a sign-language stop sign made with the Public Art Fund. He annotated life-sized canvases of closed storefronts and meticulously rendered miniature bricks with specific addresses, locating his paintings in time and space like a documentary photographer.
Despite the concentrated effort Wong put into his pieces, he wasn’t precious about them. Yet another thing to love. A New York magazine piece describes how Wong, shortly before his 1984 solo show at Semaphore Gallery, “stood in front of his Ridge Street studio and started handing out his paintings.”
“I’m not used to all the money and attention, and I thought my paintings could brighten up some of my neighbors’ lives,” Wong says in the article. Semaphore scrambled to retrieve the works for their show, putting up fliers and offering reward money for their safe return. Wong was, according to New York Magazine, “unrepentant.”
The circular self-portrait that opens the BAMPFA installation shows Wong with a mustache and flowing black hair, dressed in a Western-style shirt decorated with Chinese dragons, a cowboy hat on his head. He glows against a background of vibrant blue faces — all the details of his shirt, hat and hair outlined in gold.
“Martin’s way of presenting himself to the world was to make a bit of a spectacle of himself,” former New Museum curator Dan Cameron writes in the exhibition catalogue. “I had never seen anyone pull off that urban cowboy look before as successfully as he did, and being Chinese and gay just amped it up.”
Many of Wong’s paintings are unapologetically erotic, whether they’re images of incarcerated men, uniformed firefighters kissing, or an ornately framed phallus made of his omnipresent bricks.
In the early ’90s he turned his attention from the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side to the Chinatown scenes of his youth. An 18-minute documentary by Charlie Ahearn on view in Human Instamatic captures Wong working shirtless on the mammoth painting Chinese New Year’s Parade, made between ’92 and ’94. It’s thrilling to watch him paint the canvas and then see the canvas unmediated, in the final room of the BAMPFA exhibition.
What else can I say to explain my love for Martin Wong? That he ran for a while with San Francisco’s legendary theater troupe, the Cockettes. That he and his mother were collectors of antiques and tchotchkes, frequently corresponding about auctions and appraisals. That when his infatuation with firefighters came out, people started gifting him parts of firefighters’ uniforms. That after painting, he washed his hands in his apartment tub. That, when he was diagnosed with AIDS and moved home to live with his parents, he served as Grand Marshall of San Francisco’s Chinese New Year’s Parade.
It’s easy to mourn for and love someone who didn’t live as long as they should have. But I like to think that were he still alive, we would all know of and be in love with Martin Wong. For his unwavering, singular style, for his brave commitment to painting left-behind people in left-behind places, and for his spectacular fashion sense.
‘Martin Wong: Human Instamatic’ is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through Dec. 10, 2017. For more information, click here.