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Wong, Martin (1946-1999)  
 
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Shortly after arriving in the city, Wong moved into Meyer's Hotel on Stanton Street. The manager offered to let him stay free for three months if he would clean up three rooms with collapsed ceilings. However, he ended up staying for three years, serving as the night watchman throughout that time. In 1981, he moved to a nearby six-floor walkup occupied by heroin dealers and addicts.

Wong extensively explored his new neighborhood and he became deeply involved--personally and professionally--with its Latino residents. Eager to interact on an equal footing with his neighbors, Wong taught himself to speak Spanish by picking up words from them. The nickname "Chino Malo" (Bad Chinese), affectionately given to Wong, attests to his integration into the community.

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Throughout the 1980s, Wong devoted himself to depicting the streets and buildings of the Lower East and its residents, especially the workers, firemen, boxers, and criminals, who became his friends and lovers.

During this period, Wong focused almost exclusively upon Latino and African-American subjects, thereby challenging theories of identity then prevailing in the art world, which held that artists should confine themselves to themes that were directly relevant to their own ethnic and racial heritage. However, as Yasmin Ramírez has noted, Wong's choice of subjects during the 1980s accords with the experiences of many Chinese immigrants who settled in Latino neighborhoods in the United States.

Artistic Transformation

During his first few years in New York, Wong successfully undertook a radical transformation in his style of painting. Considering that he held a variety of jobs to support himself throughout this period, his achievement is remarkable. By the mid-1980s, he was employed as a clerk at the bookstore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which began collecting his work in 1984.

Although he did not receive any formal instruction to assist his development, he undertook intensive independent study of works by a wide variety of artists. Largely working on his own, Wong changed his art in ways that did not correspond to predominant trends in the contemporary art world.

Among the many modern artists whose work profoundly influenced Wong, one may note the following: Grandma Moses, whose combination of obsessive detail and visionary imagination often has been compared to Wong's style; Edward Hopper, whose poetic views of New York directly anticipate Wong's cityscapes; Piet Mondrian, whose dynamic abstract compositions (such as Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43) directly inspired Wong's paintings of urban walls (notably, Flagstone Boogie Woogie, 1984); and Jasper Johns, whose enigmatic depictions of ordinary objects strongly influenced Wong's approach to his subjects. In addition, Wong also found constant inspiration in popular culture and in the people and buildings of the Lower East Side.

Early Paintings of the Lower East Side

Typical of Wong's many paintings of street scenes done during the early 1980s, Stanton Near Forsyth Street (1983) exemplifies the transformation of his art.

Despite the illusionistic spatial recession of the massive background buildings and the meticulous textures of the brick and plaster walls, other elements emphasize that the scene is an artificial construct, endowed with mystical dimensions. A flat surface with no visible sides, the building in the foreground seems on the point of disappearing.

Most of the flat black sky is covered by large, blocky hands that spell out in American Sign Language the words of one of Wong's poems about the heavens at night. In the few remaining spaces of the sky, Wong drew out and labeled several constellation charts--thus indicating abstractly the heavenly bodies, which he chose not to depict illusionistically.

Playing with levels of reality, Wong enclosed the street scene within a painted trompe l'oeil wooden frame, which he inscribed below with his name, the title, and date, and above with poetically evocative phrases: "Morning at the edge of time. It never really mattered."

In this picture, the two men on the street seem dwarfed by the massive buildings with boarded up windows. At the far left, a figure closely resembling the artist, stands facing the viewer, while a man, shown in profile, walks toward him from the far right. These figures subtly evoke a cruising and pick-up narrative, although there are no explicit indications of interaction between them. Complicating efforts to devise a conventional narrative is the Spanish inscription, describing a scenario that does not correspond with Wong's arrangement of figures.

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