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Wong, Martin (1946-1999)  
 
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American artist Martin Wong created innovative, transgressive paintings that celebrated his sexuality and explored multiple ethnic and racial identities.

Although largely self-taught as a painter, Wong succeeded in gaining significant recognition in the highly competitive New York art world of the 1980s. Defying easy classification, his intellectually and psychologically complex paintings have most often been described either as social realist or as visionary.

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Challenging Eurocentric notions of the limited range of subjects appropriate for an Asian-American artist, Wong focused primarily upon Latino and African-American subjects throughout the 1980s. In the following decade, he turned his attention to his Chinese-American heritage, creating bold paintings that combined childhood memories with spectacular Hollywood versions of Asian culture.

Within his deceptively naïve style, Wong incorporated references to the art of many different cultures in his images. His wide-ranging interests also were manifested in his extensive collections of many types of objects, ranging from children's lunch boxes to medieval Persian miniatures.

An avid participant in the street culture of the Lower East Side in New York City, Wong became the most important individual patron of American graffiti art. In 1986, he co-founded with Peter Broda the Graffiti Museum, now incorporated into the Museum of the City of New York.

Background and Formal Education

Martin Victor Wong was born on July 11, 1946, in Portland, Oregon, where his grandfather owned a jewelry business. An only child, he was raised by his parents in San Francisco, where they worked for Standard Oil and Bechtel Corporation.

In a 1993 interview with Elisa Lee, Wong remarked that his grandparents and other members of his extended family had a profound influence on his personal development, combining as they did the spirit of "the Wild West" with involvement in Chinese civil rights politics.

Wong demonstrated a very early attraction to men in uniform. As a young child, he was a familiar figure to many firemen and policemen in San Francisco, and he frequently ran down streets after their vehicles.

Revealing precocious artistic talent, Wong began painting when he was 13 years old. His mother strongly encouraged his interest in art, and she began systematically preserving all indications of his talent. Now an invaluable resource for scholars of the art of Wong and his associates, the substantial archive of materials that she collected and organized over the course of several decades is housed at Fales Library, New York University.

After graduating from George Washington High School in San Francisco in 1964, Wong studied ceramics at Humboldt State University, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1968.

Wong's study of ceramics had a significant impact on his later career as a painter. For instance, the emphasis placed in ceramics training upon the properties of pigments helped him to develop a strong appreciation of subtle shifts of tone. More specifically, the hues that he utilized most frequently during the 1980s (burnt sienna, ochre, and umber) can be related to his experience in ceramics.

Most importantly, Wong's commitment to technical refinement and his systematic investigation of the properties and possibilities of the painting medium can be related to his education as a ceramicist. During the period that Wong studied ceramics, most American university programs in painting downplayed and even denigrated technical skill and emphasized instead a largely conceptual approach to art making. As a result, many painters of Wong's generation sought emphatically crude methods of execution. However, because of the complex, difficult, and potentially dangerous processes involved in ceramics, technical matters continued to be emphasized in the training of artists in that medium.

Wong in Eureka and San Francisco, 1964-1978

While attending Humboldt State, Wong began living in nearby Eureka. He remained based in this small town on the northern coast of California until 1978. Surrounded by awe-inspiring redwood forests and boasting many outstanding examples of ornate late nineteenth-century architecture, Eureka by the mid-twentieth century had attracted a vibrant and idiosyncratic community of artists, who were treated with tolerance by the largely working-class population.

Art historians generally have overlooked work done by Wong in Eureka. However, in paintings that he created there during the mid-1970s, he already revealed his fascination with run-down urban environments.

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