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Never Quite Together: Martin Wong

“I don’t know why everyone assumes they’re kissing,” said Martin Wong about his painting Big Heat (1986–88), in which two firefighters are most certainly kissing. “They just happen to be Siamese twins joined at the mouth.” Wong offered his clarification on the daytime television program People Are Talking. Introduced by host Bill Boggs with the question “Is it art or is it diarrhea?”, the segment convened a panel of artists to defend subversive artwork against a jeer­ing studio audience. While Big Heat is on stage with the other artists, Wong is not. He waits instead until the end of the program to stand up among the showgoers and perform his farce. Wearing a black-and-white buffalo plaid shirt over a pea-green dress shirt, and a striped purple tie with a bull hinge clip attached, Wong’s bohemianism – like his remark – edges close to the clownish. For the first and last time during the program, artists and audience laugh together, albeit with muted confusion.

Wong was reluctant to participate in political debate, even when his work did. The artist kept some meanings close to the chest. A note in his sketchbook describes Big Heat as “an allegory for the age of AIDS representing Hypnos & Thanatos, sleep & death,” twin brothers in Greek mythology who usher the dead to the underworld. He understood how setting his firefighters in front of a scorched tenement bound gay affection to the catastrophe he witnessed in New York during the 1980s. The emptied building summons abandon­ment and neglect in no uncertain terms – the kind of aban­donment that landlords brought to the Lower East Side when they burned down apartments to collect insurance, and the kind of neglect that politicians brought to the AIDS crisis, which Ronald Reagan did not acknowledge until 1985. But the firefighters’ locked lips are forceful, at a moment when such touch was scandalized and maligned. Wong was rarely one for unilateral sentiments; the painting confronts even as it mourns, even as it romanticizes.

But what to make of Wong’s fixation with conjoined twins? Look closely and one finds them across the three decades of his art. As a San Francisco flower child in 1970, he sculpted two coyotes out of clay and connected them at the ribcage. In Eureka, California, during the mid-70s, he painted and repainted the interlocking skeletons of Tibetan citipati, sometimes adorned with his catch­phrase “IMU UR2.” In New York during the following decade, one finds the constellation Gemini looming with suspicious frequency over his city scenes; boxers split amoeba-like in Mitosis (1985), and New York police officers merge behind a bowl of salad in Malicious Mischief (1991). Later still, twins rematerialize as Buddhas in tuxedos cradling the artist’s perennial eight-ball. It may not be a stretch to find them again in Lithops (1997–98), two-pronged and con­nected at the base, made one year before his own death from AIDS-related illness.

Like many of Wong’s preoccupations, twins are pervasive and evasive – everywhere, yet difficult to explain. A text painted into Twin Machine (1984), with its imaginary Victo­rian contraption, offers clues to their connotation:

How very much alike
They were twins in
Every way and yet like
Mirror images how
Completely opposite.

He borrowed from another poem written almost twenty years earlier:

How very much alike they were
And yet like mirror images
How completely opposite.
Never quite together
Never quite apart
Is there any name
For this love?

Both writings distill a paradox of relation. Wong con­nects sameness and difference, identification and disidenti­fication. He seems to ask: How can we be one-with while also being apart-from?

In life, Wong enacted this contradiction. He embedded himself in one community after the next – San Francisco hippies, provincial fishermen and loggers, a Latinx under­class, Chinatown merchants – making his art a reflection on each and modifying his persona in search of compatibility. Yet, he consistently articulated his place on the outside. In San Francisco, his long hair and bare feet were at home among the trippers of Golden Gate Park, and he was found in the middle of more than one student protest, but he described himself as “always the outsider wandering the edges.” In New York, the artist was an honorary member of the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican enclave, but felt like a “tourist.” The deliberate Orientalism of Wong’s Chinatown paintings made some Asian American artists uncomfortable, as if he approached his own heritage with chauvinism. Even on People Are Talking, we find him not on stage among the other artists, but installed in the audience that derides them. Wong seems to look at his own worlds as a spectator, while also insisting on his say, hovering somewhere between an observer and a participant.

His paintings, too, pry open this gray area. Lifesize store­fronts from Avenue B embed us in the streets of New York, but their gates remain locked, their windows shuttered. Sen­timental scenes of families and lovers lure us into cathexis, but place us in the distance, their figures like stiff little pup­pets. Depictions of Brown prison inmates may draw atten­tion to the adversity faced by minorities in the United States, but we are often placed on the other side of the cell bars, like guards charged with their subjugation. When these pris­oners look sexy and relaxed, as they often do, one must wonder if Wong took the realities of prison for granted. It may be tempting to redeem the artist as an empath who brought visibility to the oppressed, but his work is rarely so straightforward. It is more often laced with voyeurism and misunderstanding, deliberate or otherwise.

Two near-identical (twin?) paintings let us peer back at Wong’s world in a similar way. Meyer’s Hotel (1980–81) and My Secret World 1978–1981 (1984) show his first bedroom in New York. The scene is framed through tenement win­dows, as if we can sneak unsolicited glimpses at the life of another. One can scan his bookshelf for clues to the artist: How to Make Money, a suitable topic for someone who came to New York to be a famous artist, speculated on stock and real estate, and made small fortunes buying and selling antiquities; Unbeatable Bruce Lee, an emblem of Wong’s Chi­natown paintings; Muhammad Ali, a hot boxer. But what to make of other books like Anti-Gravity or Electromagnetism or Lloyd’s Register of Ships? They are as oblique as Wong’s magic eight-ball, their symbolism beyond confident decod­ing, calling our other interpretations into question. Wong lets us see his life in the way he saw others – intimate yet confounding, at hand and yet slightly out of reach.

The artist plays outside in these pieces, present only in his absence, sealed off in his secret world. He was not without success as a painter. One gallerist described him as a “top attractions.” But he never quite won over the New York art world in the way he wanted. Hot hot-bloodedness sometimes irritated a scene that was a little too cool. His figuration was out of step with a decade when artworks increasingly became “texts” and when appropriation made the sensuous brushstroke démodé. Indeed, while Wong was very much an artist of his time, critical response has lagged considerably. Reappraisal rarely rose above a whisper in the decade following his death. But with the recent reconsider­ation of identity politics and “intersectionality” in figurative painting, interest has grown from arithmetic to exponential (enabled in no small part by the efforts of his mother, Flor­ence Fie, who upheld a vast archive of his work with unwav­ering dedication). Retrospectives have since spread from the United States to Europe; auction prices have soared. Perhaps Wong is partly to blame for the delay. He often leaned into his unfashionability. Tromp l’oeil borders and gaudy golden frames dramatize painting as a window onto a world, embracing the illusionism so vigorously bludgeoned by the avant-garde. While other painters were eager to lend their medium theoretical pretense – think of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Peter Halley – Wong countervailed. “Talking about art is like taking about your bowel movements,” he once said. Is it art or is it diarrhea?

The artist may be best known for his years in New York, but his visual language, like his toilet humor, came straight from California. Wong’s social surrealism finds correspon­dents in so-called Funk artists like William T. Wiley and Joan Brown; his mythopoetic text-and-image apiece with the work of Jess; his dopiness similar to Nut artists like Clayton Bailey (whose work he collected); his emphatic Orientalism not so different from the racial mimicry of Robert Colescott (whose work he pretended to collect). When Wong moved east, he steered these idioms into unfriendly terrain and enacted a foreigner’s inscrutability. A reporter once asked why he painted New York’s skaeboarders. “I think people skateboard so much here because they can’t surf; the waves go in the wrong direction,” he answered. “On the West Coast, all the waves come in. On the East Coast, they all go out.” One laughs with muted confusion.

While very much a social creature, the 80s saw Wong’s art-making become increasingly private, as if cloaked in the noirish mystery of his empty bedroom. Days passed hypno­tized by the repetition of individually painted bricks. Inward­ness could turn hallucinatory. As he wrote in the mid 80s:

Painting is forbidden
The joys & pleasures of being a painter are almost
identical to those of being a serial killer:
The solitary quest
The thrill of the hunt
The compulsion of trying to complete an imaginary set
To live totally in the imagination
The suspense
The urgency
And finally the uncontrollable spasms at the ultimate
moment between life and death when the veil of time is
suddenly ripped asunder
In the end painting is also similar to murder in that when
the thrill is finally gone, all you have left is a mess and
a disposal problem.

Wong is joking, but he may have seen a little bit of himself in David Berkowitz, charged in the Son of Sam slayings that terrorized New York in the 70s. On the far wall of his bed­room, one finds a painting in reference to Berkowitz’s defense on the grounds of insanity: Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder (1980). A coincidence, perhaps, that during an acid trip Wong’s cat instructed him to give away his paintings – on the street, in the rain. He painted another Berkowitz headline, Son of Sam Sleeps (1983), at least three times. One such work hangs just above his pillow in Meyer’s Hotel (where, of course, Wong slept). Painting could be a lonely enterprise shot through with delusion.

Despite this seclusion, Wong’s artwork attempts commu­nication. In it, we find the artist assuming the languages of others, speaking to the different communities he encoun­tered. He copied Chinese and Spanish phrases even though he could not read them. He borrowed the fingerspelling of American Sign Language in impractical ways, rendering sen­tences letter by letter, hand by hand. Wong called such works “Paintings for the Hearing Impaired” – synesthetic word play, but also false advertising. After all, spelling out words with hand signs does not privilege the hearing-impaired, who read like anybody else. The misapplication suggests both recognition and disregard.

Maybe this was the point. Miswriting Chinese hanzi, mis­spelling Spanish, and misusing fingerspelling all show an artist trying, and failing (perhaps knowingly), to assume the roles of others. He dons their diction in ways that present the friction of not-fully-belonging. Never quite together, never quite apart, Wong’s paintings are difference striving for sameness, and sameness that reveals its internal differ­ence. They do not so much resolve in friendly association as stagger between harmony and dissonance. How very much alike Wong was to those he painted, and yet, like a mirror image, how completely opposite. —

MARTIN WONG (*1946, Portland, Oregon; †1999, San Francisco) was an artist who has lived in San Francisco and Eureka, California, before moving to New York. He exhibited for two decades at notable downtown NY galleries including EXIT ART, Semaphore, and P·P·O·W, among others, before his passing in San Francisco from an AIDS related illness. Of late, he has been the subject of retrospectives at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (upcoming); KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Camden Arts Centre, London (both 2023); Galerie Buchholz, Berlin (2022); P·P·O·W, New York (2021). Recent group shows include “City as Studio,” K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong (2023); “Zeroes and Ones,” KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2021); “Around Day’s End,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2020).

SOLOMON ADLER is a curator and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where his dissertation considers the life and work of Martin Wong.