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Painter Martin Wong’s ‘Malicious Mischief’ Surveyed in Striking Berlin Retrospective

“Malicious Mischief,” the title of KW’s Martin Wong retrospective, hearkens back to a pair of paintings of mustached and muscle-bound prison officers, and, in legal terms, to the crime of willfully damaging another person’s property. The phrase also summarizes the fickle workings of fate in regard to Wong’s practice and reputation. When he died in 1999 of HIV/AIDS-related illness at the age of 53, his art had just begun receiving wider recognition, thanks in part to a 1998 retrospective at the New Museum in New York. Not long after, his body of work—which since the late 1960s had been devoted in diverse ways to clandestine activity, secret knowledge, and marginal communities—winked out of sight, cognoscenti excepted. It took until the art world developed an archival interest in square-peg intersectional figures—Wong was a queer, Chinese American hippie-mystic-fantasist-social-critic—for his work to get another substantive showing, a 2016 retrospective at the Bronx Museum. Having been revived in his own nation, Wong is now revealed to European audiences, via KW’s soup-to-nuts collation of more than 100 of his artworks, primarily paintings but also ceramics, reliefs, poems, theater artifacts, and graphics.

The exhibition rewinds to Wong’s student days in Oakland at the dawn of the ’70s, as he dived headfirst into West Coast counterculture while trying not to erase his heritage. Here are his long paper scrolls covered in Beat-esque prose poetry, their unfurling format recalling Chinese calligraphy, and the jazzy Zap Comix–like prints Wong designed to advertise San Francisco drag-performance act The Cockettes, which he joined, later becoming part of their offshoot, Angels of Light Free Theater. A through line in the show is Wong’s outsider nature and gravitation to local communities, such that, after moving in 1973 to Humboldt County, he began painting local bars, crab fishermen, and compositional stews of non-Western lore and racial stereotyping like Tibetan Porky (1975–78), a watermelon-eating, many-eyed deity perched atop a crablike creature and surrounded by skulls. During his studies, he had also traveled in Afghanistan and India, and there is a sense in canvases from this era of Wong’s patching together a cosmology to make sense of the workings of chance and destiny. In Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball (Eureka), 1978–81, a fortune-divining sphere sits amid billowing burnt-orange smoke—clay-reds, browns, and oranges had become his signature downbeat palette—against a map of constellations advertising his devotion to astrology.

In 1978 Wong moved to down-at-heel New York, working as a night porter in a waterfront hotel on South Street in exchange for lodging and painting there. From this point, his paintings addressed secrecy and things happening out of mainstream sight. Numerous canvases of this period employ the vocabulary of American Sign Language. Clones of Bruce Lee (1981), created with sign-painter fluency, features chubby hands shaped to spell out the work’s title for a Deaf audience. In My Secret World 1978–81 (1984), Wong presents his old hotel room as seen through the windows—with miniaturized versions of his own paintings and books on shelves inside—along with text identifying the site as where the “world’s first paintings for the hearing impaired came into being.”

By this point Wong had relocated to the working-class, mainly Puerto Rican neighborhood known as Loisaida in downtown New York, and was befriending (and collecting the work of) graffiti artists. His paintings, while retaining ASL elements, began focusing on tightly painted architectural facades, some with bricked-up windows. Such works pivot on precarity: The decaying area he lived in was at once prey to gentrifiers and home to immigrant communities living lives that were mostly unseen. The series of paintings of shuttered storefronts he made in the mid- to late ’80s are startlingly economical evocations of hiddenness and displacement expressed through grimy geometry. At the same time, though, Wong was walking through walls in his mind, beginning a long series of paintings set inside New York prisons—their inhabitants disproportionately POC—that soon trade melancholic images of sleeping prisoners in stacked bunks for beefcake fantasies of hunky inmates (such as Top Cat, 1990), sexualizations of corrections officers, and the power-inverting cop-taunting scenario of 1994’s Come Over Here Rockface (“and suck my dick,” the text beside a shirtless prisoner clarifies).

Whatever harsh realities surrounded him, Wong’s art asserts that, on canvas at least, he was free. There, New York’s firemen, like its policemen, couldn’t stop him from sexualizing them, and, by 1990, he’d begun folding his long-standing fascinations together in near-hallucinatory ways. Orion (1990–91) is a baroquely framed painting in which a giant phallus made of city-building bricks is framed against a night sky speckled with labeled constellations. He’d also begun what would be his art’s final movement, a series of paintings reconsidering and plasticizing his heritage, and creating a kind of pantheon-like Chinatown of the mind. See Bruce Lee in the Afterworld (1991), with the martial-arts master striking a pose amid a sea of faces suggesting stereotypical Chinese mythology, or the spectacularly phantasmagoric Chinese New Year’s Parade (1992–94), with its googly-eyed metallic dragon looming behind an intricately patterned frieze of blue and green Eastern deities.

The New York art scene in this latter period was increasingly enraptured by “slacker art,” a low-budget recession-era phenomenon with which Wong’s ambitiousness and technique had nothing in common. As for many rediscovered artists, though, his out-of-step approach has ended up paying dividends: Much of the KW show looks startlingly fresh and interesting now, especially as it resonates with present-day identitarian issues and consideration of communities of care.

Wong’s final painting, completed on the day he died, is an idiosyncratic fusion featuring a smiling, blue-skinned Patty Hearst as the Hindu goddess Kali the Destroyer. Above her is the title, Wong’s plangent and defiant final words: Did I Ever Have a Chance? Back then, given the world Wong moved through, maybe not. But the stars, since then, have realigned.