Throughout the trendy, catchword-ridden East Village scene of the 1980s, Martin Wong’s work defied categorization. While others painted anxious figures in broad strokes and strident colors, he rendered his meticulous urban landscapes in a muted palette dominated by umbers, blacks, and rusty reds. His paintings are an alchemical synthesis of Ashcan School urban realism, folk art’s obsessive patterning, 19th-century American trompe l’oeil still life, and Chinese landscapes with letters inscribed in the sky. With his degree in ceramics and incisive take on art history and the contemporary art scene, Martin was nevertheless an outsider, a queer Chinese American from San Francisco working in an elite and opinionated New York art world. His outsider’s footing made him particularly receptive to the lives and struggles of his Latino neighbors on the Lower East Side, and the graffiti artists whose work he collected and supported.
Martin was lanky, frenetic in stride and gesture, his gruff voice tinged with an Oregonian accent. Born in Portland but raised in San Francisco, he was the only child of doting immigrant parents who archived his every creative undertaking. Martin was insatiably curious, mischievous, impatient, and full of wonder. He wore a scraggly Fu Manchu, and typically dressed in a cowboy shirt, tie, and leather jacket, saving more exotic apparel such as fireman’s boots and jacket for special occasions. He would go out for three successive dinners in a single night with different groups of artists or intimates, heralding the latest gossip—and never gaining an ounce. In Eureka, California, where he ran a pop-up portraiture operation in the 1970s, Martin humorously booked himself as the “Human Instamatic.” True to this anachronistic self-appellation, he saw deeply into just about any situation he observed, scanning detail after detail, recording them in his mind to later transfer them, embellished, onto canvas.
Martin’s paintings chart a world of unquenchable desire—the burning flame of unrequited love, the junkie’s endless craving for oblivion, the poet’s wheel of misfortune, and the alchemist or astrologer’s quest for meaning in the elements and the stars. From 1982 until around 1988, he painstakingly reconstructed the ghostly facades of tenements in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood whose pervasive Latin beat commingled with shouts from the street, mantras of heroin hawkers, the screams of fire engines and police sirens, and the aroma of arroz con pollo.
Martin reveled in the heart of this cacophony, living and working on the sixth floor of a walk-up at the intersection of Ridge and Stanton Streets. Since there was no doorbell, and he was either too immersed in his painting or too far up to hear a visitor’s cry from the street, you had to wait in line to call him from the pay phone on the corner, provided it hadn’t been sabotaged. Often, the line would be busy (Martin loved “bricking in” a painting while chatting for hours on the phone). After he made his way down the six flights to unlock the front door, you’d have to dodge the folks shooting dope on the stairway and hold your breath for as long as possible to escape the stench of stale piss. Inside the apartment, once you squeezed past the paintings crowding a narrow hall and passed through a room hung floor-to-ceiling with graffiti art, you arrived at the artist’s studio. It was always worth the trouble.
Martin would pace around, blurting out disjointed, hilarious anecdotes about the misadventures of various graffiti artists, or show off his latest acquisition: a “piece book” filled with tags or a pair of wooden crutches from LA2 decorated from top to bottom with Keith Haring characters. The small room he used as a studio could barely accommodate his larger canvases. There were usually four or five of them, finished or in progress, stacked behind the piece he was working on. More often than not, he’d be painting over an earlier work—he was frugal, but also loved the natural buildup of texture this method afforded him. The direct view from the studio window was onto a window of the facing tenement a few yards away. From an oblique angle, you could see brick buildings in the distance resembling the ones Martin commonly painted.
In the fall of 1983, Martin accompanied Mark Kostabi to Semaphore, the gallery I ran at West Broadway just south of Houston Street. Always the trickster, he posed as a collector interested in acquiring a work by Robert Colescott, and it took me a while to realize it was a guise. I’d already seen Martin’s paintings hanging in Dojo’s restaurant and Eli Buck’s antique store window, and in group exhibitions on the Lower East Side. That winter, I ran into him at Danceteria, the nightclub on Forty-Third Street that, in addition to live music, hosted art shows organized by downtown curators. Since we lived a few blocks from each other, we shared a cab back to the Lower East Side, and along the way, he asked impishly if he could join my “family” as a Semaphore artist. I was elated and offered him a one-person exhibition on the spot for the following September. In the meantime, I began showing and selling some of his smaller paintings, like Chinese Laundry Sign, Silence, and For My Pito. These were vivid, magnetic works, indescribably powerful to hold in one’s hands. Unsurprisingly, they were snapped up by notable collectors, including British television entrepreneur E.J. Power, theatre impresario Michael White, Jeffrey Deitch (then art curator for Citicorp), and Bill Lieberman, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator of contemporary art. Shortly thereafter, the Met bought Martin’s celebrated collaboration with Nuyorican street poet Miguel Piñero, Attorney Street Handball Court.
Martin’s first exhibition at Semaphore was titled Paintings for the Hearing-Impaired, a comical reference to the stylized American Sign Language symbols that appeared in many of his paintings. Martin insisted on providing his own oddball press release for the exhibition. He drew the header—“Not for Immediate Release,”—in his distinctive ASL hand signs, with corresponding letters on the cuff beneath each hand. They were clustered, multi-scale characters that reminded me of cuneiform. The body of the ASL text read: “SOHO PANDEMONIUM; DEAF PICTURES SICK SECRET WORLD OF CHINESE POTATO HEAD; PANIC HITS ARTS ART MARKET ON EVE OF EXHIBITION; C U THERE!” Though absurd, it ended up being prophetic.
Nine days before his exhibition was to open, Martin participated in “The Acid Test,” curated by the artists James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook for Sensory Evolution Gallery in the East Village. Real blotter LSD was available at the opening, and Martin took three hits despite my admonition that he was “in training” for his big solo show. Aside from spilling food in his lap, he seemed fine at a post-opening dinner with Aaron “Sharp” Goodstone, Chris “Daze” Ellis, and other friends, at a Greek diner on Astor Place.
The next day, I tried to reach Martin, in vain. I wanted to let him know that the billboard advertising his show—a huge white-on-red drawing of a gun shooting a bullet bouncing off a brick heart—was up at the spot we rented on Broadway and Houston. Two days later—it was now a week before his opening—Martin called Annie Herron, the director of our newly opened Semaphore East gallery, from Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward, and told her he’d tried to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
According to his second-floor neighbor Steve, Martin had been unable to sleep after taking the LSD. After two days of sleep deprivation, he reentered a hallucinatory state. He later told me he’d begun communicating telepathically with his cat, Kitty, whom he believed held the key to the mysteries of the universe. Instructed by this four-legged seer, Martin decided to give away all the paintings in his studio. He dragged nearly a dozen canvases down six flights of stairs onto Ridge Street, where he shouted out the proverbial New York retailer’s slogan “Everything Must Go!” as he handed them to startled passersby, some of whom were not at all interested in accepting his gifts.
Luckily, unbeknownst to Martin, Steve managed to slip all but four or five of the paintings into his own apartment on the second floor. He then dutifully followed Martin all over Lower Manhattan. They took turns carrying LA2, a large painting that portrayed the teenage graffiti artist Angel Ortiz as a winged cupid. They ended up on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Martin was picked up by the police. He had already thrown his wallet and keys into the East River and they feared he was going to jump. The police drove him to Bellevue, and Steve rode along, having rolled up LA2 to fit in the trunk of the squad car.
When I visited Martin at Bellevue he seemed a bit dazed but was shuffling animatedly around the psych ward in his hospital gown as if nothing had happened. He was unofficially leading an art class in the ward and was excited to introduce me to some of his hospital mates. One of them, “Lady Pray,” was an elderly woman who was legendary for scratching “PRAY” and “GO TO CHURCH” on the metal coin boxes of pay phones throughout New York City. Before I left, I handed my business card to an intern in case Martin needed anything. The intern thought he was pretty far gone and related with amusement how he claimed to have a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was flabbergasted when I told him it was true.
There were paintings to recover, so I posted reward notices in Martin’s neighborhood, as if for some lost pet. The most memorable call I got was from a man who told me “I got the paint.” He agreed to meet me at a gas station on Houston Street. That evening in the pouring rain, I watched the man run toward the station, carrying the five-foot painting over his head like an umbrella. He had a deep knife scar from nose to cheek and sweetly told me his uncle was a “paint” too. I paid him the modest reward. The painting, a tribute to the graffiti artist Anthony “A-One” Clark, had “A One” spelled in gold-outlined American Sign Language symbols superimposed over a fortress-like brick tenement. The four hand signs were the largest I’d ever seen Martin paint, their fingernails rendered as floating brass balls. Somehow the canvas didn’t sustain any damage. It was eventually purchased by Herbert and Lenore Schorr.
The exhibition was to open in a matter of days, and I needed several paintings that were still in Martin’s apartment. Since he’d tossed his keys in the river and his landlord was unreachable, I had no option but to break in. Together with Steve, I climbed the fire escape facing Ridge Street. Like the stereotypical cat burglar, I wore a cap and black turtleneck. Fortunately, the kitchen window was unlocked. We had barely entered the flat and begun to look around when the harsh beam from a flashlight shot in from the fire escape. A policeman climbed in. He pointed a gun at us and exclaimed, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” I reflexively pulled out my driver’s license and Semaphore business card, as if I’d been pulled over for a traffic violation, explaining that I was Martin’s dealer and the artist was ensconced at Bellevue. The cop replied, “Dealer, yeah right.”
Despite the late hour, the cop had me call the hospital to verify my story. While we waited, he looked through Martin’s kitchen cabinets. Coming upon a jar of dried mushrooms, the cop claimed they were of the psychedelic variety. I asked how he could tell. As he emptied the jar into his pocket he replied that he used to take them.
I reached the hospital’s recorded message, but the cop let us go without corroborating our story. He demanded we leave immediately, warning us he’d be patrolling the area should we attempt to return. We exited through the window after him but, of course, we couldn’t lock the window from the outside. Once he drove away, we quickly climbed back in. We gathered the paintings designated for the show and lugged them downstairs to Steve’s place on the second floor. Then we ran upstairs, reentered Martin’s flat, locked the door, and climbed out the window for the second time.
Martin didn’t get to attend his opening. He was swept off to San Francisco by his parents, Florence and Ben Fie, who managed his recovery over the next month or so. Somehow, the story of the painting giveaway leaked to New York Magazine. I became concerned that potential collectors might get wind of it and hesitate to buy paintings by an artist whose sanity was in question. But the exhibition was received enthusiastically by critics and collectors alike. Several paintings from the show are now in museum collections: Stanton near Forsyth Street, 1983, is at MoMA; Sweet Oblivion, 1983, is at the Art Institute of Chicago; It’s Not What You Think, 1984, is at the Bronx Museum; and The Annunciation, 1984, is in the Syracuse University Art Collection.
Martin quickly became Semaphore’s top attraction. Having achieved star status, he was not averse to throwing his weight around. He persuaded me to offer shows to two graffiti artists he admired, Futura 2000 and Lady Pink, and to open a second gallery in the burgeoning East Village. His moods vacillated from petulance to bashfulness in the span of a few seconds, and though he often challenged what little authority I had as his dealer, he affectionately called me “Papa.” He never (to my knowledge) considered leaving Semaphore for a more prominent gallery.
My most riveting experience of Martin’s work occurred one night when I walked with him to his apartment. It was April 5, 1985, both Good Friday and Passover eve. A giant pink supermoon hovered over the brick tenements along Stanton Street, casting a reddish-orange light over everything. It was not unlike the light that glowed in Martin’s paintings. We squeezed past the strung-out junkies in the entryway and proceeded to the sixth floor. In his studio, standing out from other works stacked against the wall, was Closed, a monumental painting of a closed storefront. It was the first in a series of near-lifesize paintings of storefronts Martin had photographed along Avenue B. Spellbound by the confluence of two religious holidays, a supermoon, and a masterwork, I gazed at Closed. The gated, padlocked storefront had a cruciform composition that recalled Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black paintings, whose subliminal cross shapes optically appear after minutes of contemplation. Martin’s strategy was brilliant and simple: one painting for one store. It harked back to the texture and concept of Jasper Johns’s flag painting series, which condensed image, symbol, and painting into a single entity. Martin had zoomed in for a large-screen close-up, seating me front and center in the theater of his obsession, this time with the curtains closed.
The storefront paintings that Martin completed within a year of my visit were of a scale you could walk into, but the bodegas, Pentecostal churches, and poetry stores were inexorably closed, their identities fleeting, as stated in his idiosyncratic hand-lettered 1986 press release: “Taking down to street level this time, I wanted to focus in close on some of the endless layers of conflict that has us all bound together…. Even now it’s like the moment in these paintings never existed.”
For his third show at our short-lived palatial space at 132 Greene Street in fall 1986, Martin had us paint the high-ceilinged walls mint green, against which eight towering storefront paintings abutted each other. They stood directly on the floor to enhance the viewer’s experience of them as street-level stores and churches. The show was a tour de force, but as Martin had wryly predicted, he’d painted me a show I couldn’t sell. Unlike his preceding exhibitions which all sold out, I was only able to sell a single painting—of a barred and chain-linked window. One of the concurrent shows in New York competing with Martin’s was the antithetical four-artist exhibition at nearby Sonnabend Gallery that ushered in the “Neo-Geo” movement (short for Neo-Geometric Conceptualism) with the bright, pristine work of Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton, and Meyer Vaisman. It was a major sea change in the art world that signaled the death knell—at least for the time—of the gritty figurative painting that had dominated the early 1980s. The color brown was out, eclipsed by slick surfaces reflecting commodification. Like the closed storefronts Martin painted, Semaphore was shuttered nine months later.
Long after I’d left New York for Normal, Illinois, Martin let me know that his HIV status, which had been stable since his diagnosis in the early 1990s, had progressed into full-blown AIDS. I wrote an NEA grant to help fund a retrospective exhibition to be held at University Galleries of Illinois State University, and received a modest five thousand dollars. Unable to secure further funding for Martin’s show, I was considering dropping the idea. Luckily, Dan Cameron, then Chief Curator at the New Museum in New York, and intimately knowledgeable of Martin’s work, also wanted to put together his first retrospective. We joined forces, with me taking the lead rounding up the paintings. Among the thirty-four works included were selections from each of Martin’s three shows at Semaphore and several from his 1990s Chinatown series. Dan secured a publication agreement with Rizzoli, so we were set. The exhibition, entitled Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong, opened in New York in spring 1998.
Passing through LaGuardia Airport on my way to the opening, I happened to spot a detail of a painting by Martin reproduced on the front page of the New York Times. Headlined in the Arts section was a rave review of his exhibition by critic Holland Cotter, who had been a supporter of the work since 1984. Martin attended the reception, and this splendorous show received broad critical praise. But by the time it traveled to Normal in January 1999, he was too weak to fly out.
Living in San Francisco with his parents, Martin still maintained his Ridge Street apartment and made occasional trips to New York. The last time I saw him was in the summer of 1998 at his exhibition at PPOW Gallery, which had been handling his work after several years of representation by the seminal nonprofit space Exit Art. He was thin and wan, his voice hoarse, symptomatic of the late stages of AIDS. He died on August 12, 1999.
No account of Martin’s life would be complete without a close reading of one of his paintings. In 2017, while preparing my lecture “Martin Wong: Chains of Desire” for the Berkeley Art Museum, one of the venues for his second traveling retrospective, I discovered the mythological source for his large, multi-figural 1985 painting, Down for the Count. The action takes place in a shallow proscenium with a chain-link fence as backdrop. It features a triumphant boxer with upstretched arms being hugged by a child, and two kneeling firemen, one on either side, cradling the victor’s unconscious contender. But the references to Renaissance imagery of the dead Christ flanked by kneeling saints, or to the surrendering peasant with outstretched arms in Goya’s Third of May, 1808, are just surface cues.
Rereading Martin’s “Artist Statement for a Picture Show” for his exhibition at Semaphore East, I paused on a sentence that directly refers to Down for the Count: “Always lock-in, always lock-out, it is only when we go down for the final count that the two twin firemen (Hypnos and Thanatos) come to reclaim their own, for only in sleep are we all equal.” I’d read Homer’s Iliad as a teenager and recalled the twin brothers Hypnos and Thanatos (“sleep” and “death” respectively); when I googled them, an image popped up of a sixth-century B.C. Attic red-figure vase by Euphronius. It depicts Thanatos and Hypnos carrying the fatally wounded Sarpedon from the battlefield at Troy.
Down for the Count is a compositionally faithful reinterpretation of this ancient vase. The firemen’s air tanks take the place of the twin gods’wings, fire helmets substitute for war helmets, the boxing champ is the messenger god Hermes, and the unconscious fighter is the blood-spouting warrior Sarpedon about to be shepherded to the underworld. Martin compressed multiple eras of art into a latter-day history painting whose themes—succor, confinement, and death instinct, à la Freud—uncovered existential territory that few of his artist peers had explored. Curiously enough, the Greek vase had been in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum when Martin worked there as a bookstore clerk, devouring art books while imprinting myriad paintings and sculptures into his “Human Instamatic” mind.