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Guide to the Martin Wong Papers MSS.102


Fales Library and Special Collections

Collection processed by Jenny Hillyer. Updated by Joseph Gallucci, 2007. Accretion processed by Colin Wells, 2009.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on December 10, 2021
Description is in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Finding aid was updated by Anna Björnsson McCormick to enhance description of Sign Language artworks Finding aid updated by Weatherly Stephan to reflect preservation rehousing of oversize material and reintegration of oversize series. Finding aid updated by Weatherly Stephan to clarify relationship with Miguel Piñero in biographical note  , September 2020 , February 2021 , December 2021

Biographical Note

Martin Wong is known for his paintings of gritty cityscapes, including New York's Chinatown and Lower East Side, and for championing graffiti as a legitimate art form in the 1980s and 1990s. Wong was a respected and prolific painter in New York's downtown art scene in the 1980s. In addition, Wong cultivated both working and personal relationships with graffiti artists and enthusiasts.

Born Martin Victor Wong (although sometimes playfully listed himself as "Martin Genghis Wong") in Portland, OR, on July 11, 1946, Wong was raised by his Chinese-American parents in San Francisco. He graduated from George Washington High School in 1964. Wong was involved in performance art in the 1970s, but focused almost exclusively on painting after moving to New York in the early 1980s.

In addition to his painting, Wong experimented with poetry and prose, much of which he recorded on long paper scrolls. Highly anecdotal and semi-autobiographical, Wong's writing features an exuberant and fanciful stream-of-consciousness style.

Fascinated by New York's renegade graffiti artists, Wong befriended "Daze" (Chris Ellis), "Lee" (Lee Quiñones), "Laroc" and "LA2" (Angel Ortiz) among others. Wong forged a particularly strong and enduring friendship with Daze, and helped publicize his work, as well as the work of other graffiti artists, in exhibitions and through the Museum of American Graffiti. This grassroots institution was devised to showcase the vibrant panoply of contemporary graffiti art.

Wong's circle also included arts journalist Theresa Herron, Steve Hernandez, "Magic Sam," artist John Ahearn, "Lady" Joyce Ryan, Barry Blinderman, and Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington of the PPOW gallery. Also significant in Wong's life were his mother, Mrs. Benjamin (Florence) Wong Fie, and his "Aunt Nora" (a.k.a. Aunt Ellie), Eleanora Tam. Wong's romantic relationship with poet and playwright Miguel Piñero, whom Wong met in 1982, also had a significant impact on his work, as they collaborated artistically throughout the 1980s. Affectionately referred to by Wong as both "Mikey" and "Mickey," Piñero was considered "Loisaida's reigning outlaw poet" (Sweet Oblivion, 35). Piñero collaborated with Wong on such paintings as "Attorney Street Handball Court" (1982-84) and "Little Got Rained On" (1983). Piñero's text was incorporated into the paintings such that Wong's imagery serves as evocative illustration. Piñero also appears in Wong's paintings as subject - "Portrait of Piñero" (1982), "Penitentiary Fox" (1988), "La Vida" (1988) - where he is typically depicted reading or writing.

In the span of a decade, Wong achieved considerable recognition and success, with solo and group exhibitions to his credit. Wong is most closely associated with downtown galleries Semaphore, Exit Art, and PPOW, but his work has also appeared at such venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the New-York Historical Society. Wong died in 1999, after a protracted battle with AIDS.

Sources/Related Material:

The Clones of Bruce Lee [videorecording]: the art of Martin Wong. (New York: Pow Wow Productions, 1995)  Martin Wong [videorecording]. (New York: Pow Wow Productions, c1998)  Sweet Oblivion: the urban landscape of Martin Wong. (New York: Rizzoli Books, c1998)