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Guide to the Martin Wong Papers
ca. 1982-1999
 MSS 102

Fales Library and Special Collections
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012
Phone: (212) 998-2596

Fales Library and Special Collections

Collection processed by Jenny Hillyer, 2001. Updated by Joseph Gallucci 2007. Accretion processed by Colin Wells, 2009.

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on June 25, 2015
Description is in English.

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 a legitimate art form in the 1980's and 1990's. Wong was a respected and prolific painter in New York's downtown art scene in the 1980's. In addition, Wong cultivated both working and personal relationships with graffiti artists and enthusiasts.

Born Martin Victor Wong (although he sometimes playfully lists 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 1970's, but focused almost exclusively on painting after moving to New York in the early 1980's.

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 such spray-can virtuosos as "Daze" (Chris Ellis), "Lee," "Laroc," and "LA2," 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 Wong Fie, and his "Aunt Nora" (a.k.a. Aunt Ellie), Eleanora Tam. In artistic terms, one of Wong's most significant relationships was that shared with poet and playwright Miguel Pinero, whom Wong met in 1982. Affectionately referred to by Wong as both "Mikey" and "Mickey," Pinero was considered "Loisaida's reigning outlaw poet" (Sweet Oblivion, 35). A some-time roommate of Wong's, Pinero collaborated with Wong on such paintings as "Attorney Street Handball Court" (1982-84) and "Little Got Rained On" (1983). Pinero's text was incorporated into the paintings such that Wong's imagery serves as evocative illustration. Pinero also appears not infrequently in Wong's paintings as subject - "Portrait of Pinero" (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 a formidable arsenal of 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)