“Basically everything I paint is in my immediate neighborhood, where I ended up,” Martin Wong said in a lecture in 1991. “So, people assume that I’m a local New York painter, but really I’m from San Francisco.”
That could also more or less be the thesis of Martin Wong: Painting is Forbidden, currently up (through April 18) at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco. Organized by members of the Curatorial Practice program at the California College of the Arts, the modest but wide-ranging show brings together some 150 pieces, both works by the artist and previously unseen ephemera. It shows an overlooked side of a major figure, but also, through his story, offers a glimpse of the now-passed creative world of 1960s and 70s counterculture that formed him.
These days, Wong has a kind mythic cachet, connected to his life “where he ended up,” that is, the Lower East Side in its gritty-glamorous ’70s and ’80s phase (a few years after that talk at the San Francisco Art Institute, Wong returned home to the Bay Area, where he would die of an AIDS-related illness in 1999). He amassed one of the great collections of classic New York graffiti art, which was displayed at the Museum of the City of New York’s City as Canvas show this past year, and is burned into the memory of the era through his defiantly colorful, cowboy-hatted persona.
Artistically, Wong’s paintings cast a long shadow over everything else (a selection was featured as part of the show-within-a-show at the Whitney Biennial last year). His self-taught but savvy style channels the look of urban folk art, with his own quirky set of leitmotifs: desolate landscapes of brick walls and chain link fences that evoke the era’s disarray; rows of cartoon hands spelling out phrases in American sign language; kissing firemen; images of, or inspired by, the life and art of Miguel Piñero, the playwright and founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, as well as Wong’s lover and sometimes collaborator.
The Wattis show, sadly, does not give a true sense of Wong’s abilities as a painter. It features only one canvas, the large diptych Sweet ‘Enuff(1988), on loan from the de Young Museum. On the left panel, a pair of firemen observe a man, collapsed or asleep, hunched over a boombox. In the facing panel, three youths are suspended in the air in a heroic moment of skateboarding derring-do, sailing improbably towards freedom over the crest of a barbed-wire fence. At the top of the canvas is one of Wong’s classic romantic touches: the sky is webbed with gold, forming the outlines of hands spelling out the painting’s title in sign language, and tracing the constellations in the sky, each of them labeled – Leo, Virgo, Ursa Major.
Most of the Wattis show is dedicated to Wong’s more peripheral material, much of it from before he moved to New York in 1978: small early ceramics, some of angels and monsters, from his student days at Humboldt State University in Eureka, California; sketchbook pages; and a large selection of scroll-like text paintings rendering his febrile poems in dense, spidery calligraphy. The text paintings capture a very characteristic tension in Wong’s whole artistic approach: his writing radiates passionate and urgent need to say something; but the stylized-to-the-point-of illegibility style puts up a barrier, making that something hard to access.