– 1989 Martin Wong: Interview with Margo Machida

Ukrainian National Home restaurant, East Village, New York City, November 7, 1989[1]

© 2021 Margo Machida


MW = Martin Wong MM = Margo Machida

Tape 1, Side A

[Music playing in background.]

MW: I think you should try to get Dong Kingman for the study. He was really famous in San Francisco when I was a kid and he was one of my role models. And then I heard he moved away and he was teaching at Columbia or something.[2] I really liked his lesser-known work, the stuff he was doing in the thirties and forties.

MM: What was he doing?

MW: His later stuff was quick and impressionistic, the early stuff looked more like WPA paintings of Chinatown. They were much more solid and gritty looking. I think he’s the first Chinese American painter to get anywhere in the United States too. People kind of forget Dong Kingman right now because social realism itself is so out of fashion. I think at least for me he was a very important influence.

MM: So you’re from San Francisco?

MW: Yeah. Were you there for the [October 17, 1989] earthquake? [MM nods her head.] Wow. [Some discussion about the earthquake.]

MM: Are you from the Chinatown there?

MW: I grew up right near Chinatown in Little Italy. I don’t know why the Italian district is always right next to Chinatown. I think because they’re both not quite white [Laughs.] Italians imagine that they are.

MM: I was talking to this artist Al Wong—

MW: Is he the guy who did the film on the nightclub scene, the Forbidden City in San Francisco?

MM: No, that’s Arthur Dong.[3]

MW: My aunt [Nora] is in the film.[4] She was a chorus girl in the Forbidden City and she was the emcee at Kublai Khan [Theater Restaurant, ca. 1940s] … [S]he was gorgeous. She married rich after she was sixty . . . She [met this] big realtor in Honolulu . . . they had this wild whirlwind romance and he took her to Hawai`i and they got married. So she’s living in Kahala on this estate. She came out for the San Francisco premiere. She says it’ll be a big reunion.

MM: Call [New York] Chinatown History Project; they’re going to be screening it at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology].

MW: I wonder if she’ll come out. She starts singing at the drop of a hat, she’ll grab the mike and start singing….

[Pause in interview.]

MM: How old are you?

MW: Forty-three [b. 1946].

MM: How did you get interested in doing art? People say you were self-taught as a painter.

MW: Oh I had training along the way. I took drawing from [Dorr] Bothwell at Mendocino Art Center when I was about sixteen or seventeen. She advertised that she could teach anybody how to draw for fifty-five dollars and I think her classes were always about twenty people. And she would literally teach everybody in the class how to draw. All you had to do was do it by the clock. She’d set up a clock and we’d just have to keep doing the exercise for three hours. She was tattooed from here to here [Martin gestures.] with Maori tattoos, she was about ninety years old. At the time she was eighty or eighty-five but she’s probably pushing one hundred now.

MM: Did she set up still lifes?

MW: No, it was this really simple Nicolaïdes contour drawing method.[5] Basically you turn into a human camera.

MM: Did you draw on your own before then?

MW: Everybody drew, so I just never really stopped. I’ve taken some painting classes, Larry Gray at Humboldt State College. And ceramics. Actually I use a lot of what I learned in ceramics, it’s the same minerals that are in a lot of the glazes. It’s like cobalt will always be blue even if it goes through a fire. The same thing that makes a brick red is the same pigment I use in my paint, red iron oxide.

MM: So [now] you use all acrylics?

MW: Yeah.

MM: When were you taking ceramics?

MW: Oh, hippie days. The sixties.

MM: Where is Humboldt?

MW: Three hundred miles north of San Francisco on the Coast. It’s [about] seventeen miles north of Eureka. And I lived in Eureka for a long time, it was a little lumbering and fishing town. Salmon fishing, redwood trees. Also marijuana I heard.

MM: When did you come to New York?

MW: 1978, just for a vacation. But I liked it so much I stayed. The first day in New York I found a hotel room in a waterfront hotel [Meyer’s Hotel] and I stayed in that hotel for three years. I became the night watchman. It was great. It looked just like a Humphrey Bogart movie.

MM: Did you come because of the art scene?

MW: I was curious about it because I had my own little business out in Eureka after awhile. I had a portrait drawing business, I was partners in a jewelry shop, I sold fake turquoise and silver Indian jewelry, copper cookware, Victorian antiques, crafts.

MM: How did the works you became known for here [in New York] evolve?

MW: When I was in Eureka I used to paint Eureka subject matter. I was down on the docks so I used to paint the fishing boats and just things from my own neighborhood. And I became very popular in Eureka because I was always painting local scenes. So I guess once I came to New York it was the same thing, I would just start painting the scenes I saw in my immediate neighborhood.

MM: So when did you move to the Lower East Side?

MW: December 1980, spring of 1981.[6] That’s when I met Piñero and everybody. That’s pretty much exactly when I started painting tenements. Miguel Piñero was a pretty big influence on the Lower East Side painting scene.

MM: I know him as a playwright, from his play Short Eyes [1974].[7]

MW: Yeah. It’s like the painting of Attorney Street [Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero), 1982–84] is kind of a collaboration. He chose the site. Basically he couldn’t paint but he wanted to do a painting. So he chose the site for specific reasons of his own and then he had me do the painting and then he wrote the poem for the sky. People used to wonder how come I chose the Attorney Street handball court versus anyplace else. And it was because this kid he was hanging out with, he was just starting out to do graffiti, he was really obscure like most graffiti artists have never heard of him. His name was Ivan Torres [aka Little Ivan]. So it just happened that he had done a couple of tags of the handball court, he got Piñero up, he used to write ʻPapo’ which was like Piñero.[8] So he [Piñero] chose the site for basically sentimental reasons. And I was actually supposed to paint him and his friends in the foreground and I finished the scene and was ready to do the portraits, he left for L.A. So then I filled up the side where he was supposed to be.

MM: How did you meet Piñero?

MW: At the Crime Show at ABC No Rio. It was curated by John Spencer. That was the first show I was ever in, I can’t remember if it was ʻ82 or ʻ83. It might have been ʻ81.

MM: You said Piñero had a really strong influence on painters and artists in the neighborhood. What was the influence for you?

MW: He got me into really painting the neighborhood. He would get me all psyched up, the neighborhood was much more radical then than it is now. There were all these abandoned buildings and empty lots full of burning automobiles. Somehow he made it seem like a more charged up kind of a place, he would be wandering through these places at night. I saw all these things I thought would make great paintings. Now if I tried to see the neighborhood like that it’s more like nostalgia because it’s just not like that anymore. It’s fenced off, a lot of the buildings have been renovated.

MM: What period was it when you worked closely with Piñero?

MW: It’s funny. Even a lot of his [Piñeroʻs] friends just assumed we’d been friends for years and years. I think we were only really close for about a year right around ʻ81 when I was working on the painting. After that I would see him in the street and we would always be really friendly or I’d go to his poetry readings but it was most intense right when we were working on the painting.

MM: Which piece was that?

MW: Attorney Street Handball Court. I think that’s about it. Some of the other ones were inspired by his plays, like the one of Cupcake and Paco was actually a scene from one of his plays. In fact most of the jail paintings were inspired by his plays, like the last one, the oil piece I did. The people inside were the original cast that he wrote the play for in Sing Sing, for [Marvin] Felix Camillo’s drama class.

He left me most of his manuscripts and photo memorabilia so I just did it from photographs. And I used, for a base, for a composition I used a drawing by James Rivera. So I didn’t actually go to the jail; it was kind of a folk art jail with a photomontage of the original cast. That’s why I tried to make it look kind of like a folk painting built with real bricks rather than paint. Instead of real people I tried to make it look like bad photomontage, a faded photograph cut out of a scrapbook and pasted onto the painting.

MM: Are you [also] influenced by the Mexican retablos?

MW: Like I said, my main influence is probably social realist paintings from the thirties and forties that includes Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo.

MM: How did you come across those works? Just looking at a lot of art and self-educating?

MW: San Francisco. There just happens to be a lot of that stuff left from the WPA [Works Progress Administration] period.[9] I guess here you see that [work] at Rockefeller Center and places like that, the Customs House. San Francisco, like my junior high school had a lot of WPA murals in it, my high school had a lot of them.[10] The Beach Chalet murals [were] a masterpiece, I think Lucien Labaudt. And Coit Tower, people remember it as a monument but it’s got these incredible murals inside. The pavilion surrounding it was all WPA murals. Also a lot of the post offices in San Francisco still have WPA murals.

MM: Did you make any trips to see the Mexican murals?

MW: Yeah. The Museo Tamayo had me down as a guest for four days.[11] You hear about Diego Rivera but you don’t know until you see the murals. It’s just awesome. Things like that can never travel. Let’s say in the history of twentieth century art, he’s kind of considered this offshoot because his masterpieces can’t travel. You actually have to go to the presidential palace.[12]

What I like about him and Dong Kingman and people like that is they draw on their own, [that’s] what makes them different. The whole thing about contemporary art, it’s like having to come up with a corporate international style. I guess Mondrian was the guy who came up with the "look." Everybody else just copies him. I’m more interested in the side roads, what makes people different rather than all the same.

[Pause to order dinner.]

I have a whole body of Chinatown paintings that nobody knows about, I just haven’t shown them yet. I still work on them too.

MM: New York Chinatown?

MW: San Francisco Chinatown. It’s funny, even my parents tried to discourage me from showing them. Because they’d rather I get established just as a painter because they’re afraid that if the first thing I busted out with is Chinatown paintings, people wouldn’t allow me to do anything else.

MM: You mean, stereotyping your style?

MW: Yeah. You know every time I do a show, I say OK the next one’s going to be the Chinatown show. But I’ve still been coming up with more, just when I thought I’d totally exhausted the Lower East Side I’d just get a whole bunch of new ideas.

MM: What were you painting in Chinatown? When were you doing this work?

MW: The same time I was painting the Lower East Side. It’s a parallel body of work I just haven’t shown.

MM: The mid-eighties? Are you working from photographs?

MW: Yeah, like now. Most of the Chinatown things are from sources because I’m not really painting the Chinatown we know now. It’s like the Chinatown of my parents or my aunt. The forties. Or the Chinatown I just barely remember from when I was a kid.

MM: Do you also draw from memory?

MW: Oh, I have a whole suitcase full of old sources. Including my parents’ photo albums, everything. I’ve been collecting that stuff for years. Nobody really brings me that stuff because nobody knows I’m really painting Chinatown.

The weird thing is, when I paint the Lower East Side it’s like something totally artless. What I’m doing, there’s no real art involved, it’s just the way I live or the people I know. It’s weird because I can’t speak Chinese but I paint Chinatown, it is almost like a tourist idea. It’s just I remember more than say, an average tourist would because I have the experience of growing up near there. My view of Chinatown is more like an outsider’s view, whereas my view of the East Village, even though I’m not Puerto Rican, is more of my own view.

MM: Because you’re really living there.

MW: Yeah.

MM: I was struck in your paintings of the Lower East Side that there aren’t many Asians there except for the laundries and groceries.

MW: The Chinese laundries in the Sunset Park [Brooklyn, New York] series were tiny paintings, they were only 18 inches tall. The Chinese laundry paintings were four feet tall.

MM: Were they from the Lower East Side?

MW: Yeah. One of the laundries was on [East] Fifth Street and the other was Harry Chong’s on Charles Street.[13] I couldn’t get Harry Chong to pose so I went in and while he was telling me no when I asked if I could take his picture, I memorized him with his glasses and everything.

MM: So you were saying that when you use Asian subject matter, it’s with a touristic kind of view?

MW: Yeah. Well, for me the laundry is more—that really is basic to me because my uncle owned a laundry. I think Bob Lee’s parents owned a laundry.[14] It’s something, people laugh at the Chinese laundry, they think it’s a cultural cliché or something, but that’s literally the way, that was and still is a very real lifestyle … In fact, as far as being politically involved, the New York Chinese Hand Laundry Association [Alliance] has quite a history of not only being persecuted during the McCarthy era because they tried to get away, like the Mafia owned the laundry plants at the time. And they tried to form their own cooperatives … But because they called it a cooperative McCarthy claimed it was a communist conspiracy and jailed a couple of people, heads of the laundry association. Here’s the upshot: his charges weren’t totally unfounded because I have a picture in a history book where they really had donated an ambulance to Mao Tse-tung. It was during the Second World War, it was just part of the war effort because they were fighting the Japanese. There is a picture of Zhou Enlai and a bunch of people posed next to an ambulance saying "gift of the New York Chinese Hand Laundry Association" [Alliance]. So there was a connection there.[15]

MM: [Returning to what you earlier mentioned about your background:] In your household then, no one spoke Chinese at all? What generation are you from?

MW: I’m third generation, so my father doesn’t even speak Chinese. My mother does because she was sent back to China even though she was born in Portland. So actually both my grandfathers were in the Wild West when it was really wild. The grandfather on my father’s side started out as a cook in a Chinese goldmine in Arizona and he ended up owning a gambling casino in Phoenix. On my mother’s side there was a goldsmith, my grandfather was a goldsmith and he’s the one who went back to China after he made a certain amount of money and I think he opened up a [?] and bought a lot of property in downtown Canton which they just gave back recently. It was weird, one Christmas they sent a whole packet of deeds back to my mother. They said they gave us the property back but it was a more or less symbolic gesture. You can’t raise the rents on people, everybody’s paying three dollars a month rent. The buildings haven’t been fixed up in twenty-five years, they were like falling down. And then right after they gave us the property back, the government tore down the buildings to put up an apartment block and so basically what that means is we own an apartment building, I mean an apartment in the building where our property was to be. So we have a one-room apartment in Canton. [Laughs.]

MM: Do you have siblings—brothers and sisters?

MW: No.

MM: An "only."

MW: Yeah, a monster. [Laughs.] The whole next coming generation in China is going to be only children.

MM: So although you’ve been working with the Chinatown series, it’s stuff from memory and photographs—

MW: It’s specifically, most of the scenes are specifically, the streets are San Francisco Chinatown. The laundries I’ve done are always New York laundries.

MM: So is it a memorializing thing, to do scenes from your neighborhood? Why do you choose that kind of subject matter?

MW: It’s just straight documentation, like topographical painting. That’s the type of painting where whether or not it has any artistic value it’s always remembered because this is what Capetown, South Africa looked like in 1903, or this is what San Francisco looked like in 1840. If it becomes art then it’s like Canaletto [Giovanni Antonio Canal, Venetian painter, 1697–1768] or something. To me, topographical painting, you really can’t miss because if you don’t make it in the regular art world, it’s still always remembered for what it depicts.

MM: Is that how you consider your work?

MW: Yeah, topographical.

MM: Also in a social realist vein?

MW: Yeah.

MM: I was reading John Yau’s essay about your work in the Exit Art catalogue and he referred to the fact that you were rejecting [mainstream] art subject matter in favor of portraying an [urban] underclass of Blacks and Latinos as a conscious choice. Is this true?[16]

MW: Yeah, I would say. I was just never that attracted to formalism. I like looking at, when I look at a really great piece of Minimal art it gives me a feeling of calm and everything. But I never had any real ambition to do that kind of art. The same thing, I can look at a Jackson Pollock and I know it’s great but I don’t know, I don’t feel like being biblical. That kind of stuff, it was done once, Mondrian did a Mondrian. If I tried to do Mondrian I’d be like being Peter Halley or something like that. There was a specific moment, that feeling you could come up with an international style. I think it was when they thought technology was really going to make a certain kind of a world culture but I think now as everybody’s acquired their computers and their cars and whatever they need, they feel more of a need to become themselves again. The most glaring example is with the Islamic republic. They have all the money, they have whatever they need but they don't want to become Western. They want to reassert what makes them themselves. So I mean . . . I don’t feel like part of the corporate world. My parents were part of that for a while, because they worked for Bechtel.

MM: What did they do?

MW: They were industrial designers. Nuclear [indistinct] [Laughs.]

MM: Is that what both of them were doing?

MW: Yeah. Were. My mom used to do cooling systems for oil refineries and I think she designed for a couple of nuclear power plants. She also designed the cooling system for Vandenberg missile launching pad.

MM: So your father also did design work?

MW: No, I think he was mostly into drafting. My mom was actually the designer.

MM: So when you became an artist, was that a big blow to them?

MW: Not really. I mean they kind of wanted me to work for Bechtel but when I decided to become an artist my mom’s attitude was, you’re lucky you became an artist because if you had gone to work for Bechtel you probably would have been laid off. Because after I decided to become an artist there was a big oil crunch and they laid off a lot of people from a lot of those places.

MM: So this was not a big source of conflict.

MW: I think they understood from the beginning I was really lousy at math so I couldn’t have become an engineer. Since they were making their living with a pencil basically, I think they kind of understood I was still making a living with a pencil. Later my mom told me her father really wanted her to be an artist but she couldn’t because of the war. In a way, the family’s already kind of artistically inclined anyway.

MM: When you were growing up did they take you to art shows?

MW: Oh, yeah. All the time. The de Young Museum. In fact I not only used to go to the de Young Museum, that’s the first museum I exhibited in. I was in the children’s art show when I was seven, so that made a lasting impression! I was seven years old, I saw my picture on the museum wall, I said great, I’m going to do it again.[17] And I did because when I was about eighteen or twenty I got a ceramic in the de Young Museum also. I won an award, a Western Ceramic Society award, I did these love letter incinerators. It’s kind of like Giger [Swiss artist H. R. Giger, 1940–2014], these kind of weird creepy science fiction kind of gnarly imagery. I used to do these functioning love letter incinerators, they looked like space creatures but with hinged doors in their stomachs to put the love letter in. I’d burn it and it would come out the chimney, like three eyes in the top. [PAUSE.]

MM: So do you feel that in growing up you had any personal identification with Chinese-ness or Asian American-ness?

MW: I still feel that’s a definite part of myself that’s different from other people. In a way I feel kind of guilty because it’s not as much a part of me as it should be. I mean, I don’t speak Chinese.

MM: Yet I think conceptions of Asian American identity are changing. There is no one identity, no one way to be Asian American.

MW: Yeah, besides there are so many Chinese that don’t speak Chinese. It’s kind of like, a lot of times I feel not really part of something, then I realize that, what I think is unusual to myself is common to other Chinese Americans my own age.

MM: Of a certain generation.

MW: Yeah.

MM: I think a lot of people from our generation are trying to figure out what role their Asian American identity plays in their life.

MW: Like I say, chop suey’s as American as pizza, so ... It’s kind of weird because I grew up in Little Italy and sometimes I feel almost as much Italian as Chinese. The part of Little Italy I grew up in is part of Chinatown now. It’s totally Chinese.

MM: This artist was telling me about growing up in San Francisco and all the rivalries between different Chinese gangs.

MW: Oh yeah, Wah Ching and Flying Dragons and all that stuff.

MM: He was a gang kid and—

MW: I just barely missed out on that. That was my generation but my parents moved out to the Avenues before I got to the age where I would have been involved in gangs.

MM: Where did they move to?

MW: Ewing Terrace. It was overlooking the Haight-Ashbury. They thought they’d move into a nice neighborhood; it turned out it was just a few blocks from the Haight-Ashbury. So I feel as much a hippie as a Chinese American. I hate to say it, because I’m really anti-drug now. I think a lot of how I see things has been altered by the fact I took a lot of LSD when I was a teenager.

MM: How so?

MW: It’s just so visual, what you see, there’s no way it can’t alter how you see things.

MM: I think with our generation it certainly was a different vision of life, where so many people thought the Woodstock generation was going to take over.

MW: They just got their credit cards and changed their attitudes, that’s all. I was really into, I lived in a bunch of communes and I was part of the Angels of Light, did you ever hear of that? The Cockettes and the Angels of Light? They were kind of a gay Communist street theatre or something like that. About half of them were drag queens and the others were escapees from nut houses in the Midwest. All the kids who came to San Francisco who heard of the Haight-Ashbury but got there too late. It had been over for a couple of years. So sometimes when people try to recreate something they weren’t part of, it becomes more excessive than it actually was. Like I remember ’67 but to me it was much wilder in ’72.

MM: What were the Angels of Light into?

MW: We were into not only free theatre but free everything, free society, there was about one hundred and fifty communes that used to try to form their own society where they could live without money and create their own culture. And even though it was kind of like utopian, it was like fun. We used to do all these extravaganzas on very little notice, but we would try to make them really spectacular. A lot of them would be made from stuff we’d find in the garbage, on the streets, we’d put glitter on everything. Just really wild. Like all these guys with beards would imagine they were Hollywood vamps from the ’30s. And they would think they were doing Marlene Dietrich impersonations, but if you didn’t know what they were doing, you’d look at them and think they were impersonating [ ] or something.

MM: So when you came to New York, did you try to connect to a similar scene here?

MW: When I came to New York it was the total opposite. It was like a cleansing of vision. In California I thought I was living more in sort of a weird fantasyland. And all of a sudden I just came to New York and realized it was just the dirty nitty gritty. [Tape ends.]

Tape 1, Side B

MW: When I came to New York, pattern decoration was a big thing. You’d go to Holly Solomon [Gallery, active 1975–99], and you’d see people using glitter in their work. After using glitter for more like a liturgical thing, kind of as an offering, the way we were using it was for the true illusion of it. To us the glitter—maybe because we were nearsighted or really stoned or something—looked like real gems. To see people just using it in kind of a cheap way just turned me off towards it so I had no desire to use glitter or even wild colors. Purple was one of my favorite colors, but after seeing how people were kind of throwing colors like that around in New York, I just had no desire to use them. So I went the exact opposite, I tried to pare everything down to just total artlessness, just brick, a chain link fence, just concrete. Just get back down to subject matter with no real artistic content or motifs visible.

To me, a lot of the motifs when you see the Chinese things or Balinese, you think of it as like Balinese patterning whereas they just drew it out of their natural forms that they were surrounded with. When you look at Picasso’s Cubism you think of it as an artistic style but I think when he created it, or Braque, they were mostly drawing it out of their direct experience rather than an artistic motif. Like I saw a photograph of Picasso’s dog in front of an open window, this old studio in Paris. And the window looked just like a Cubist sculpture, the tile rooftops and the chimneys, it looked just like one of the Cubist paintings. And I was kind of surprised nobody’s ever commented on it. And those chimneys do almost look like people, I think he made that connection just looking out of the attic window. So I just determined everything I use in my paintings, or at least the Lower East Side paintings, would be things I actually saw rather than something I had picked up from something I’d read, from an art source. Just something, just directly what I saw. If I made anything out of it, it would be directly inspired from the street.

MM: What series are you working on? When I saw your show at Exit Art, I saw the huge paintings that were just bricks in elaborate frames. What did those works mean for you?

MW: On one level, when you go down Clinton Street, because I’m kind of fascinated by Versailles and all that kind of stuff. I also found most Orientals are [?] and the Japanese, they have that pavilion in the park where they all used to dress up like French people in the 1860s, the Meiji period. So you go down Clinton Street and you look in those furniture stores, there’s all that plastic Louis XIV, I always call it Louis the XIVth Street, that look. It’s kind of a humorous playoff on that. But in a way, this is the part I don’t really feel comfortable with. A little bit was a comment on that neo-geo [art movement of the 1980s] stuff that was happening at the time, and that’s as close to really commenting on the art world as I’ll ever get. I’ve kind of moved away from that into just more representational stuff again.

MM: In what way was it a comment on neo-geo?

MW: You know, minimalism and all that stuff. I just felt I was slightly knocked off line for a little while by stuff that had happened in the art world. Whereas now I’m like back on track, specifically just painting people and cityscapes again. Still the Lower East Side. But having exhausted all the tenements, I’m getting off into this kind of—I don’t know what it’s called. Not surrealist, like I did a couple of paintings, like I did the Statue of Liberty like it was made out of brick. Did Popeye made out of brick. This big tree trunk out of brick, really gnarly. I’m just getting into making things out of brick. But still placing them in the tenements with the fences and everything.[18]

MM: Does Exit Art represent you?

MW: They do. Surprisingly they’ve been making sales and everything. I like being with them because I don’t feel pressured by sales or anything. I feel the art world right now is a little bit unfriendly to what I’m doing, so I feel in the meantime I feel really relaxed being with Exit because they accept the imagery that I’m doing and they don’t pressure me to make sales because they’re nonprofit. Surprisingly they can make sales anyway. Like they sold a painting of mine for $25,000.

MM: So you’re able to survive by sales.

MW: Yeah. All I have to do is paint.

MM: That’s the artistic ideal! I had wondered what happened to you after Semaphore closed. That really affected a lot of artists’ careers. Do you know [artist]?

MW: Yeah, I don’t know what happened to him. Actually he’s one reason that I like to paint laundries, I think it was to goad him once. Even though we were in the same gallery, I always tried to be friendly to him and he was always like very standoffish to me, he always made out like he was from the palace or something. I really wanted to play up my thing from the laundry. [Laughs.] I think the next one (show at Exit Art) I’m really going to try to do an installation too, to take advantage of the full space.

MM: [Pointing to a slide sheet that Wong brought to the interview.] I wanted to ask you about one of these pieces, this Chinatown triptych.

MW: Oh yeah, that’s one of my Chinatown paintings.

MM: That picture in the center, that’s your parents?

MW: Yeah, my parents nude over Chinatown. You know how Whistler did his mom, I decided to do my parents. I didn’t really tell my mother I was going to do this, she didn’t really know about it. One time she was out visiting me and I think they were having some kind of benefit at the cultural center [Asian American Arts Centre in Chinatown] and they were flashing slides in the dance room and she went to use the bathroom. She was walking across that room to go to the bathroom and they flash the thing of her and Pop nude over Chinatown. She turned right around and walked out and said Martin, what’s that? [Laughs.]

MM: When I saw the painting, I thought it was totally different subject matter from other work I’d seen.

MW: I painted that the exact same year as Attorney Street Handball Court [full title, Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero), 1982–84]. They’re both oil paintings, that’s before I got into acrylic. Another reason I’m kind of holding back on the Chinatown paintings, it’s a more involved technique, what I want to do. Basically I’ve been waiting until I develop enough acrylic technique to be able to execute the paintings not in a Western style but an Eastern style. Like when people think of colors, full color paintings, they think of oil paintings like impressionism or old master paintings. But I want to do the kind of color that was truly Eastern, like water base color with gilding, like you see in the Tibetan thangkas [Buddhist paintings on unframed textiles, aka tankas], Chinese folk painting, like they would do the temples, but it wasn’t even considered art by the literati. Because you read a lot about these landscape painters of the Sung dynasty [860–1279] where they’re into their own kind of refined vision and sometimes they talk about the Buddhist paintings at the temple as just not being art, beneath their contempt as far as human production. I mean they were Buddhists but as painting they just considered it some kind of weird folk art, not painting. That’s the kind of technique I want to be able to pick up. When I paint I don’t want it to look like paint, I want it to look like real brick or real chain link fence. So when I paint the Chinatown paintings it’s not that I want it to look like paint, or even what the subject is, I want it to look like minerals. Like when you look at the Buddhist painting at the Sackler wing at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art], if you look closely you can see the paint recrystallizing back to minerals. Like the green is turning back into malachite.

MM: So is it like the Dunhuang [Buddhist] cave paintings [in China]?

MW: More degenerate. Maybe more from nineteenth century Tibetan thangkas, not fifteenth century but nineteenth century, just regular old—also I want to make references to the first real contact with Western painting was through the court of [Chinese Emperor] Qianlong [reigned from 1735 to 1796]. Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766) was an [Italian] Jesuit priest and he became Emperor Qianlong’s favorite court painter. He was almost like a Norman Rockwell Chinese-style. I like a little bit of that reference, but there was a more basic, the other influence with the West happened in Canton near where I’m from a little bit later with [George] Chinnery. Do you know about Chinnery the English painter [1774–1852]? He was a portrait painter who used to go over to other colonies like India and do portraits of all the local colonials in oils for one hundred dollars. He had a houseboy in Canton named Lamqua. I’m not sure it was Lamqua. There was Lamqua, Houqua, and Youqua, but I think it was Lamqua. His houseboy, he trained him to be a studio assistant after a while to help him out. As soon as Lamqua learned his technique he broke away and formed a painting factory and did a cut-rate; he would do everybody’s portrait for twenty dollars and then he drove Chinnery out of business and Chinnery had to leave.[19] So Lamqua trained I think Houqua and Youqua and the three of them became the, established big portrait painting factories.[20] You know all those views of Canton from the river and everything, those are all from those factories. Those oil paintings of pretty maids sitting in a garden, those are all from those painting factories.

But there was an added twist. Because Lamqua could speak English he eventually became the comprador for Jardine Matheson [& Co.]; I think the three of them became really big time merchants and Lamqua eventually became like the richest person in China. Because the law was, you couldn’t have direct trade with the interior if you were a foreigner, you had to do it through a comprador. So he became the agent for all the trade that was going on with whatever English companies he was hooked up with. But unfortunately he became implicated in the opium trade, that’s why he became so rich.[21] You know, Jardine Matheson, it was like their opium that was burned on the pier. The Jardines are still really big in Singapore, I think they’re like Eurasian now, they’re half Chinese and half English. All those families are still around and they’re still very rich.

MM: When you want to make reference to these certain styles of painting of certain periods, why is that important to you in terms of doing these Chinatown paintings?

MW: Like a lot of Caucasian artists, they look back to their painting traditions of like Velasquez or Rembrandt, myself as a painter, when I look back on a tradition it’s to Lamqua, to the Canton painting school. It’s not even to the court of Peking [Beijing] because like I say, that was more an aristocratic view. I don’t think anyone outside of the court ever saw [?] until after the collection was dispersed. It’s like a lot of the paintings of George Washington and Martha that you see in antique shops and upstate barn sales are actually painted in Canton in the 1820s. Some of them still have the labels in the back. They used to turn out a lot of Victorian mourning paintings. They used to paint to order, sometimes a lot of specifically Western subject matter.

MM: How’d you find out all this?

MW: Just mainly from the antique trade. If you go to Sotheby’s, the Chinese painting and ceramics auctions in Chinese decorative arts where they put the furniture and textiles, that’s where they generally throw in a lot of oil paintings, the trade paintings. And the reason we’re usually not too familiar with it in the art world is because most of the trade of that was done in—the people who collect early American furniture, those are the antique dealers who would usually trade Canton paintings. But now actually they’re starting to auction them in Hong Kong again because I guess businessmen like to have paintings of Hong Kong, Canton, and Shanghai. To be accepted as the tradition again. It’s still not really considered as high art, but almost. [Laughs.] In Japan the oil paintings of the École de Paris [School of Paris], the first Japanese who went to Paris to learn oil painting, one of those really obscure people, their paintings are worth hundreds of thousands now. They don’t even have to be famous. And if they’re even vaguely famous like this guy Umehara or something, I think the record for a Japanese Impressionist painting was two million dollars or very near it.[22] And I mean really late in the period too, I mean impressionism started in 1860 or something, but we’re talking about paintings that were painted as late as 1920 by Japanese that are worth that much now.

When I was working for Hirakawa[23] one of the transactions we made, somebody found thirty-eight paintings, I think the guy’s name was Tanaka [?], some guy who was very handsome, he looked almost like a silent movie star, a mustache, tweeds, a pipe. They found a whole collection of his paintings in Australia of all places and somebody contacted us and we sold the whole lot, a collection of thirty-eight paintings to one collector.

MM: Who was this through?

MW: This is a whole ’nother episode. This has to do with the graffiti museum [Museum of American Graffiti].[24] I don’t know if there’s much I’m at liberty to say, except I was acting as an art consultant for a Japanese corporation and I kind of talked them into letting me open a graffiti museum.

[Discussion of the museum.]

I have to say that in terms of collecting graffiti, I don’t want it to seem that I’m collecting folk art. Because when I collected the graffiti, let’s say on the sociological aspect, it was really done within my own neighborhood. But to me what they came up with was truly contemporary art, I don’t categorize it in any way like folk art, it’s just too much velocity in the stroke. But like I said, that’s my obsession, I don’t know if it’s going to pan out. Actually I don’t really care at the moment, my main thing is just to try to corner the market on the piece books, I don’t want too much competition. After I buy up all the piece books, they can rediscover the missing link in contemporary art, but until then I’m satisfied with keeping it a little quiet.

MM: What really interested you in graffiti?

MW: The fact that it’s so unexpected. Because living in the neighborhood, what I paint is like the grid? But when you look at the graffiti paintings, these are kids who actually grew up there and what they’re painting, most of their imagery is outer space imagery. The spray coming from the can, it’s like high technology. Their vision is actually closer to Japanese comic books than it is to social realism of the ’30s. I don't think they're even that aware of it.

MM: So you don’t consider yourself to be associated in any way with graffiti art?

MW: No. It’s like they say don’t order anything in a restaurant that you could cook yourself. Well, I don’t collect anything that I could do myself. I like to paint like a WPA painter but I wouldn’t collect the stuff because I can paint anything in that style that I want. The fact that I have never picked up a spray can, to me it makes spray painting a lot more exotic as a collector.

MM: So if you were to summarize what your work is about, what would you say about it?

MW: I think people are just usually what they see, rather than what they are. So this is what I see; I literally try not to put too much of myself into it. Like I say, every image derives from something on the outside, not something I imagine, like the sign language. It was off of a twenty-five cent card.

MM: That’s a famous story, how this guy gave it to you on the subway.

MW: Yeah, I gave him a quarter. Thanks for the idea! [Laughs.]

[Discussion of a commission by the NYC Board of Transportation to redo signage with sign language for the deaf, arranged through Public Art Fund.]

MM: Then those images in [your] paintings with the floating hand signs do actually spell something out.

MW: Yeah. Usually the title or the street or sometimes a whole poem. I used to, I always liked to put the addresses of my paintings, I was that into topography. And when I was just starting, Sharp [Aaron Goodstone, 1966–], you know, one of the graffiti artist friends of mine, used to tell me to put my phone number on the painting. I kind of regret that I stopped doing that. Like I recently bought a painting that he had done in ’81 or ’82 that I’ve been wanting for years. So when he was up in my apartment explaining the imagery he showed me he actually had the price on the painting, like "2G” you know, two thousand dollars. He not only had his phone number on it, he had the price. [Laughs.]

MM: I know when I see them [that there’s] a message but I don’t know what it says.

MW: Hieroglyphs. That’s the feeling I get when I go to Chinatown and see all the Chinese signs.

MM: Have you ever thought about that, doing something with Chinese symbols?

MW: I can write Chinese, I just can’t read it. In my Chinatown paintings I’ve used a lot of Chinese writing. I just copy it off of the signs.

MM: The fact that you’re not showing these paintings, is it because you didn’t want to be stereotyped?

MW: No, mainly that I don’t think that style for me is totally developed yet. Like I have a lot of ideas that before I didn’t have the technical abilities to actually execute it. Now I think I have more technique. Certain basic things like adding flat cobalt blue to the gloss. Because all of a sudden it looks like the real cobalt that you see on Chinese paintings, it looks more like the mineral than the paint.

[Discussion of Wong’s fascination with ceremonial objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.]

MM: [Referring to the slide sheet.] So with the brick paintings in the frames [at the Exit Art show], I was reading them as a statement that this was equally a subject for “high art.”

MW: Yeah. That was my one attempt to do a minimal painting, it was almost Buddhist-like when you start the wall. Until you finally come to the realization that you’re not staring at nothing, you’re staring at the wall. They can interpret it as much as they want; I think of it as Rorschach tests for critics. To me, people’s interpretations tells as much about them; I really don’t mind people’s different interpretations. People tend to interpret the paintings as being a lot more political than they really are. I think almost in none of the paintings is there any political intent.

MM: Did John Yau interview you [for the Exit Art essay]?

MW: He came to my apartment once with Papo [Colo, co-director of Exit Art]. The person who I like, who wrote best is Carlo McCormick. Carlo is really from the neighborhood.

MM: So why did you like Carlo’s article the most?

MW: Because he caught it more as a dreamlike quality of a painting with an imagined ... than the political part. He knows the real reason that I paint Puerto Ricans.

MM: Which is?

MW: Oh! Because I was in love with one of them. More than one. It was all personal.

MM: Do you paint your lovers too?

MW: Oh yeah, they’re all in the paintings.

MM: Then you really are a portrait painter.

MW: Yeah, yeah. To me that’s how you get worked up about the painting, if you can get worked up about the person then you’re more likely to get worked up about the painting. It’s kind of like a Renaissance conceit to have a portrait of your lover painted by a master. [Laughs.] Or even more, to paint your lover as a religious figure or something. When I used to do portraits in California it was always from life but generally now in New York when I do portraits it’s usually from snapshots, I take the snapshots myself. But I have a whole shopping bag full of snapshots that I didn’t take, that Tony Suarez took. When we were working on the Time magazine project I was painting constantly and he was really the one out on assignment taking pictures of Sunset Park. And every evening the courier would deliver me another packet of pictures he’d taken that day.

MM: I didn’t realize Sunset Park was part of a commissioned series.

MW: Time magazine, yeah. That was a Christmas issue in 1985.[25] The reason not too many people heard of it, I think it was thirteen pages inside of it. I was supposed to get the cover too but I couldn’t come up with an adequate cover at the time that would make it look like something other than Mad magazine. I think I did three attempts at a cover but they just didn’t like it. It was my first commercial assignment.

MM: What did they want you to do?

MW: Roger Rosenblatt wrote a story about, he was writing at the same time I was painting, that’s what made it a little confusing. I was illustrating something that hadn’t been written yet. All we knew was that he was writing about these nuns doing social work in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The photographer, they were sending the photographer out. I went out a couple of times with him but every day he would go out with just himself and his assistant, take as many pictures as he could around Sunset Park and the community center, just everywhere. And I would try to put them into some kind of a coherent group of paintings to illustrate the story. And it wasn’t until a few days before the deadline, I actually talked to the writer and found out what the drift of the story was. Because some of the paintings were kind of off from what he was doing.

MM: I didn’t think Sunset Park was one of your areas.

MW: Why all of a sudden Sunset Park. But I still use a lot of those snapshots for sources. So I use snapshots for the people but for the buildings and the themes I always do it from sketches. Because I like that kind of non-perspective or something. I like it to look disjointed, I don’t want an optical continuity because to me it would look too much like photorealism or something. I want to totally avoid anything that looks like optical realism.

MM: Is there some particular reason you don’t appear in any of your works?

MW: Well, I never noticed, I’m so busy looking at things I just forget. The Chinatown paintings I’m thinking of doing a self-portrait in some of them. But I was thinking of how I’m going to pose for my self-portrait. I was going to pose in like a tuxedo like Odd Job or something, a really glamorous surrounding …

MM: So this isn’t a polemical position, like oh no, I never appear in my own pictures.

MW: No, no just an oversight.



[1] This interview with Martin Wong was conducted as part of my 1989–90 research project on East Coast–based Asian American artists, supported by a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowship (1989–90) and sponsored by the Asian/American Center at Queens College, City University of New York.

[2] Oakland-born Chinese American artist Dong Kingman (1911–2000) moved to New York City in 1946 and taught at Columbia University (1946–58) and Hunter College (1948–53). During the 1930s, as Wong notes, he participated as an artist in the Works Progress Administration.

[3] See Arthur Dong’s 1989 documentary, Forbidden City, USA, https://www.deepfocusproductions.com/films/forbidden-city-usa/.

[4] Martin Wong’s paternal aunt Nora (Eleanor Wong, aka Ellie Chui) was a singer and dancer during the 1940s and 1950s at Chinese-owned San Francisco nightclubs and cabarets including the Forbidden City, the Kubla Khan Theater Restaurant, the Lion’s Den, and other local venues.

[5] For information about this technique see Kimon Nicolaïdes, The Natural Way to Draw; A Working Plan for Art Study (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941).

[6] According to the Martin Wong Catalogue Raisonné chronology, the artist moved to the Lower East Side in 1982.

[7] Puerto Rican playwright Miguel Piñero (1946–88) wrote the award-winning prison drama Short Eyes in 1972 while he was incarcerated for armed robbery at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. It was done in conjunction with a theater workshop run by the late Marvin Felix Camillo (1937–88). Piñero co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side in 1973.

[8] Among graffiti artists, the slang expression “getting up” typically refers to placing your “tag” (stylized signature) somewhere visible.

[9] The government-funded Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (1935–43) hired artists to create murals and sculptures for municipal buildings, schools, and hospitals across the country—as well as paintings, photographs, and graphic art. It was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s series of New Deal programs (1933–39) during the Great Depression (1929–39), aimed at putting people to work and bolstering public morale. It was preceded by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP, 1933–34) that hired artists to create works for public buildings and parks. See website https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/timeline/ for a historical overview of the New Deal. Accessed October 18, 2020.

[10] Martin Wong graduated from George Washington High School in San Francisco in 1964. This school is the site of a number of Works Progress Administration–era murals by artists such as Victor Arnautoff, Ralph Stackpole, and Lucien Labaudt, and a sculptural wall relief by African American artist Sargent Johnson. Arnautoff’s 1936 mural, Life of Washington, remains controversial for its depictions of slavery and Native American genocide.

[11] In 1984, Wong took part in the group exhibition “New Narrative Painting” at the Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City.

[12] The large-scale mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886–1957), The History of Mexico (executed between 1929 and 1935), is on display in the National Palace in Mexico City.

[13] Harry Chong Laundry was located in New York’s Greenwich Village area, at the corner of Waverly Place and Charles Street. It operated from 1945 to 2006.

[14] Wong is referring to Robert Lee, Executive Director of the Asian American Arts Centre (1974 to present), a community arts organization in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The artist took part in a number of group exhibitions and open studio tours organized by AAAC, including a 1989 exhibition mounted to protest the Chinese government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing that drew worldwide opprobrium.

[15] For more information about the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance in New York and its donation of an ambulance to China in 1939 to aid the Chinese war effort against Japan, see the Museum of Chinese in America website. Accessed July 3, 2021, https://www.mocanyc.org/collections/stories/chinese-hand-laundry-alliance/. Although it seems to be Martin’s understanding that this aid went directly to the Communists by citing Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai, it is more plausible that such support was provided to China and distributed locally after the Nationalists and Communists agreed to a united front against the Japanese invasion in 1936.

[16] Wong had a one-person show at Exit Art in New York City in 1988, accompanied by a catalogue. See John Yau, “Martin Wong,” in Martin Wong, Jeanette Ingberman, and John Yau, Martin Wong, November 5December 23, 1988 (New York: Exit Art, 1988), 9.

[17] According to scholar Mark Dean Johnson, Martin Wong first exhibited his art at the de Young Museum in San Francisco at the age of fourteen, not seven years of age as he stated in this interview. However, given the nature of museum community art programs, artwork by participating school children presumably could have been shown in special areas without formal documentation.

[18] See Martin Wong’s Tree of Life (1991) referenced in Mark Dean Johnson’s essay. While Wong did not characterize the works employing the brick motif as surrealism, there are resonances with paintings by the Belgian modernist René Magritte (1898–1967) that likewise played upon this device. See for instance, The Empty Picture Frame (1934), accessed August 25, 2020, https://www.renemagritte.org/the-empty-picture-frame.jsp.

[19] Lamqua (Guan Qiaochang, ca.1802–60), active from the 1820s to 1850s, was a highly successful figure among the Cantonese China Trade portraitists specializing in oil paintings in the Western style. He established a thriving workshop producing art for export, located in the Thirteen Factories district of Guangzhou (Canton) where foreign merchants had their offices and warehouses. See Carl L. Crossman, The Decorative Arts of the China Trade: Paintings, Furnishings, and Exotic Curiosities (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1991), 72–104.

[20] Youqua (active ca. 1840–70) was an export painter and contemporary of Lamqua’s who established workshops in Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong. He was best known for his Chinese port scenes and landscapes.

[21] Wong’s account of Lamqua’s role as a comprador [agent] for Jardine Matheson & Co. erroneously conflates two different historical figures: the artist Lamqua and the powerful Cantonese merchant Houqua (Wu Bingjian, 1769–1843), with whom that company had extensive dealings. Houqua accumulated enormous wealth through the nineteenth-century trade between China and the British Empire, as well as through trade with America. Houqua, who sat for a portrait by George Chinnery, was well positioned to profit from this global commerce since Canton was then the only port authorized by imperial decree to conduct legal trade with the West—primarily in silk, porcelain, tea, cotton goods, and opium. See John D. Wong, Global Trade in the Nineteenth Century: The House of Houqua and the Canton System (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[22] Here Wong is possibly referring to the Meiji-era, Kyoto-born artist Umehara Ryūzaburō (1888–1986) who specialized in Yōga (Western-style) painting. Umehara studied in Paris and was greatly influenced by the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and, later, Georges Rouault.

[23] Mark Dean Johnson, unpublished interview with Peter Broda, August 25, 2020. According to Wong’s longtime friend Peter Broda, Eichi Hirakawa was a Japanese art dealer for whom Martin Wong worked as an art consultant on different projects. Hirakawa also oversaw the management of a building in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood (6 Bond Street) that housed the short-lived Museum of American Graffiti which Wong and Broda cofounded in 1989.

[24] The Museum of American Graffiti was open for about six months. Wong donated his extensive graffiti collection and related papers to the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), https://mcnycatablogdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/martin-wong-finding-aid.pdf. MCNY also organized a 2014–18 traveling exhibition of graffiti art from Wong’s collection. See Sean Corcoran and Carlo McCormick, eds., City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection (New York: Skira Rizzoli and Museum of the City of New York, 2013).

[25] See Roger Rosenblatt, “A Christmas Story: Sunset Park, Giving and Receiving in the Spirit of Winter Dreams,” TIME, 126, no. 26 (December 30, 1985): 18–30.