– 2021 Gary Ware: Interview with Marci Kwon, pt. 5


Florence Wong Fie’s map of refrigerator, n.d. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

New York City, 1978–94

WARE: For years he had talked to me about New York City. He was always hanging out in the library, and he would always look at Art in America and ARTnews and things like that. Of course, those magazines featured New York City galleries and shows to a large degree. At least in those days, the West Coast wasn’t a center for shows and openings. It was New York and London and later on Berlin. So he was always talking about going to New York.

KWON: How did he communicate with you after he moved?

WARE: He sent a lot of letters. And he would talk on the phone sometimes. In order to get him to communicate with her, Aunt Florence would send him a letter, and it would have a list of things on it. “I am okay. I am eating all right. My bills are paid. Everything is okay.” And there was a box beside each one. And then all he had to do was check the box and send it back to her. She did that two or three times. She’s sending these funny letters. She may have done it at Humboldt State, too.

Let me show you just one visual that will give you an idea of how thorough she was. This is a picture of the refrigerator at home. You see that it’s like a map of the refrigerator to be sure that he would know what was in their refrigerator and where it was. And then “Love, Mom” at the bottom. To me, those letters are in a way the essence of their relationship.

Wong’s photo collage of the stairs at 141 Ridge Street, courtesy of the Martin Wong Papers, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
Wong’s photo collage of the stairs at 141 Ridge Street, courtesy of the Martin Wong Papers, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
Gary on the roof of 141 Ridge St. New York City, May 1995. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: What was his apartment like?

WARE: The apartment had two bedrooms and a front room. Aunt Florence and Ben immediately cleaned everything up. It was jam-packed full of stuff, and you could hardly get around. It was on the sixth floor. So when people wanted to visit him, they would call him from the phone downstairs on the street, and then he would throw the key out the window, and you could open the door and come up. It was an old, old building. It was so old that the marble stairs were cupped from people [climbing them]. Being on the top floor, he could immediately walk up and get on the roof. And once you got up on the roof, you had a nice view of all the Lower East Side downtown….

Opening night of Martin’s solo exhibition at Semaphore East Gallery, October, 1985. Photo attributed to Florence Wong Fie, courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: And at this time he puts on the Chinese cowboy persona?

WARE: I know that he mentioned to me that people would tease him, that he had been teased on the street on Ridge Street when he would come out with his cowboy shirt on and his boots and all the rest of it. He told them, “Don’t you know a fashion statement when you see one?” The other thing was, he took to wearing neckties. Both he and Peter Broda wouldn’t go out of the house without a necktie on. He was very particular about the neckties. They had to be really nice, good quality, beautiful ones. Some of them are quite pretty, with the colors and stripes. I certainly noticed that both he and Peter were both necktie twins in that regard. They always wore neckties every single day.

KWON: Did he ever talk to you about the work he was making during those early years in New York?

WARE: He didn’t really talk a lot about what he was doing. It was just piled up. It was like one painting under another, under another, under another. They were stacked five and six deep against the wall. And some of the paintings were painted on the backs as well . . . He also had a habit of painting over the top of things sometimes.

He just did it. And sometimes I would be lucky. I’d be able to sit and watch him do it—although he didn’t really like being watched when he was painting. So I didn’t push him on that sort of thing. I was glad that the Ahearn brothers got a video of him painting one of the big Chinatown paintings so you could see how he painted with two hands. Also, you could see on that how the subject matter was outlined in chalk and then filled in with acrylics afterwards. Everything was drawn on with chalk —once again, showing how important it was to know how to draw.

May 7, 1986, photo by Florence Wong Fie from the album “Artist in Action,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
May 7, 1986, photo by Florence Wong Fie from the album “Artist in Action,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: What was his working process like at the time?

WARE: He worked very quickly. And he worked at night. He always was a night owl anyway, but he said he did because it was quiet then and nobody bothered him. He could paint all night, and there would be no interruptions. He could just sit there and paint. During the day, he spent so much time on the phone gossiping with people and talking with people and eating and visiting. So it seemed to me that most of the painting was done late at night. The other thing was, he painted what he saw, the storefronts. All of a sudden, all these storefront paintings. And the bricks, all of a sudden bricks. We thought, "What is this brick business?" Well, of course, the whole neighborhood was bricks. And that made a big impression on him. And, of course, inserted into those paintings were the people he met in the neighborhood. The different graffiti people that he knew were all included in those paintings in one way or another. If anybody sat still for very long, they ended up in a painting.

KWON: Do you remember what you thought of the work? Because it seems like the painting just takes off in New York.

WARE: What impressed me was that it was so different from the West Coast stuff. It was just like another page. He turned the page. And these enormous storefronts. I don’t know how he ever was able to paint those huge storefronts. Some of them were near life-size. How he was able to do that inside that apartment is more than I know. And how he got them up and down the stairs I don’t know. And then the constellations. I don’t remember him ever painting constellations before he got to New York. All these sky maps. That was different. But it kept changing, because somewhere along the line it stopped being storefronts, and it started being sign language spelling. So that took off and became a whole type of thing in its own.

One thing after another. And … he would sort of do it until he wore himself out on that particular style or that particular subject. As good as the stuff was on the West Coast, this [work] on the East Coast was one step more in maturity and power. They were strong. People would sometimes say, “Oh, you do these kitschy sort of cartoony sort of things.” Which some of the things were—and he liked cartoons, of course. But those storefront pictures of the doors with the padlocks on the front of them were another whole class of their own. They weren’t funny . . . I didn’t quite know what to make of them, but I just knew that they were very strong and something to be taken seriously.

Martin with his work “Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder,” 1980. Photo by Florence Wong Fie from the album “Paintings I,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin with his work “Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder,” 1980. Photo by Florence Wong Fie from the album “Paintings I,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: Can you say more about the sign language, fingerspelling pictures?

WARE: I think that’s very important. It hooks into so many things. It hooks into calligraphy, because it is a form of calligraphy, especially as he presented it to us. The other thing is that as he became mature much of his later work had a strong narrative to it. He was telling stories, and not only visually but spelling them out on the canvas for you to see and to read. So many of the later pieces had actual stories and/or poems and/or titles and things like that right on the canvas. So in case you didn’t get the message, here it is again for you to read. Here’s the vision of it, and here’s the story behind it.

I think that narrative quality goes way back, but it certainly became very strong as he was in New York. He was interested in all those storefronts because even though he couldn’t read Spanish, he would ask people to translate them for him so he would know what they meant. He wanted to know what those things meant, and that’s why he included them in the canvases—so that we would know. Those storefront signs tell a story, too, the same way all storefronts do. You could say that was one of the switches he made—that he went from more of a visual image to narrative, strong narratives.

This was toward the end of New York and before he went back to San Francisco. Then he came back to the city to live with his folks, why, then, of course, he was inactive for quite a while. When he started up again, he wasn’t putting script on the paintings. He’d moved on again to Sharp Painting a Picture, although one could say that graffiti is narrative, too, which it is. When he finally finished up with the cactus pictures, but of course, those were strictly visual.

KWON: What else do you remember about Martin’s time in New York?

WARE: His way of operating was much the same as it was in California. In other words, the ambition was the same, and it was realized. And there’s a certain urgency—urgency is the word that I think of in terms of him. Whenever he was working here, especially after he got sick, there was always a sense of urgency to what he was doing. He didn’t say time was running out, but you had that feeling that there wasn’t enough time to do everything that needed to be done, so you had to do it now. And he used to get impatient with me sometimes when I’d procrastinate and say, “Oh, we can do that tomorrow.” He would say, “No, no. Do it today. Do it now.” There was this sense that you had to do things as quickly as possible, and do it now. Of course, that helped him complete so much stuff.

KWON: What was Martin like when he went to a party or an opening?

WARE: Two things. One is he wanted to be there, of course. But the other thing, when he got there, he was awkward and self-conscious. He was kind of geeky in a way. He always was, and certainly later on. He would get embarrassed and flustered and, and even though he was soaking up all this information and experience, he never quite seemed to fit exactly. Even though he was charmingly geeky, and people liked him, there was a little bit of—he never seemed to fit. But he also took that idea of looking for things in other places, too.

KWON: Like what?

WARE: I think I mentioned that my grandparents had a dairy farm. One time when we were flooded out of Humboldt, we had to come back around the back way to get home. We couldn’t come down 101 because the bridges were closed. We got a ride on the back way and came up Highway 20, and it was just right where my grandparents lived. So we stopped, and he stayed with me at my grandparents’ place until his parents could come up and see him. It was like a revelation to him. He had never seen a working farm before. He had never seen cows being milked. He’d never seen pigs being fed. He’d never seen a working farm and working farmers, which my grandparents were. This farm was the source of their livelihood. Of course, I’d been around it ever since I was an infant, so it was old hat to me. I was used to being around cows, but for him, that was so exciting seeing the farm. I could just see the way he was going around; he was just absorbing every inch of it that he could.

He took that curiosity with him wherever he went. Because all those things he absorbed, they all became grist for his mill later on. He had all these things, he had all these references to pull on. Places he’d been, things he’s seen, people he’d talked to, trouble he’d gotten into. It was all there waiting to be used and to be expressed somehow or other.

Photographic collage by Wong. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Papers, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
Photographic collage by Wong. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Papers, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

KWON: How did he relate to images?

WARE: I think he was an explorer, but he was also an investigator. Because he took a lot of pictures. He took a lot of pictures of the downtown scene in the Lower East Side. Some of the pictures were multiple pictures of one block. Then he would paste them all together. He took those with an intent, and he later painted those scenes that he had taken pictures of. So he was doing research. I mean, it sort of looks like it’s just off the cuff. But believe me, there was intent, and he knew what he was doing.

By that time, he had such control over his technique that he didn’t have to worry about the technical parts of it. All he had to worry about was the image, getting the image there on the canvas. He knew how to paint. He knew how to draw. He didn’t have to learn those things over again. He was fluent in painting and drawing, and that meant he was free to put all of his energy into getting that image out. So that, I think, is why the images are so strong, the fact that they’re an expression. He would take it home and then express it on the canvas. So he did draw from life sometimes, but most of those paintings were done from memory or from photographs.

December 1986, photo by Florence Wong Fie from the album “Artist in Action,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: What were some of his favorite movies?

WARE: Chūshingura, of course. And he liked samurai movies. But he loved Chūshingura. And there were others, too. He was a real big fan of Toshiro Mifune, the famous actor. He was an interesting Japanese actor because he had a beard. There were other ones. I think there was one called Sword of Doom [1966]. He also liked Star Wars. The first Star Wars movie I went to was with him. I went up to visit him in Eureka and he said, “I’ve seen it already, but you’ve got to see it.” It was so weird because Star Wars movies, the images were above. When it started out, it started out above. It wasn’t looking up. It was looking down on you. He was quite taken with that, as I was, too.

He wasn’t the most patient moviegoer that you’d like to go with. He would always be elbowing me in the side and saying, “Gary, do something. Make them do something. [Laughs.] This is boring. It’s so boring.” [Laughs.] So a movie had to have a real strong narrative in its own in order to hold his interest.

We saw a number of Indian movies as well. I remember one called The Apu Trilogy [by Satyajit Ray, 1955–59]. So he talked me into going and seeing The Apu Trilogy, in Berkeley. And it was on several nights. We didn’t see Bollywood movies so much. But that one—yeah.

KWON: What about other types of culture: TV, music, etc.?

WARE: We went to see Janice Joplin at the Fillmore when she was there. And we watched all those people getting their ears blasted out in front of the big speakers. When I was living over on Oak Street in the Panhandle, some of the big bands would have free concerts right there in the Panhandle. You could just walk in and out of those concerts and see those on the spot.

He certainly had eclectic taste when it came to music. He liked Middle Eastern music. And he certainly liked classical Japanese music. Some opera. He liked Mahler. I remember Leoš Janáček’s [Glagolitic Mass] ... I remember listening to that with him. He had the album … He had some Greek music, too.

KWON: What about books?

WARE: He was such a voracious reader it was hard to pin him down. From the very first week that I met him, I knew that books were important because they were all over the place. He liked nonfiction and history. Egyptian history he read a lot about. He wasn’t big on fiction.

He was very fond of books that had a lot of pictures in them. I think that having lots of pictures made a big difference to him because then he could see what they were talking about. He read everything—and not only read everything, but remembered. It all just sort of went into this huge warehouse of images that he had. He drew on those when he painted. A lot of the images that he saw from Renaissance paintings showed up later, and he put his own twist on it. Some of the things that we see in his paintings were things that showed up in Japanese and Chinese painting as well. The composition of the painting would be lifted from antiquity, but he’d put modern characters in it, like those jail pictures. Some of the compositions of those were lifted directly out of the Renaissance paintings. He read all about Greek mythology, too, and he knew all about that on top of everything else.

He was also fascinated with Patty Hearst, and he was fascinated with the O. J. Simpson trial. He watched the O. J. Simpson trial religiously on TV. He knew more about that trial than I ever did. He watched the complete coverage of it from his bed in his room when that trial was going. And he always wanted to talk with me about it. He had very strong opinions about it.

Martin's work, “Jodie Foster: An Expert Tells Why Fans Turn Fanatic,” hanging at the Dojo Cafe, 1981. From the album “Paintings I,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin's work, “Jodie Foster: An Expert Tells Why Fans Turn Fanatic,” hanging at the Dojo Cafe, 1981. From the album “Paintings I,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: What were his opinions?

WARE: Well, he had already sentenced poor O. J. to jail. And then he was fascinated, too, when Princess Diana died. He was very sad about that and very brokenhearted. We went down to the Castro district, and he took flowers and put them on the memorial so that he could say he gave something to her. That really showed his sentimental side again because, as many gay men were, he was rather attached to her. He was always very sentimental.

KWON: Around 1983–84, his work really starts to take off in terms of institutional recognition.

WARE: He told me that he would always go to every show that he could get into. There were a lot of informal shows in Manhattan. There were shows at restaurants. There were shows at warehouses. They weren’t all in galleries. By becoming acquainted with everybody that he met and saw at these places, he would get invited to a group show. Or he’d go to a restaurant time after time after time and finally he’d ask them, “Hey, would you let me hang some paintings in your restaurant?” And restaurants would be willing to do that, too, for people. That was one of the ways he first started getting seen. And then, he had some sort of a little job at the Met for a while.

KWON: And of course the Met bought Attorney Street: Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, 1982–84, in 1984.

WARE: Yes, I remember because we went back to see it. For Aunt Florence it was like confirmation or something. And it hung in the Met for a few months, I think. I went back there with Aunt Florence and Ben to see it. I just sat there and I watched Aunt Florence turn into a tour guide for other visitors to the museum to tell them about this picture on the wall that they were seeing. And she would sort of spring on them as the last part of her tour. She’d say, “Oh, you know that this is my son’s picture.” So proud of that. And it was such an important event for her and for Ben, too. Because after all this struggling, it’s like he arrived.

He told me, “It’s just a fluke that I got in there.” He said, “It’s just luck.” So even though he took it as a stroke of luck, which it was in some ways, luck comes to those who are prepared to have it. And he was prepared. He was ready, waiting to be discovered. And thereafter, he had the beginning of a resumé. He had the Semaphore Gallery and the Met. “I’m hanging in the Met.” And later on, when he was purchased by the Whitney, then that added to it.

Florence and Ben at the Met in 1984 with Martin’s Attorney Street: Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, 1982–84. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Florence and Ben at the Met in 1984 with Martin’s Attorney Street: Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, 1982–84. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin with Attorney Street: Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, 1982–84 at the Met in 1995. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin with Attorney Street: Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, 1982–84 at the Met in 1995. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: Now he’s in museums all over the country.

WARE: And Europe and Hong Kong as well. And Aunt Florence got to see more of that than he did. Because after he died, it just kept going. More and more purchases came. And it became her focus, to be sure, as much as possible, that the work that was being purchased was going to museums. She’s told me, “He wants his stuff to go into museums. It’s nice to have it purchased. It’s nice to be in somebody’s house. But the important thing is to get it into museums so that it’s exposed to as many people as possible, and that it be taken care of and it’s safe.” So that became her program, not only in purchases, but also in donations to museums. She arranged and approved many donations to different museums and stuff.