Introduction | D. Vanessa Kam
I never had the pleasure of meeting the painter, ceramicist, poet, and collector Martin Wong (1946–99), but he came to life (so to speak) for about an hour on Monday mornings starting in the summer of 2020. That is when members of the Martin Wong Catalogue Raisonné (MWCR) Quality Assurance and Editorial Team met via videoconference in what would turn out to be a pandemic-induced “new normal.” The team included art historians and educators with specializations in Asian American and American art, Wong’s ex–Humboldt State University roommate and lifelong friend, and me, an art historian, librarian, and musician. Our various vantage points in relationship to Wong ensured that our discourse would be stimulating and expansive.
Each week, as the team met to ostensibly review the quality of digital reproductions of Wong’s works and discuss in excruciating detail the metadata that provides textual information about each art object, details about the artist’s life and art emerged. Anecdotes about a puckish Wong abounded; the team puzzled over instances of misspellings, homonyms, and double entendres in the titles of Wong’s paintings that we couldn’t rule out as purposeful and, thus, we deemed delivered with playful mischief. I would suggest that this same spirit of mischief found parallels in Wong’s frequent use of trompe l’oeil as a device in his paintings. The team also marveled at Wong’s proclivity for inserting himself into the thick of shenanigans, at times resulting in the need for quick and unorthodox exits. Accounts also surfaced of his complex adoration for countercultural, psychedelic, and gender-bending performers and performances in San Francisco beginning in the late 1960s.
The team also discussed how devoted Wong’s mother, Florence Wong Fie, was to him and his career. She meticulously and lovingly documented his career with photographs, press materials, and exhibition reviews; destroyed every copy she could find of an issue of the San Francisco Chronicle featuring a photograph of Wong along with others who attended a scandalous party during the Summer of Love; and drew for her son a detailed schematic of the contents of a food-filled refrigerator in an attempt to keep his insatiable hunger at bay.
The reminiscences shared by the team also revealed the indelible mark that living in California (San Francisco, Berkeley, and Humboldt County) and the Lower East Side of New York left on Wong and his artworks. His paintings constitute strong evocations of spaces and places: Wong’s urban landscapes include depictions of bustling and sensorially stimulating Chinatowns on the West and East Coasts; a series of paintings depicting cacti balance their lusciousness with the threat of their spines; chain-link fences enclose gritty multistoried brick facades; and works depicting known intersections in San Francisco (e.g., Powell and Hyde Streets) and New York (Stanton and Ridge Streets) add a geospatial specificity to the phenomenological instincts that surface for those who inhabit such spaces.
Our goal for this project was that the sum of all the elements of the MWCR would bring the work of Martin Wong to a broader audience, while providing sustenance to the viewers who already have reasons to revere this highly prolific, influential, and inimitable artist.