Afterword: A Personal Reflection | Doryun Chong

Sometime in 2010, when I was an associate curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, I became aware that the museum’s collection was missing one of the singular voices in American art. I was elated to be the curator responsible for redressing the issue. This was the beginning of my association with Martin Wong, begun more than a decade after his death in 1999.

Bringing Martin Wong’s work into the MoMA collection felt like a kind of homecoming for me. I had spent most of my twenties in the Bay Area, where I pursued my academic training in art history at the University of California, Berkeley, and also began my museum career at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, before moving on to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and then to MoMA. Being one of the few curators of Asian heritage—or of color, for that matter—across the six curatorial departments at MoMA, I wholeheartedly embraced the institutional remit to diversify the museum’s collection. The chief focus of my efforts in this regard was on Asia, writ large, from Japan to Turkey. Accustomed to looking far away from where I was sitting at the time, the offer of an artwork that was made and depicts a locus that was so close to me almost came as a shock at first. The painting by Martin Wong that became a focus for acquisition was Stanton near Forsyth Street (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Stanton Near Forsyth Street, 1983. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art; Steven Johnson and Walter Sudol; and James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach, 2011. Digital Image © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Figure 1. Stanton Near Forsyth Street, 1983. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art; Steven Johnson and Walter Sudol; and James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach, 2011. Digital Image © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Figure 2. Martin Wong, First letter home from New York (also I joined The Museum of Modern Art), 1978. Felt-tip pen on paper 34,9 x 43,2 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist's estate, 2012 (643.2012). Digital Image © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

One of Wong’s most crystalized compositions, the painting ranges across the gamut of his signature vocabularies: Lower East Side tenement buildings and abandoned sites full of refuse; constellations in the night sky; ASL spelling out the words inscribed in the upper bar of a trompe l’oeil woodgrain picture frame (“morning at the edge of time it never mattered”); and an inscription in Spanish (“Reinaldo habia llegado al departamento donde vivia Esteban que agobiado arrio la puerta”). Further distinguishing this work is the fact that it is one of the few paintings by Wong that depicts both himself and his one-time partner Miguel Piñero. They stand apart from each other, Martin on the far left side of the picture facing frontally, and Miguel standing in profile on the far right, as if the pair were framing and bracketing the urban landscape and imbuing it with desire and grief. The artist’s estate also offered to donate the drawing First letter home from New York (also I joined The Museum of Modern Art) (fig. 2), a letter Martin wrote to his “MOM & POP,” which surely belongs in the museum collection for reasons that become obvious when one reads the words in this extraordinary missive sent soon after Martin’s arrival in New York.

Acquiring these two works for the MoMA collection was one of my most gratifying professional achievements as a curator, but it also carried deeper meanings for me. Arriving in New York just a couple of years prior, I was living in Alphabet City—to be specific, on Avenue B at a corner of Tompkins Square Park. Wong’s now legendary residence and studio at 141 Ridge Street was a quick jaunt from my building and roughly the midpoint between where I lived and Stanton and Forsyth Streets. The Lower East Side—or Loisaida—I found myself in in the late 2000s and early 2010s was, of course, a far cry from the hairy and yet exhilarating neighborhood Wong moved into at the end of the 1970s. The hedonism and exuberance, risks and exhilarations I imagine to have been palpable on the streets Wong walked had long been replaced by rapacious gentrification. In the neighborhood of my time, full of genteel restaurants and hipster cafes, there was no Asian dude dressed up as a space cowboy or in a fireman getup.

Figure 3. Florence Wong Fie and Danh Vo at the Fie residence, San Francisco, October 27, 2013. Photo by Mark Dean Johnson.
Figure 4. Doryun Chong and Florence Wong Fie at Ton Kiang Restaurant, San Francisco, November 10, 2010. Photo by Mark Dean Johnson.

My growing fascination with Martin Wong was echoed and amplified by that of artist Danh Vo. Known for his lyrical archaeology of personages and narratives, Vo at the time was spending much of his time traveling across the United States, exploring the ideals and failures, dreams and nightmares of the nation—resulting in works including the epochal project We the People (2011–16), in which he replicated the Statue of Liberty at a one-to-one scale, castigating it to forever remain in pieces rather than being brought together into a unity. Soon after my email exchanges with the Wong estate, Danh and I were in San Francisco together, paying a visit to Florence Wong Fie, Martin’s mother, at her home (fig. 3). We were as much moved by her unwavering love for her son and fierce dedication to preserving his artistic legacy as we were enchanted by the story of her own life—born in San Francisco, sent to her ancestral land of Canton, and returning to the West Coast as a young adult. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I felt that Florence seemed to treat us, two Asian guys, not only as professionals in the same field as her son, but also like grandnephews who wanted to learn about an uncle they never got to meet. The meetings necessarily included lunches at her favorite Cantonese restaurants in the Richmond District (fig. 4).

Why did we—Danh and I—find Martin Wong so resonant? Speaking only for myself and in retrospect, I perhaps felt awed by how Martin had been so much more queer and, even possibly, so much more Asian than I and those of my generation were and would ever be. Wong lived his life as fully queer as possible, as much as “queer” signifies a continuous refusal of the strictures of the usual sociocultural categorizations. At the same time, throughout his life, he never stopped discovering, defining, and delineating what Asianness might mean and look like in America. Treading cleaner and safer streets of New York more than a decade after Martin had departed, both Danh and I perhaps felt that we got there too late.

Figure 5. Psychics Unlock Beauty Secrets of the Stars, 1981.
Figure 5. Psychics Unlock Beauty Secrets of the Stars, 1981.

In 2011, while visiting Hong Kong, I excitedly shared with a colleague an idea I had been developing since getting to know Martin and Florence. I was intrigued by the fact that four ethnic Chinese artists from radically different contexts and backgrounds all lived in New York at the same time in the 1980s and 1990s and roamed the same streets of the Lower East Side: Ai Weiwei (from mainland China), Tehching Hsieh (Taiwan), Frog King Kwok, aka Kwok Mang-Ho (Hong Kong), and Martin Wong. The colleague, Cosmin Costinas—then recently appointed executive director and curator of Para Site—asked if I’d like to make it into an exhibition in his space. The following year, as Stanton near Forsyth Street and First letter home from New York entered the MoMA collection, Costinas and I staged the small group exhibition in Hong Kong called Taiping Tianguo: A History of Possible Encounters, Ai Weiwei, Frog King Kwok, Tehching Hsieh, and Martin Wong in New York. It featured works including Wong’s faux blackboard with ASL fingerspelling writing out a tabloid headline, Psychics Unlock Beauty Secrets of the Stars, 1981 (fig. 5)—a brilliant example of his idiosyncratic blending of calligraphy forms and unexpected inspirations drawn from popular culture. (The exhibition subsequently traveled to Istanbul, Singapore, and New York.)

Later that year, Danh Vo won the biannual Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim Museum. The prize came with an invitation to stage a solo exhibition at the museum. The exhibition that opened the following year—with the title I M U U R 2, based on a name card Martin used to use—consisted of thousands of tchotchkes, transferred from the basement of Florence’s home, that encompassed Martin’s own juvenilia as well as export Chinese porcelains, American curios and paraphernalia trafficking in racist stereotypes of bygone eras, and much more collected by Martin and Florence. These artifacts were discovered during Danh’s visits to Florence’s home and preserved through an act of artistic “appropriation”—or, better perhaps, transubstantiation—that would manifest in the hallowed halls of an august American institution of contemporary art. The installation later found a permanent home in the collection of the Walker Art Center.

Figure 6. Incident at Waverly Lane, 1992. Collection of M+.
Figure 6. Incident at Waverly Lane, 1992. Collection of M+.

In 2013 I relocated from New York to Hong Kong to assume the role of chief curator at M+, a new museum of visual culture being established in the city. A large part of the endeavor was to build a new permanent collection that looks at the field of global visual culture from the point of view of Hong Kong, an archetypal entrepot and the point of departure for generations of people who migrated from Canton to the global network of diasporas—and, of course, the hometown of Bruce Lee, Martin Wong’s hero. This new museum acquired his 1992 painting Incident at Waverly Lane, part of the artist’s Chinatown series. Here we see Lee as Kato—the masked sidekick of the titular character of The Green Hornet, the 1960s American TV show—suspended in the air mid-jump kick against the backdrop of the named street in the artist’s own hometown (fig. 6). Now in Hong Kong, the painting represents something of a homecoming both for Martin and for Lee.

Critical, curatorial, and art historical responses to Martin Wong’s art have undergone significant evolutions in the last decade or so. The list of exhibitions and publications continues to grow apace. The art market has taken notice as well. This catalogue raisonné is not just the product of many who have been dedicated to Wong’s legacy but also the result of the growing realization of the ways in which Wong’s being and practice were as rooted in his time and place as they were in superseding cultural or historical specificities. From San Francisco to New York, and then onward to Hong Kong and Guangdong, his ancestral homeland, I have followed, at first inadvertently, Martin’s passage and then traced the course of his family history. He has been a treasured travel companion for me for a dozen years. I suspect that Martin, the quintessentially American artist and proto-globalist bard, will continue to be a touchpoint for many others who seek, as I have, to be inspired by a voice with a boundless passion for others and their cultures without ever losing a sense of oneself.