Martin Wong: Renewing Our Conversation | Margo Machida
This think piece revisits the transcript from my November 7, 1989 audiotaped interview with Chinese American artist Martin Wong, which took place over dinner at the Ukrainian National Home restaurant, an inexpensive local haunt in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. My commentary builds upon this exchange with Martin and is published for the first time in the Martin Wong Catalogue Raisonné (MWCR).
Approaching Wong’s narrative with the benefit of hindsight makes it possible to engage in fresh analytical readings of selected paintings, in which these remarks point to possibilities for an expanded reframing of his larger body of work—generating insights about the nexus of issues that centrally preoccupied him. What this renewed scrutiny underlines is the signal importance of his Chinese heritage as a fulcrum for Wong to broadly envision a range of transcultural interactions—both historical and modern—encompassing and connecting China with the West, the US Chinese diaspora, and San Francisco, the city where he was raised (figure 1).
Although our encounter occurred over thirty years ago, I still clearly picture Martin animatedly chatting about his art and its reception in the New York art world as he pulled out slides of recent work, his astute and often droll reflections punctuated by bursts of raucous laughter. Legendary in art circles for his prodigious appetite, Martin ate successive courses with extraordinary gusto, consuming a heaping platter of roasted meat and dumplings, multiple baskets of bread, and a variety of desserts over the course of our two-hour discussion.
His voluble remarks and far-flung references during dinner made it clear that he possessed an equally voracious visual appetite, as a zealous collector of images, objects, and ephemera, and as a photographer in his own right. In his paintings Martin freely sampled, reworked, repurposed, and conflated influences from this vast and eclectic trove of sources. Cognizant of the purpose for this interview, he was especially forthcoming about the artists who inspired him and the remarkably fluid range of Asian and Western art historical and vernacular precedents that he drew upon.
Our 1989 exchange was part of my early academic research on East Coast–based artists whose work engaged social themes, focusing on how they positioned themselves as Asians living in American society and in the West through the scrim of their visual art. Detailed oral history–style interviews comprised the core of the study, as my means to gain direct insights into these individuals’ ideas, backgrounds, working processes, and the meanings they invested in their creations. Many of these interviews were with first generation immigrant artists from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines for whom matters of globalization, migration, place, home, and intercultural contact and mixing were prominent themes. Accordingly I was keenly interested in how differently Martin Wong—as a third generation Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco, home to the oldest and one of the largest Chinatowns in North America—might conceive of and negotiate his relationship to Chinese heritage and to things Chinese through his visual production.
At the time we met, Martin was best known for what he termed his “topographical” paintings of urban scenes and portraits of primarily Black and Puerto Rican residents in his Lower East Side neighborhood, where he moved in 1982. I had attended several of his gallery exhibitions and noted that the Chinese presence in New York was seldom visible in these paintings, apart from occasional images of storefronts and signage from local Chinese laundries. During that period I had also worked as an artist and writer with Asian American community arts organizations that emerged in Chinatown during the 1970s. While our paths sometimes crossed there in the 1980s, I was aware that Martin had no active involvement with those Chinatown venues although he did contribute a few paintings centered on his Chinese heritage and on the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to several group exhibitions at the Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC). Since I had not visited Martin’s studio prior to the interview, it was revelatory to discover that all along the artist was privately developing what he considered a “parallel body of work” involving imagery that offered striking insight into how his Chinese background integrally informed the way he saw the world.
Nonetheless, Martin remained circumspect about widely displaying work that foregrounded his Asian background, especially after he began to exhibit his Lower East Side paintings in commercial galleries in the mid-1980s. Concerned about having his work dismissively confined under rubrics of ethnic heritage or identity, Wong admittedly strove to first consolidate his art world reputation in New York before publicly unveiling this extensive imagery through exhibitions exclusively devoted to the subject in mainstream venues—first in the pivotal 1993 solo show Chinatown USA at P.P.O.W Gallery and subsequently at San Francisco Art Institute.
Wong’s sensitivity to ethnic stereotyping and its potentially marginalizing effects, and his pragmatic moves to circumvent those pitfalls, are understandable given the mounting critical backlash against multiculturalism and identity politics in the arts during that period. Indeed, the debut of these largely clandestine works at P.P.O.W occurred only a month before the opening of the 1993 Whitney Biennial (March 4–June 20, 1993) that was notoriously pilloried by some New York art critics for its predominant focus on social issues, identity, and race—and derided by one national commentator as an “immersion course in marginality.”
Moreover, Martin Wong, a resolutely maverick figure, never sought to exclusively ally with any single group and even eschewed being identified as Asian American. Rather he chose to circulate freely as an exuberant participant in multiple urban cultures, enclaves, and social circles, and his work drew upon different aspects of his experience as a person of Chinese heritage in America, as an openly gay man, as a person of color in a predominantly white and Eurocentric society, as an art collector and proponent of graffiti art, and as a downtown art world denizen.
While his ancestral and cultural ties were a lasting source of pride and a catalyst for exploration, Martin’s view of his relationship to his diasporic Chinese background could also be equivocal. Although Wong grew up in nearby Little Italy and frequently spent time in San Francisco Chinatown with his relatives and friends, in our interview he described his position as more akin to being an outsider or tourist, especially since he was unable to speak Chinese. Whereas his paintings of the Lower East Side sprang from scenes witnessed on its streets, Wong characterized his images of Chinatown’s immigrant community as distanced—primarily mediated through fragmentary childhood memories, family photographs, and stories of his parents’ generation from the 1930s and 1940s, alongside a cache of local ephemera he amassed. Among his touchstones from that era were the Chinese American nightclubs featured in Arthur Dong’s groundbreaking 1989 documentary Forbidden City, USA, where his aunt Nora (Eleanor) Wong had been a popular performer in the 1940s.
What then accounts for the powerful influence that things Chinese exerted in Wong’s imagination, prompting him to continuously circle back to that subject? In certain respects, Martin could probably be seen as closer to second generation Chinese Americans (i.e., the descendants of immigrant parents), despite the fact that both his mother and his stepfather, who was of mixed Chinese and Mexican American heritage, were US-born. His late mother Florence Wong Fie (née Jan, 1916–2017) left Portland, Oregon, with her family to spend her childhood and early adult years in Guangzhou (Canton) and did not return to the US until 1940, when she was in her twenties. This fact is significant because she was able to speak the language, read Chinese publications at home, and quite likely shared stories with Martin about family history and the tumultuous events that reshaped China in the 1920s and 1930s. She likewise was active in translating Chinese texts for Martin’s paintings and supported his early interest in collecting Asian art, antiques, and decorative objects.
Through these firsthand familial connections to Guangzhou and exposure to Chinese culture, it is conceivable that Wong felt himself to have inherited what I term a "conflated tradition." In this light, Martin’s ongoing interest in things Chinese is principally transactional, proceeding from an internal conversation between a culturalist transnational impulse and the more domestic position of a Chinese American. Indeed, Martin’s sense of self—fittingly described by one commentator as a “proto-globalist’s self-identity”—can more accurately be seen as set in the ongoing saga of East-West exchange and crosscultural hybridization that have shaped the modern world. Positing Wong’s approach in these broader terms counters critical assumptions that his Chinese-themed work was necessarily parochially conceived, simply reinscribing familiar imagery associated with Chinatown and the Chinese presence in America, although he did knowingly select and play upon such tropes.
Since a number of the artist’s paintings reference art and visual culture in China and conjure visions of Chinese as modern global travelers, viewing Wong’s sensibility through this far wider lens adds further resonance to a comment he made to a critic in the mid-1980s, claiming that he thought of himself as a Chinese landscape painter. Nodding to the precedent of “3,000 years of [Chinese] art history,” Martin equated his placement of sign language symbols for the deaf floating above apartment buildings in his Lower East Side series to the traditional practice of inscribing calligraphic text across the skies of Chinese landscapes. From this angle of view it is easier to understand why this remarkably prolific artist was also attracted to imagery that denotes and amplifies the historic presence, participation, and agency of Chinese as social actors, creative figures, and instigators of artistic and technological change in the modern world.
A key to deciphering Martin Wong’s approach to art making is the foundational premise that he never invented images; as he clearly states in the interview, “Every image derives from something on the outside, not something I imagine.” Consequently, the artist’s images, and the places, people, and histories they reference, are largely informed by his perception of the world as it exists. Yet, whereas Martin’s work is often imbued with this close attention to the literal, the results are never literal-minded. Using this observation as a point of departure, my commentary profiles selected paintings to retrospectively ferret out examples of the various sources that demonstrably informed and resonate within Wong’s work, thereby shedding light on the eclectic associative logics that undergird many of Martin’s Asian-centered pieces. Furthermore, the larger impact of familial connections in mediating between the present and the past calls for closer inquiry in assaying Wong’s exploration of things Chinese—much as the impact of autobiography has received considerable attention in the urban and prison imagery that emerged from the artist’s relationship with the poet and playwright Miguel Piñero in New York.
Indeed Martin’s interview only hints at the variegated cultural references that inspired and fed into his visual imagination, among them: American social realism, traditional East Asian and Tibetan art, late nineteenth-century China trade painting, European art, Japanese woodblock prints, folk art, Chinese opera, martial arts and samurai films, and even sixties underground “comix.” This dizzying array of potential sources, augmented by clippings from publications, historical photographs, hundreds of snapshots taken by the artist, and all manner of bric-a-brac and trinkets scooped up from local shops, provides clues to his working methods and his often collage-like compositions. In scrutinizing Martin’s paintings I also recognized references and imagery that drew upon examples from Chinese popular visual and print culture, including calendar advertising posters from the 1930s and 1940s—a context in which his paintings have seldom been considered.
The task of tracking down these source images to compare with his paintings proved to be extraordinarily challenging amid the ongoing closure of archives containing the artist’s accumulated papers, photographic materials, and academic libraries and museums due to the COVID pandemic. So I am deeply indebted to the extended community of scholars, curators, librarians, archivists, and Wong’s friends who provided access to crucial materials, translated Chinese language sources, and shared personal recollections, without which this writing would not have proceeded.
Citing social realism as an early impetus, Wong recalls the impact of viewing Depression era murals produced for the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the major local commissions executed by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886–1957). One can imagine the appeal of the Rivera murals’ bold graphic elements, solid forms, balanced and tightly structured compositions, and vernacular subjects and narratives. Among these many period murals were those displayed at the artist’s alma mater, George Washington High School, and at Coit Tower where the urban subjects and the range of colors typical of works by Victor Arnautoff (1896–1979), Lucien Labaudt (1880–1943), and Bernard Zakheim (1898–1985) are echoed in the street scenes of Martin’s Sunset Park (1985) series, among other paintings (figure 2). Another notable inspiration was early work by Dong Kingman (1911–2000), a role model for Martin as a prominent Oakland-born Chinese American and as a WPA painter who drew upon Chinatown iconography.
Beginning in the 1960s, the artist began to adapt formats and motifs from East Asian calligraphy and hanging scrolls, Chinese landscape painting, ancient Chinese jade discs (bi), and Tibetan Buddhist tantric art and thangkas (paintings on fabric) for his various projects in San Francisco. At the same time, reflecting his training in ceramics, Wong sought to emulate the use of mineralized glaze-like surface textures, along with the gilding and water-based colors that he saw in Asian painting. Wong regularly visited museums, and a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art bookstore in the late 1980s gave him further opportunity to examine their publications and collections of Asian and other non-Western art and artifacts, immersing himself in that material. Indeed, recalling his chat with Martin during a visit to the Metropolitan, an art critic appreciatively noted the artist’s passion for classical Chinese art, a subject that he “knew and loved with a connoisseur’s hungry eye.”
 This interview with Martin Wong was part of my 1989–90 research project on East Coast–based Asian American artists. This study was supported by a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowship (1989–90) and sponsored by the Asian/American Center at Queens College, City University of New York.
 Although Wong states that he moved to the Lower East Side in “December 1980, Spring of 1981,” the MWCR chronology cites 1982 as the date of record.
 Martin contributed a painting entitled Liberty Mourning the Death of Her Sister–Beijing (1989) to the exhibition,China: June 4, 1989, organized by the Asian American Arts Centre in New York (June 9–September 30, 1989). http://www.artspiral.org/past_exhibitions/june4/june4.php#worksframe.
 Chinatown USA made its debut at P.P.O.W Gallery in New York in a show running from January 5 to February 6, 1993. Martin Wong: The Chinatown Paintings opened at the Walter/McBean Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute on October 7 in a show running to November 13, 1993. Wong explained that he also chose to hold back on exhibiting this body of work until he had sufficiently developed techniques to execute these paintings in the Eastern style he envisioned.
 For an example of disparaging critical responses to the 1993 Whitney Biennial see Robert Hughes, “Art: The Whitney Biennial: A Fiesta of Whining,” Time, March 22, 1993, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,978001,00.html.
 In a notebook entry addressed to the “exceedingly dull and lifeless politically correct academe who attempted to decipher my paintings,” Wong ruminates over their interpretations of his work. Addressing a long list of grievances, the artist adamantly declaims that he “was never an outsider to anything,” and that he would never “be caught dead being an Asian American—I reserve the right to my orientism.” Martin Wong, undated notebook, series II, box 4, folder 76, Martin Wong Papers, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.
Such assertions attest to Wong’s determined opposition to attempts to categorize him or to impose notions of what was or was not appropriate to represent in his art. His remark about “orientism” is especially telling, as it appears to be a rejoinder to prevailing postcolonial critiques of Western orientalism in literature and the arts that gained currency in the US academy after the 1978 publication of Edward W. Said's influential book Orientalism. From that vantage point Wong's Chinatown-related work was especially vulnerable to critique for reinscribing orientalist ethnic stereotypes. For an incisive discussion of these critical issues see Marci Kwon, “A Secret History of Martin Wong," in The Present Prospects of Social Art History, ed. Robert Slifkin and Anthony E. Grudin (New York, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2021), 115.
 See Arthur Dong’s 1989 documentary, Forbidden City, USA, https://www.deepfocusproductions.com/films/forbidden-city-usa/.
 Holland Cotter, “Martin Wong, an Urban Visionary With a Hungry Eye,” New York Times, November 19, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/20/arts/design/martin-wong-an-urban-visionary-with-a-hungry-eye.html.
 Yasmin R. Harwood, “Martin Wong: Writing in the Sky,” East Village Eye, October 1984, 25.
 Gary Ware, email to the author, August 14, 2021. Wong’s longtime friend Gary Ware recalled accompanying Martin to see Chinese opera films at the former Pagoda Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in the late 1960s. This theater also featured midnight performances by the Cockettes (1969–71), a drag theatrical group. Their shows included the Chinese-themed extravaganza Pearls Over Shanghai (1970) for which Martin designed flyers, scenery, and costumes.
 Cotter, “Martin Wong, an Urban Visionary.”