Pieces of the Puzzle: Martin Wong’s Multiplicity | Mark Dean Johnson
In a 1991 review of an exhibition of Martin Wong’s work at Kenkeleba House in New York, Village Voice art critic Elizabeth Hess described a major (now lost) painting entitled Tree of Life (figure 1). Six or seven television sets, most of them broken, sat on the floor in front of the painted image of an immense redwood stump rendered in red, roiling bricks—a multimedia installation of dystopic ambiguity that conjured a vision of environmental obsolescence and a reminder of the artist’s years in California’s heavily logged Humboldt County. Hess also noted a back room of that exhibition that featured a “series of small works hung together like pieces of a puzzle.” This essay suggests some sources and strategies for navigating Wong’s provocative puzzles, often comprising several components arranged or installed together, all embedded with multiple ideas and associations.
Martin Wong is today recognized as a key figure in New York’s Lower East Side scene of the 1980s that included Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring—artists who were interested in graffiti yet whose work still seems singularly idiosyncratic and difficult to situate stylistically. During his twenty-year career working and exhibiting in New York, Wong was often seen as an outsider owing to his layering of a realist style, quirky iconography—including American Sign Language (ASL) fingerspelling—and obscure references to cosmologies drawn from Asian art that together defy easy categorization. In retrospect, we can appreciate in Wong’s art a deep resonance with the work of disparate other artists. One is surrealist Rene Magritte, who explored similar imagery and visual strategies: stumps constructed of bricks in several works entitled La folie Almayer (1951–ca. 1960); gilded molding framing an unremarkable section of brick wall (La saignée, 1938–39, figure 2); and a suite of paintings (La clef des songes) that presents the viewer with multipanel compositions featuring both imagery and text, all tactics that Wong variously deployed (figure 3).
Wong also helped forge an Asian American visionary modernism related to the work of such artists as Ching Ho Cheng and Yoyoi Kusama. Kusama arrived in New York twenty years before Wong but likewise drew inspiration from the counterculture. Her interest in multiplicity is reflected in her signature “Infinity Net” paintings and sculptures that exploded with phallic forms, respectively akin to Wong’s brick grids and painted Brick Dicks. Wong and Kusama were highly productive, but both experienced difficult psychological episodes. Kusama’s long career reminds us why we mourn Wong’s abbreviated one.
 Elizabeth Hess, “The Persian Gulf School,” Village Voice, February 12, 1991, 87.
 In his review of Wong’s 2015 retrospective at the Bronx Museum of Art, Peter Schjeldahl suggested recognizing Basquiat, Haring, and Wong as the key figures in the 1980s New York art scene. Peter Schjeldahl, “City Scenes: A Martin Wong Retrospective,” New Yorker, November 16, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/16/city-scenes.