Martin Wong, Sketchbooks from the Fales Library Collection + RSGA @ Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU


Martin Wong, Sketchbooks from the Fales Library Collection + RSGA @ Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU


July 9 - August 19, 2012


Andrew Blackley (curator)


1) Following his move from San Francisco to New York in the early 1980s, Wong based his painting on urban subjects inspired by the graffiti and street poetry scene of New York's Lower East Side. Exploring poverty, prison, and the machismo of urban life, the exhibition confirmed Wong's status as a key interpreter of cultural and economic displacement. Self-taught as a painter (although schooled in ceramics), he has passionately documented the world around him with a directness and idiosyncratic vision that make him one of the truly original stylists emerging from the New York art scene of the 1980s. By the late 80s, Wong had created a cast of characters including homeboys, hip-hop dancers, boxers, firemen, and policemen interspersed with portraits of friends, his companion Miguel Pinero, and graffiti artists Daze, Lee, Sharp and LA2. In the 1990s, after Pinero's death, Wong changed course in a series of works that took his Chinese-American heritage as its subject. Far from drawing on classical images, Wong created paintings that are modern pop images, witty, half-realistic, half fantastic, juxtaposing images of his heroes Kato, Bruce Lee, and Buddha with Chinese opera stars and corner laundries. (New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York)


2) Born Martin Victor Wong in Portland, Oregon on July 11, 1946, Wong was raised by his Chinese-American parents in San Francisco. Wong was involved in performance art in the 1970's, but focused almost exclusively on painting after moving to New York in the early 1980's. The self-taught Wong, whose work showed a distinct gay sensibility, became a respected, renowned and prolific painter in New York's downtown art scene. He also cultivated both working and personal relationships with graffiti artists and enthusiasts in that scene. His compositions combine gritty social documents, cosmic witticisms, and symbolic languages that chronicle survival in his drug-and-crime-besieged Lower East Side neighborhood. In addition to his painting, Wong also experimented with poetry and prose, much of which he recorded on long paper scrolls. Wong died of AIDS in 1999. (Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU)


3) Martin Wong (1946-1999) was born in Portland, Oregon and raised in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, California. He studied ceramics at Humboldt State University, graduating in 1968. During the 1970s he was active in the San Francisco Bay Area art scene, and was involved with the performance art groups The Cockettes and Angels of Light. In 1978 he moved to Manhattan, eventually settling in the Lower East Side, where his attention turned exclusively to painting. He was first exhibited in a group show at ABC No Rio in 1982, and went on to have one person shows at Semaphore Gallery, Exit Art and PPOW. Wong was a collector and connoisseur of everything from graffiti to Asian antiquities. His graffiti collection grew to be perhaps the largest in the world; in 1993 he donated it to the Museum of the City of New York. Martin Wong died in San Francisco from an AIDS related illness in 1999. (Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin)


4) Martin Wong’s singular approach to painting combines painstaking documentary realism with highly charged symbols and decorative motifs to reflect a culturally diverse worldview. Wong studied ceramics in northern California and was a member of several performance troupes in San Francisco before eventually becoming a self-taught painter and moving to New York. He arrived in 1978 and joined the lively East Village art scene, filled with artists making political work about their personal and cultural experiences. His urban landscapes show a critical engagement with gritty everyday scenes; an obsessive focus on detail; a flair for ornamentation; and an affinity for language, symbols, and storytelling. (The Society for Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago)


Martin Wong, Sketchbooks continues a dialogue between collections held at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and New York University. It follows an exhibition at the Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU featuring materials from the Randolph Street Gallery archives courtesy of the John M. Flaxman Library. Randolph Street Gallery Archives began to visualize historical networks and influences that existed between New York downtown art - a focus of the Fales - and Chicago at the Randolph Street Gallery during its existence as an alternative space for the visual and performing arts 1979-1998. All notebooks in Martin Wong, Sketchbooks are courtesy of the Martin Wong Papers at the Fales Library and Special Collections. Multiple sketchbooks are available for individual research by appointment at the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection during the duration of the exhibition. 




Andrew Blackley (curator), “Martin Wong, Sketchbooks from the Fales Library Collection + RSGA @ Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU
,” SAIC Flaxman Library & Special Collection Exhibitions, accessed August 17, 2019,