Martin Wong Papers

Date Range:
Survey Conducted: Mon, 2008-12-01
Creator: Wong, Martin (1946-1999)

History: Acclaimed Chinese American artist Martin Wong (1946-1999) is best known for his cityscapes of New York’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side, his championing of graffiti art as a legitimate art form in the 1980s and ‘90s, and his incorporation of homoerotic sensibilities into his paintings. Wong was born in Portland, Oregon on July 11, 1946. He grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown district and attended Humboldt State University, graduating in 1968 from its Art Studio program with a focus on ceramics. He was involved in the Bay Area’s performance art scene through the 1970s, but after moving to New York in the early 1980s, began to focus almost exclusively on painting.

Wong’s paintings manifest several recurring themes and motifs; Firefighters, sign language, constellations, prison, Chinatown, bricks, tenement living, Nuyorican poetry, and Loisaida, the Hispanic section of the Lower East Side where Wong lived, factor largely in the artist’s works. His stylistic influences seem to encompass an eclectic combination of pan-Asian art and culture (Tibetan and Chinese in particular), graffiti, comic books, tattoos, and the bold arcs and color-blocking of Indigenous art. In addition to painting, Wong experimented with poetry and prose, which he recorded on long paper scrolls. These writings were highly anecdotal, semi-autobiographical, and stylistically, resembled stream-of-consciousness. An openly gay artist, one of Wong’s most significant relationships was that shared with poet, playwright, and one-time romantic partner Miguel Piñero. Works growing out of this collaboration include “Attorney Street Handball Court” (1982-1984) and “Little Got Rained On” (1983) which both incorporate Piñero’s poetic verses. Piñero also appears as subject in a number of Wong’s paintings, including “Portrait of Pinero” (1982), “Penitentiary Fox” (1988), and “La Vida” (1988).

Artistically, Wong was also interested in the nascent graffiti art scene of downtown New York in the 1980s and 1990s and sought to promote it as a legitimate art form. He befriended such graffiti artists as “Daze” (Chris Ellis), “Lee,” “Laroc,” and “LA2,” and made efforts to publicize their works in exhibitions and through a working relationship with the grassroots Museum of American Graffiti. Also within his social milieu were arts journalist Theresa Herron, Steve Hernandez, “Magic Sam,” artist John Ahearn, “Lady” Joyce Ryan, Barry Blinderman, and Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pikington of the PPOW Gallery.Wong is closely associated with the downtown galleries Semaphore, Exit Art, and PPOW; however, his works were also shown in the Metropolitan Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the New York Historical Society. He has also been profiled in numerous art and popular publications, including Arts Magazine, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The East Village Eye. Wong died in San Francisco of an AIDS-related illness in 1999. Critical acclaim of his work has continued after his death and his works can be found in collections around the world.

Sources: “The Estate of Martin Wong: Biography.” PPOW. Accessed February 4, 2015.

“Inside the HSU Library Tour: Martin Wong.” Art Inside the HSU Library. Accessed February 4, 2015.

“Guide to the Martin Wong Papers.” Accessed February 4, 2015. Finding aid at the NYU Fales Library and Special Collections, New York, NY: New York University.

Hill, Joe. “Martin Wong at P.P.O.W – Brief Article.” Art in America. Sept. 2001.

Navarro, Mireya. “The Poetry of the Nuyorican Experience; Writers Following in the Literary Tradition of Miguel Piñero Thrive in a Poets’ Café.” New York Times. New York, NY: Jan. 2, 2002. Accessed February 4, 2015.….

Tu, Thuy Lin. “An Immigrant’s Imagination: Martin Wong’s Lower East Side.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007.

Wong, Martin and Marcia Tucker. Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong. New Museum of Contemporary Art. Edited by Amy Scholder. New York: Rizzoli Books, 1998.

Summary: The collection is comprised of over 100 sketches and drawings, more than 30 sketchbooks, correspondence, poetry and prose, biographical documents, source material, audio and videocassette recordings, photos, and graffiti tag-books, graffiti-related materials and parts of Wong’s personal library.

Source material includes magazines, postcards, posters, memorabilia, and a vast collection of Wong’s snapshots. Biographical material features Wong’s curriculum vitae, copies of newspaper and magazine profiles of Wong, business cards and addresses of associates, and publicity materials related to Wong’s exhibitions. Wong’s poetry and prose contains a significant portion of the biographical material – much of it anecdotal in tone. The graffiti portion of the archive is comprehensive and includes sketchbooks, illustrations, text on graffiti (authored by both Wong and others), publicity material pertaining to graffiti exhibitions, and materials pertaining to the graffiti film: “Wild Style.” Of particular interest are the numerous examples of tagging found in both the sketchbooks and other artwork.

A zealous collector and graffiti enthusiast, Wong amassed a considerable cache of graffiti material in the 1980’s; the collection is therefore indispensable to anyone interested in New York’s renegade ‘80s graffiti scene. The Martin Wong Papers also document New York’s downtown arts scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with particular emphasis on Wong’s participation and recognition in the gallery scene.

Total Size: 29.5 linear feet and 32 boxes
APA-related Size: 29.5 linear feet and 32 boxes
Languages of materials: English, Chinese, Spanish, and American Sign Language
Arrangement: other
Location: Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University
Bibliographic Control: finding aid
Finding Aid Link:
Conditions Governing Access: Contact repository for detailed information on conditions governing access.

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