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Martin Wong (1946-1999)
Martin Wong (1946-1999)
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Property from a Significant Asian Private Collection
Martin Wong (1946-1999)

Untitled (Statue of Liberty)

Details
Martin Wong (1946-1999)
Untitled (Statue of Liberty)
signed and dated ‘MARTIN WONG 1990’ (upper right)
acrylic on canvas
24 x 36 in. (61 x 91.5 cm.)
Painted in 1990.
Provenance
Private collection, acquired directly from the artist
P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Jacky Ho
Jacky Ho

Lot Essay

Martin Wong’s Untitled (Statue of Liberty) is a haunting portrait of one of the world’s most famous monuments. A symbol of liberty and freedom, Wong depicts the Statue of Liberty in a radically new and shocking way. With her head bowed and resting on her arm, she appears tired and dejected, her face lined with exasperation. It is a far cry from the proud and majestic pose of the real life statue that has welcomed generations of immigrants to New York City for nearly 150 years. The heavy symbolism of the Statue of Liberty seemingly resonated with Wong (born in Portland, Oregon to Chinese immigrant parents), as he painted at least half a dozen canvases featuring “Lady Liberty,” and it would become one of the consistent themes of his career. Born in 1946, Wong spent a significant part of his career living and working in New York’s Lower East Side, where his paintings explored the ethnic and social diversity of this unique neighborhood. Wong was the subject of a major, critically acclaimed, exhibition organized by the Bronx Museum in New York in 2015 (which travelled to the Wexner Art Center, Columbus, Ohio), and his work is held in a number of important public collections including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

In Untitled (Statue of Liberty), Wong concentrates his attention on Lady Liberty’s face. Traditionally an overlooked part of the statue (our concentration is often focused on her torch, her crown, or the book she is carrying), here Wong fills the canvas with her exasperated features. Instead of reproducing the green tinge of the oxidized copper original, Wong paints his Statue of Liberty constructed out of brick, a material which fascinated him throughout his career, and would become one of the central motifs of many of his paintings. For Wong, bricks acted as a metaphor for the urban landscape, a symbol of containment and entrapment. This meaning has been traced back to a period when the artist first arrived in New York and spent a time living in a decrepit hotel, and began using the bare bricked walls of the surrounding buildings as his subject matter.

The Statue of Liberty, and her symbolic associations, have long provided a rich seam of inspiration for artists ever since the statue was unveiled in 1886. Marcel Duchamp once substituted Andre Breton’s face for Liberty’s on the cover of a book authored by the French Surrealist, and in 1962 Andy Warhol’s Statue of Liberty became one of the first paintings in his Death and Disaster series which examined the darker side of American society. His interest continue until the end of his career with his large-scale close up of the statue’s head and crown, often obscured by multi-colored camouflage. In his series We the People (2011-16), artist Danh Vo replicated large sections of the statue as abstract sculpture which are now exhibited all over the world. “Let her travel, let her be spread around,” Vo has said. “Let it just be this fluid mass that travels and becomes something very different” (D. Vo, quoted by C. Dover, “Danh Vo’s ‘We the People and Another Look at the Statue of Liberty,’ via https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/checklist/danh-vos-we-the-people-and-another-look-at-the-statue-of-liberty [accessed 6/10/2020]).

Martin Wong’s unique perspective and painterly talent has resulted in a body of work that revels in his lived experience. Just like his contemporaries Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, Wong has a particular view of the American experience and wasn’t afraid to explore that view through their art. Wong’s paintings reflect his unique perspective of being a gay Chinese-American artist during the 1970s and 1980s, and the architecture of the urban landscape of the Lower East Side so impacted the artist that it is permeated throughout many of his most significant works. Untitled (Statue of Liberty) is a central part of this narrative, and represents a voice that is so often missing from the art historical cannon of the twentieth century.

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