MATTHEW WONG (1984-2019)
MATTHEW WONG (1984-2019)
MATTHEW WONG (1984-2019)
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Property from a Private European Collection
MATTHEW WONG (1984-2019)

Night 1

MATTHEW WONG (1984-2019)
Night 1
signed in Chinese, titled ‘NIGHT 1’ and dated in Chinese (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
70 x 60 in. (177.8 x 152.4 cm.)
Painted in 2018.
Private collection, Europe
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Hong Kong, MASSIMODECARLO, Matthew Wong: Day by Night, January-March 2019.

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

I have not really thought much about my place in the histories and lineages of painting. This may sound a bit idealistic, but I really would like to think that anybody out there painting or drawing something at the moment is engaging in the same larger, perhaps infinitely vast conversation as I am about the craft. M. Wong, quoted in M. Vogel, “Matthew Wong Reflects on the Melancholy of Life,” Art of Choice, November 15, 2018

In this large-scale painting, Matthew Wong expands his signature aesthetic to embrace the mysterious beauty similar to that contained within Henri Rousseau’s luscious jungle landscapes. Wong created the present work using a wet-on-wet painting technique, which involves the layering of pigment before it dries. This process requires a fast and light touch, and what results is an enchanting landscape both ethereal and material. The New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith hailed Wong as “one of the most talented painters of his generation” (R. Smith, “A Final Rhapsody in Blue From Matthew Wong,” New York Times, December 24, 2019), and Night 1 epitomizes the prescience of Wong’s unique vision, completed just a year before his untimely passing.

Though Wong did not have formal training in painting, he held a MFA in photography from the City University of Hong Kong. His paintings are coveted not only because of his short six-year oeuvre, but also because of their unparalleled emotional force. In Night 1, there is certainly melancholy, but also peace, as is often the case in Vincent van Gogh’s landscapes. The moon glows with subtle optimism upon a blue and green field. Trees in the distance do not obscure, but rather in the Romantic and Gothic traditions, signal the wistful passage of time. Alternatively, we could see Night 1 as a rendering not of a field, but of seedlings emerging from underground as they are fed by moonlight. As Murray Whyte of The Boston Globe observes, “Wong’s painting, I think, is less a record of inner turmoil than it is an expression of his life unfettered by those struggles — the space where, for him, freedom reigned” (M. Whyte, “In his scant six years of painting, Matthew Wong built a vision all his own,” The Boston Globe, July 6, 2023). The archetypal dark night of the soul could be a contemplative evening walk in nature wherein we can imagine a world that accepts us.

Wong’s advanced knowledge of modern art was extraordinary for such a young artist. He cited Yayoi Kusama as an influence, and their relationship does not end with their shared use of colorful dots. The sky of Night 1 resembles one of Kusama’s immersive Infinity Mirror Rooms (1965—), and his expressive treatment of the natural world surely draws from her paintings Flowers (1983) and Summer Flowers (1988). Wong also cites Louise Bourgeois as an important forebearer. Although best known as a sculptor, Bourgeois also painted and drew. In Roof Song (1946-1948, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Bourgeois prefigures Wong’s evocative use of blue in a surreal landscape. There are also similarities between her sculptures and Night 1, which also uses biomorphic shapes to evoke the human body.

Wong’s first comprehensive retrospective, Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances, is currently on view through 2024 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston after originating at the Dallas Museum of Art. One critic wrote of the exhibition, “It presents him not as a prodigy but as a talented artist who had only just begun to find his footing and as a Canadian of the Asian diaspora who had started to discover his place within the world…It views Wong not just as a modernism aficionado but as a curious art lover whose inquiry transcended the Western canon” (A. Greenberger, “A Must-See Matthew Wong Retrospective Reveals New Sides of an Artist Whose Story Is Still Emerging,” ARTnews, July 28, 2023). The New Yorker also raved, “Walking through this show is like watching one of those time-lapse videos of a plant exploding out of soil. In a fair world, there would be a forest by now” (J. Arn, “Matthew Wong Turned Loneliness Into a Landscape,” The New Yorker, September 4, 2023).

Wong’s paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, where a survey of Wong’s paintings alongside examples from Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period was mounted in 2021. The anticipated exhibition Matthew Wong/Vincent van Gogh: Painting as a Last Resort will open next year at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Poignantly, Wong wrote of the Dutch master, “I see myself in him. The impossibility of belonging in this world,” (M. Wong, “Exhibition Matthew Wong Vincent van Gogh,” Van Gogh Museum). Yet in Night 1, there is a possibility of belonging, even if it means melding with the night.

Night 1 exists between worlds in a manner both surreal and familiar—a dichotomy that Wong and his Post-Impressionist heroes built with inimitable skill. We can find ourselves within it and walk alongside Wong, who acts as a mystic and guide. The artist himself can also be located in this nightscape. One of his poems could describe the loveliness of the present work, “I am the wind’s last legs at dusk. I am six feet short of the moon” (M. Wong, quoted in C. Drake, “Matthew Wong,” Artforum, December 2020). This is perhaps why the moon reaches toward the ground in Night 1. It longs to touch terra firma, and Wong brings it closer and closer to us. He is both the wind’s last legs and its first gust that rustles in and among the grass and trees of Night 1.

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