MARTIN WONG (1946-1999)
MARTIN WONG (1946-1999)
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MARTIN WONG (1946-1999)


MARTIN WONG (1946-1999)
Wong, M.
signed, titled, dedicated and dated 'TO STEVE & SUE from Martin Wong 1991' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
24 ¼ x 24 ¼ in. (61.6 x 61.6 cm.)
Painted in 1991.
Gift of the artist to the present owner, 1991

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Lot Essay

Meticulously shaped and stretched, Martin Wong’s octagonal Untitled, painted in 1991, alludes to the traffic signs seen around the streets of New York, recalling the urban influences that the artist translated onto his canvases in his singular style. Concentric black bands outlined in terracotta red, forming a bullseye, radiate from the center and overlay a wall of brick, one of Wong’s most distinguishable and cherished motifs. First making their appearance in the artist’s works in the mid-1970s, bricks and their trompe l’oeil effects remained steadfast through Wong’s oeuvre until his death in 1999, becoming a central focus upon the artist’s move to New York City in 1978, when he was living downtown surrounded by tenement buildings with towering brick facades. In a 1989 conversation with art historian Margo Machida, Wong states, “When I paint, I don’t want it to look like paint, I want it to look like real brick or real chain link fence.”

Born in 1946 in Portland, Oregon, Wong grew up in San Francisco, encouraged by his mother to explore his interests in art and collecting. Wong began studying ceramics at Mills College in Oakland before dropping out, after his ceramic work was rejected by the Association of San Francisco Potters for incorporating glitter, considered a ‘non-ceramic media.’ Feeling the world of ceramics too restricted, Wong decided to refocus his artistic practice, eventually turning to painting. In the early 1980s, Wong began experimenting beyond the traditional four-sided canvas support, venturing into shapes such as tondos, rhombuses, hearts, and even installing canvases as screens in old television sets, blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture, emphasizing surface and tactility, and recalling the early beginnings of his artistic career as a sculptor.

Wong’s early explorations of the octagonal canvas are seen in works such as Untitled (STOP) from 1988, where the artist incorporates his signature brick and sign language motifs to create a stylized STOP sign on canvas. In 1990, in collaboration with the Public Art Fund, Wong created Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired, a multisite artwork installed around New York City resulting in the artist’s six-month residency at the Department of Transportation’s sign shop. The present work, painted the following year, utilizes the octagon shape that Wong meticulously explored during his residency to create a bullseye tromp l’oeil composition recalling the signage scattered on every street corner surrounding the everyday pedestrian. Wong would continue his exploration of the octagon canvas throughout the 90s, culminating in a series of works depicting constellations surrounded by a brick border.

1991 was a significant year for Wong: in addition to the residency with Public Art Fund and Department of Public Transportation, he also received a major public art commission from the city’s Board of Education, School Construction Authority, and Department of Cultural Affairs (health issues would prevent the artist from seeing it to its completion). The following year, Wong received Mayor David Dinkins’ “Very Special Arts Award” for producing a significant art project to include all New Yorkers. Wong, often described as a social realist and documentarian and earning the street moniker “Human Instamatic,” sought to capture the immediate world around him, finding beauty in the urban landscape of dilapidated brick buildings of the Lower East Side to the friends and local people living around him. As Antonio Sergio Bessa describes, Wong was an “engaged chronicler of the everday in the Loisaida…we observe Wong becoming the voice of the community that he chose to embrace…” (A. S. Bessa, “Dropping Out: Martin Wong and the American Counterculture,” Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, exh. cat., New York, Bronx Museum, 2015, pp. 19-21). Whether in literal depictions of people on the street or through diligent studies of concrete, brick, and metal grates of the buildings in his new chosen home, Wong turned the contents of everyday life, good or bad, into visually rich compositions. Wong’s singular representational and visual lexicon encompassed the urban landscape, memorializing the raw and the romantic, bringing beauty and permanence to what was seen at the time as discarded, overlooked, and forgotten.

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