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1981 Clonesofbrucelee

Martin Wong, Clones of Bruce Lee, 1981

Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York. Collection of Nachson Mimran


Martin Wong, who – in the words of American artist Julie Ault –­­ “devoted himself to inventing painting techniques that would allow him to authentically evoke his surroundings,” was a voice at odds with the art establishment’s reactionary discourse. Documents of disorder and possibility, his paintings of political scenographies from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s engage with queerness, marginal community, and urban gentrification set against a dilapidated, creatively explosive New York City.

Throughout his career, Wong remained free from the constraints of artistic tribalism, occupying the margins of experimental theatre troupes and Puerto Rican poetry collectives with equal ease. It was in the latter, the Nuyorican Poets Café, where Wong met petty criminal Miguel Piñero, who would become his lover and guide through the city’s nascent arts scene – a city depicted by Wong in his 1980s paintings with dusky red-brick tenements and the abject, often eroticised figures who inhabit them. A fortuitous encounter with a deaf man led Wong to incorporate American Sign Language into his works, which became a visual signature.

“He was a resolutely maverick figure,” wrote art historian Margo Machida, “who never sought to exclusively ally with any single group and eschewed being identified as Asian American … He chose to circulate freely as an exuberant participant in multiple urban cultures, enclaves, and social circles, and his work drew upon different aspects of his experience as a person of Chinese heritage in America, as an openly gay man, as a person of colour in a predominantly white and Eurocentric society, as an art collector and proponent of graffiti art, and as a downtown art world denizen.” It’s this capacity of art to reveal and conceal, be and not-be, that these chubby hands impart – signing out their own title in a mute semiotic play. ◉