Q&A: Sergio Bessa On Martin Wong at the Bronx Museum

Dec 18, 2015, 7:45 AM EST
Martin Wong's "Sweet 'Enuff," 1987.
(Courtesy The Bronx Museum )

Origins, both biographical and ontological, haunt Martin Wong’s retrospective, Martin Wong: Human Instamatic,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (through February 14, 2016). The late American artist (1946-1999) began his career as a sidewalk painter, offering snapshot paintings as the show’s titular “Human Instamatic,” but he also dabbled widely, as a certain kind of rootless genius often does. Born and raised in San Francisco to parents of Chinese and Mexican heritage, Wong stuck around the Bay Area for the first three decades of his life, joining a gay theater troupe and traveling in Asia as a dealer and collector of Asian antiques. A visit to New York in 1978 became permanent, and Wong was a model student of his adopted city. Years later, he would return to the Bay Area to die, quietly painting his mother’s plants as he succumbed to AIDS. 

Writ large, “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” speaks to the shortcomings of the critical-curatorial apparatus when faced with an artist who defies caricature periodization or an easy critical shorthand. Prior to this exhibition, the institutional dues paid to Wong had been devastatingly scant, and largely oriented around his identity (gay, Chino-Latino, HIV-positive) and friendship with graffiti artists: The Museum of the City of New York showed his graffiti collection in 2014’s “City as Canvas,” while the artist Danh Vo displayed graffiti and ephemera from Wong’s personal collection as part of his 2012 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim. These are important elements of his life, to be sure. But it’s telling that he recycled his only artistic collaboration with graffiti artists — Sharp and Delta 2 — as the backing for another painting. A clearer picture of his legacy emerges instead at the Bronx Museum, the gifted paper-bag poet, who spoke, on one such scrap displayed in a rear gallery, of “One trembling moment distilled, like the sweet vermouth we once got for some copper cables.”

We spoke to the Bronx Museum’s Sergio Bessa, who, alongside his colleague Yasmin Ramirez, curated the exhibition.

The Bronx Museum has collected Wong for some time, but I’m curious both about how that came to be and the genesis of this particular exhibition.

About nine years ago, when she came to the Bronx Museum, [executive director] Holly Block and I began a series of discussions about what to do with the collection. The Bronx Museum has a collection that we started in the ’80s, but it was very difficult to work with, the focus was very broad. So we thought of strategies to bring more focus, and one of the strategies was to create a list of about 20 to 30 names of artists that we thought would be interesting to the Bronx’s communities, and that we could go deeper into collecting. And so one of the narratives that we explored was the topic of urban culture; the Bronx is a huge urban concentration, because of the traditions of hip-hop and street activity the museum always produced exhibitions that reflected on that. Because of that background, we thought that Martin’s work could be a focus for us. And personally I’ve always liked his work. I came to New York in 1998 and I began to see his work around that time and I followed him until he died, I saw the retrospective at the New Museum [in 1998]. But I was also very surprised that his prices were still very affordable, so a small museum like ours could still go after some pieces for the collection. And indeed, prior to this show, we were able to collect five really major works of Martin’s. Some of those works came from donations by collectors, some were purchases, and the last one was a really major cityscape that we acquired with funds from the Ford Foundation. So it started like that.

Then, about five years ago, I mentioned to Holly that it would be actually good to do a new show about Martin because he’s been under the radar for such a long time. I began to do research on people that had met Martin, like Peter Broda, who was a colleague of his when he worked at the Metropolitan Museum and with whom he opened the Museum of Graffiti Art in SoHo. We met with Dan Cameron, who was the curator at the New Museum who organized the retro in 1998, we met a number of people, and I even traveled to San Francisco to meet his mother and visit his house. That was for me the biggest revelation, because I could see… a lot of the early work he produced. [Those portraits, completed when Wong was as young as 12, are displayed in a small side gallery of the exhibition.]

In many ways Martin Wong’s work defies easy categorization — he was preoccupied with the urban and graffiti, but he was not a street artist, for example. He was of the ’80s but his works reflect in some ways a kind of timeless vision of the city. How did you balance his specific context with the broader landscape of American art?

Dan Cameron actually put it very well, and Dan has a short essay in the catalogue, but he says that in hindsight Martin was the quintessential artist from the ’80s, in the sense that there were so many people exploring so many different routes, but then Martin was creating this work that was in a sense this time capsule. I don’t think he tried to become classic, but he became classic. One of the sources I find in his work is Hopper, you see not only Alice Neel but also Hopper, a lot of those artists who were interested in community, artists who in a sense became the eyes of the community.

Isn’t there something of a tension that’s created between these two readings, of Wong as a very specific individual with a particular identity that fundamentally shaped his work, and how we might see the same work, formally and conceptually, as having broader art historical implications?

Wong was very learned, and he was very knowledgeable, he was always looking at art — he was a connoisseur. He clearly had a very great eye. John Yau, in his catalogue essay, decided to explore this idea of the self-taught artist — he was not a naive painter, he was very learned, he knew exactly what he was doing. So some of the references, for example in the very first room, the reference is Van Gogh, which is almost a cliché in art, but he makes such a twist that it’s like he’s doing Van Gogh but it’s not as a joke, he really goes to the core of what Van Gogh was, that very monastic, that very disciplined life, and that’s what Wong was.

And then later in the show when you see the paintings related to prison there are two paintings whose sources are classical renditions of the annunciation scene in the bible. So he knew what he was doing. And the frames, as you said, the wood frames and the bricks, everything is very well thought. Again, this is John Yau speaking, but he said the self-taught, they are students for life, and Martin has this hunger for learning. There is an interview in the catalogue that Yasmin [Ramirez] did with Martin in 1996, and she asked him why he did these paintings in the Lower East Side, and he said that’s what was around me, and if I had gone to some other place I would have painted something different. And I think that’s so profound, it goes to the issue of the artist’s calling.

I wanted to ask you about the storefront, or gate, paintings, one of which, “Closed,” 1984/85, was in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. In your show these are juxtaposed with the prison paintings. Could you speak to that juxtaposition, and how you approached these storefront paintings?

I think that’s really perceptive that you noticed that those paintings are close to the prison paintings, because I kind of wanted to point to that correlation. For Martin there was this feeling that being in New York was like doing time. There is a two-panel painting from the de Young museum called “Sweet Enough,” and it’s really Martin’s version of the city — it’s really foreboding, but people are still enjoying themselves, and they are policed not by officers but by firemen, who were always a token of eroticism for him. For Martin there was always this question of being constrained. You can see that kind of relationship between the personal and the social from the very beginning.

But there’s also this really astounding formal quality to those works — the color field is luscious, it has this presence that you can liken to a Newman or a Rothko, and the storefronts are framed in this very minimal way.

There is a mastery in those paintings, it comes through exactly in terms of what you said, the framing, and the scale is the most monumental of his works. And that for me it tells a lot. The paintings are almost minimalist, in a sense, there’s just this one image, but in the same time there is a richness, because they have a very strong symbolic or allegorical undercurrent. And two churches, it says something kind of strange or ironic in them; it’s one of the few pieces that actually points to something related to spirituality, but these are closed doors. You have to read it somehow like that, that those paths were kind of closed, but they’re open in the sense that he spent quite some time doing those.

Another really interesting thing about those paintings that you should know, at least in a couple of them, there are other paintings painted on the back of those paintings, which tells me that he was not happy with the production that was going on at some point and he decided to turn around and do these storefronts, and he did a series of them — we only have a few. He did an entire exhibition at Semafore Gallery where the paintings were not hanging but rather standing on the floor leaning on the wall. I think he wanted to almost create in the gallery the atmosphere of the street in the Lower East Side, or something like that. There is something really audacious about those paintings, and I was really happy we were able to get those paintings — in the end I was very lucky, it all kind of came together.

And what were the paintings on the back, out of curiosity?

The grey and white church, behind is a kind of sketched out Chinese scene, and in the horizontal storefront, the first one you see when you enter that gallery to your left, behind that there is a collaboration between him and two of his friends who were graffiti painters. It’s a very interesting thing, it’s signed and everything, but he just decided to do something else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


-- Mostafa Heddaya