File Note 146: Martin Wong - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Zully Adler


Quote How Many Worlds? Quote Credits Biography References

How many lifetimes pass in an instant?
How many worlds?
How long have I dreamed?
We were the trespassers who stole a bit of paradise
And saw the sites we had no right to see. Excerpt from Psychic Bandits by Martin Wong, 1972

How Many Worlds?

Malicious Mischief surveys more than one hundred artworks by Martin Wong, following the artist from world to world, lifetime to lifetime. In the 1960s, he was a San Francisco hippie (alias Smokey Watermelon), barefoot with hair below his waistline. He danced to rock music, dosed to liquid light shows, and carved his name in the cement of Haight-Ashbury. His clay sculptures from this period tracked the counterculture’s atavistic turn to the earthen and the talismanic. In the 1970s, Wong became a ‘country boy’ in a leather jacket and Stetson hat, painting provincial Humboldt Bay en plein air.1 He remade himself into a sidewalk portraitist – a ‘pencil for hire’ – and pitched for work in the dated register of the region’s motels and diners. In the 1980s, he was ‘El Chino Latino’ of New York, embedded in the Puerto Rican enclave of Loisaida and a scribe for its ‘Nuyorican’ poets.2 Paintings of crumbling tenements romanced the harsh realities of a neighbourhood neglected by city officials and left to a minoritarian underclass. In the 1990s, Wong turned back to his youth on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, rendering its street life and architecture in lurid, day-tripper colours taken straight from the can.

Wong was consistent in the social and contextual orientation of his work. He was a painter of the neighbourhood, a village bard, the ‘Human Instamatic’. His art was an expression of, and a response to, the places in which he found himself. And yet, he was a trespasser. In California, he described himself as ‘the outsider wandering the edges’.3 In New York, he felt like a ‘tourist’.4 The impression was often mutual. Comrades in San Francisco’s acid drag performance troupe, the Angels of Light, sensed that he did not match their carnivalesque transgressions. Miguel Piñero, a Nuyorican poet and collaborator, couldn’t shake the feeling that Wong was an ‘investigative reporter’.5 And his Chinatown paintings earned him the ire of Asian American artists for their Orientalism, as if he were viewing his own culture with Western prejudice. But how could it be otherwise? Wong was too many things to fit into any one social world. His homosexuality aligned him with some circles and marked him off in others. His Chinese heritage was contiguous with, but distinct from, the Black and Brown communities that drew his interest. His upwardly mobile family diverged from the poverty he so often idealised.

Wong embraced and extended these incompatibilities. He excavated his Chinese ancestry even as he polished his wrangler image, dubbing himself the ‘Cantonese Cowboy’.6 He double coded his artworks with emphatic dissonance: the Tibetan deity Mahākāla is also Porky Pig; a Puerto Rican poem is lent the form of an East Asian scroll. The painting Heaven (1988) recalls the jade bi placed in neolithic Chinese graves as manifestations of the cosmos, but also remains a glory hole.7 The utopian and dystopian likewise collapse, whether in the celestial white gauze of a prison cell or the red skies over New York – sublime sunsets as well as blazes set by landlords to collect insurance on a neighbourhood they left to rot (what Miguel Piñero called ‘Rockefeller’s ghettocide’, and what Wong later updated to ‘Reagan’s Ghettocide’).8 He shows firemen kissing with undiluted affection, and insists that he likes them for the hickory smell of their uniforms: the discharge of inferno.

As viewers, we are left to grapple with these discrepancies. Wong suspends us between things. Sometimes he leaves us dangling at more concrete thresholds. Trompe l’oeil borders and gaudy frames usher us into his work like stage proscenia, but remind us of our remove. The feeling of access rubs up against a feeling of distance. Lifesize storefronts immerse us in a city that simultaneously blocks entry with security gates and locked hatches. In prison paintings, one wonders if we are like the inmates or the guards tasked with their bondage. We watch the inmates sleep through cell bars and catch their eye through the aperture of a door. Our relationship to the people we witness and our place among them rarely resolves.

Despite his success as an artist, Wong remained on the periphery of New York’s art establishment. Some found his ebullience too hot for a scene that privileged coolness. The way he clung to the canvas chafed against efforts by artists like Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer to bring art out of the studio and usher it into the world. Worse still, his nostalgic realism was out of step with post-conceptualism and the deconstruction of the art object. While others interrogated what it meant to make art, Wong embraced the long tradition of painting, narrativity and illusionism wholesale.

He brought this starry-eyed storytelling with him from California, where it belonged to a strain of Narrative Imagism that combined personal mythology and political commentary, fantasy and reality. Indebted more to the dreamworlds of Surrealism than the avant-garde’s other more self-reflexive schools, Narrative Imagism exploited its distance from New York’s cerebral tendencies.9 When Wong migrated east, he snuck this idiom behind enemy lines. ‘Painting is forbidden’, he wrote in the mid-1980s:

The joys & pleasures of being a painter are almost identical to
those of being a serial killer:
The solitary quest
The thrill of the hunt
The compulsion of trying to complete an imaginary set
To live totally in the imagination
The suspense
The urgency
And finally the uncontrollable spasms at the ultimate moment
between life and death when the veil of time is suddenly ripped
In the end painting is also similar to murder in that when the thrill
is finally gone, all you have left is a mess and a disposal problem. 10

Painting like he did was a lonely violation of art world tenets, leaving Wong in a private, hallucinatory realm. And, indeed, Wong carved out his own cosmos. His social appetite may have been voracious, but he remained a hermit of sorts, with his ‘back to the world’, as he once said.11 Days could pass hypnotised by the repetition of individually painted bricks. Lunch was often eaten at three in the morning. The rhythms of the city became faint echoes—Voices  12—heard only through the window. My Secret World 1978-81, 1984 shows us his quarters, hemmed in by votives, books and his own artwork. Paintings of dice and a magic eight-ball find their sources on the other side of the room, enacting a loop of self-reference. Wong lets us enter only through the windows; we are voyeurs peering into a place of seclusion.

Friends describe the artist’s apartment on the top floor of 141 Ridge Street as a ‘portal’ and a ‘sanctuary’ – a universe festooned with collections of kitschy Americana, Chinese artefacts, historical paintings and an archive of graffiti so large it became, for a short time, its own museum.13 If his work appears drawn from an immediate environment, Wong often took inspiration from these more sundry collections. His realism was patched together from disparate sources, excerpted and recontextualised. According to his friends, Wong never let the truth get in the way of a good story.14

Even as the artist lived in a world of his own making, he tried to speak in the voices of those around him. His unusual emphasis on the written word brings forward the pleas and threats of Pedro Rodriguez and the oratory of Miguel Piñero in his poem King Heroin. He borrows Spanish and Chinese texts even though he could not read them fluently. Fingerspelling from American Sign Language is also conspicuous. Here, too, he was a trespasser, not only illiterate in the language but also willing to misuse it. Words are spelled out with individual characters in a way that does not privilege the hearing-impaired (who read like anybody else). However, Wong might have been allegorising the communication of difference. These paintings impose a moment of bodily encounter that interrupts assimilation. They stop us from making another’s language so easily our own and compel us to linger in the space of not-quite-understanding. In concealing denotation, the artist reveals something else – not language’s functionality, but what Roland Barthes once described as ‘meaning in its potential voluptuousness’.15

Wong lets the body shape the text. Transcriptions of Nuyorican poetry capture the expressivity of a voice in recital. Stanzas expand and contract with cadence; they bend upwards and downwards like pitch. The artist’s poetry scrolls foreground the locomotion of the calligrapher, strokes pushing and pulling in different directions. And in the graffiti he collected, monikers contort through the elaborate twists of the arm and hand – what graffiti mystic Rammellzee called ‘remanipulation by and from energy through the body’.16 When Wong said that his fingerspelling paintings ‘speak the unhearable and show the invisible’, perhaps this is what he meant.17 To paint in this way gives form to a voice that cannot be heard, a body that cannot be seen.

The work of Martin Wong is a curious play of relation. It pries open the prospect of connection in moments of contrast. His ability to capture this contradiction is predicated, in part, on the way he never fully identified with the worlds in which he was nonetheless embedded. He could slip from one to another, casting and recasting himself as part-participant and part-observer, stealing bits of paradise.

One of the earliest pieces in Malicious Mischief is a sculpture of a mischievous little dog, his head snapped back in laughter. The same dog appears on the cover of his poetry book, Footprints Poems + Leaves, 1968, and in the flier for his solo exhibition, Dream Fungus, 1970. It assumes the air of an avatar. Wong called it Rin Tin Tin after a German Shepherd from American movies, but its kinked ears and wiry frame resemble another character: Wile E. Coyote from Looney Tunes, 1930-1969. Such cartoons were for the artist a ‘mythology’ not unlike the ‘demons and demigods’ found in various religions.18 And in the myths of many Native communities on the West Coast of North America, the coyote is wily indeed. He is known as the trickster, who uses his cunning to enter the worlds of other animals. He collects pine nuts like a squirrel and builds a dam like a beaver. He dons the skins of a bear. Coyote the trickster is a boundary crosser who enters the worlds of others and – through actions both wise and foolish – reveals unspoken codes. Wong stepped into different communities in this way, troubling and illuminating their logic. In so doing, he makes us consider how differences might belong together.

‘Taking it down to street level this time. I wanted to focus in close on some of the endless layers of conflict and confinement that has us all bound together in this life without possibility of parole.

By whatever chains of desire be they financial, chemical, or karmic...’ - Martin Wong


Solomon “Zully” Adler is a curator and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where his thesis considers the life and work of Martin Wong. Adler’s projects focus on alternative and countercultural practices, principally in California during the late twentieth century.

Initiated by KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin and produced in collaboration with Camden Art Centre, London; Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (CA2M), Madrid; and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, this European tour is the first extensive international display of the artist’s work outside of the United States. The exhibition is curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen and Agustín Pérez Rubio and produced inLondon by Camden Art Centre.

Malicious Mischief is made possible through support fromthe Terra Foundation for American Art with the generous support of The Martin Wong Foundation, P.P.O.W, New York, KAWS, and Galerie Buchholz. The presentation at Camden Art Centre is also generously supported by Arts Council England, by Lead Donor Pat Wang Maugue, and by the members of our Martin Wong Exhibition Circle: Rennie Collection, Vancouver; Simon Parris; and those who wish to remain anonymous The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive publication,co-published with Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König and funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes) and the German Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media (the Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien).


Martin Wong (1946–1999) was born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in San Francisco, California. He studied ceramics at Humboldt State University, graduating in 1968. Wong was active in the performance art groups The Cockettes and Angels of Light Free Theater before moving to New York in 1978. He exhibited for two decades at notable downtown galleries including EXIT ART, Semaphore, and P·P·O·W, among others, before his death in San Francisco from an AIDS-related illness. His work is represented in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art; The Bronx Museum of the Arts; Whitney Museum of American Art (all New York); as well as Cleveland Museum of Art; Art Institute of Chicago; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. The exhibition Martin Wong: Human Instamatic opened at the Bronx Museum of The Arts in November 2015 before travelling to the Wexner Center for the Arts in 2016 and the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 2017.


1 Martin Wong, Letter to Tim Englert, 3 June 1984, Collection of Tim Englert.

2 ‘Loisaida’ is a Spanglification of the Lower East Side – a section of Lower Manhattan that was home to a large Puerto Rican community. ‘Nuyorico’ is a phonetic combination of New York and Puerto Rico. Both terms were a means of reclaiming a neighbourhood maligned by city officials, the press and other, more affluent New Yorkers.

3 Martin Wong to Gary Ware, 1967, Box 1, Folder 14, Wong Papers, Stanford University.

4 Yasmin Ramirez and Martin Wong, ‘Chino-Latino: The Loisaida Interview’, in Martin Wong: Human Instamatic (New York, NY and London: The Bronx Museum and Black Dog Publishing, 2015), 114.

5 Martin Wong, Letter to Tim Englert, 21 September 1982, Collection of Tim Englert.

6 Martin Wong, Letter to Florence and Ben Wong Fie, date unknown.

7 Friends say that this hole was inspired by one on the Lower East Side, through which people purchased heroin.

8 ‘A Lower East Side Poem’, in Miguel Piñero, La Bodega Sold Dreams (Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 1980), 178.

9 Whitney Chadwick, ‘Narrative Imagism and the Figurative Tradition in Northern California Painting’, Art Journal 45, no. 4 (1985): 309–14.

10 Martin Wong, ‘Painting Is Forbidden’ (New York, NY, n.d.), Box 4, Folder 76, Martin Wong Papers, The Fales Library & Special Collections.

11 Ramirez and Wong, ‘Chino-Latino: The Loisaida Interview’, 114.

12 Voices, 1981, acrylic on canvas.

13 The Museum of American Graffiti, founded by Martin Wong and Peter Broda, opened on 8 April 1989 and closed approximately six months later. Zully Adler, Interview with Christopher ‘Daze’ Ellis, 18 October 2022.

14 Julie Ault, ‘Martin Wong Was Here’, 92.

15 Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’, in Image-Music-Text (New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1977), 184.

16 Rammellzee, ‘Ionic Treatise Gothic Futurism Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated Square Point’s One to 720 ̊ to 1440 ̊ The RAMM-ELL-ZEE’, 1979,

17 Postcard Invitation to Paintings for the Hearing Impaired (Sacco Ristorante & Bar, City?, 1987).

18 David Anderson, ‘Local Painter Believes Art Should Be Part of Daily Life’ Times Standard, Eureka, CA, 27 January 1975.

Alexandra Jacopetti, Native Funk and Flash: An Emerging Folk Art (San Franciso: Serimshaw, 1974)

Amy Scholder (ed.) Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1998)

Antonio Sergio Bessa and Yasmin Ramirez, Martin Wong: Human Instamatic (New York/ London: The Bronx Museum/ Black Dog Publishing, 2015)

Caitlin Burkhart and Julian Myers-Szupinka (ed.), My Trip to America by Martin Wong, ex. cat. (San Francisco: California College of the Arts, 2015)

Dennis Smith and Jill Freedman, Firehouse (New York: Doubleday, 1977)

Elizabeth Coleman, Chinatown USA (New York: John Day, 1946)

Jeanette Ingberman (ed.) Martin Wong, ex. cat. (New York: Exit Art, 1988)

Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (Oakland: University of California Press, 2008)

Josh Gosciak and Alan Moore, (ed.) A Day in the Life: Tales From the Lower East, 1940-1990 (New York: Autonomedia, 1991)

Julie Ault, Heinz Peter Knes, Danh Vo and Martin Wong, IMU UR2, ex. cat. (Cologne: König, 2013)

Miguel Piñero, La Bodega Sold Dreams (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1980)

Ronald G Carraher, Artists in Spite of Art, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold 1970)

Charlie Ahearn, Portrait of Martin Wong (USA, 1988), film

Charlie Ahearn, Wild Style (USA, 1982), film

Jack Smith, Flaming Creatures (USA, 1963), film

Marlis Momber, Viva Loisaida (USA, 1978), film

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Querelle (Germany/France, 1982), film

Robert M. Young, Short Eyes (USA, 1977), film