On a mercifully warm March morning, around 20 Martin Wong enthusiasts gathered outside the Lower East Side apartment building the Chinese-American artist and collector occupied for most of the 1980s and early '90s. The crowd consisted of younger fans, pulled in by the recent resurgence of scholarly and market interest in Wong's work, acquaintances from the downtown art scene, and curator-historians with longer-term investments in all things related to the artist, who died from AIDS in 1999.
Our agenda for the next two hours was a "discursive experiential itinerary," which sounds less delightful than it was and which took us to the sites of three of Wong's 1983 paintings of his neighborhood: Everything Must Go, Sweet Oblivion, and Stanton near Forsyth.
Wong's stature as a painter—New York's Museum of Modern Art acquired Stanton near Forsyth in 2011—has recently been augmented by exhibitions that highlight his role as a patron and collector. Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo used his 2012 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition to present Wong's mountainous collection of curios and kitsch at New York's Guggenheim Museum, and works from Wong's longtime patronage of street art are on display at the Museum of the City of New York (through Aug. 24).
The tour was led by artist and writer Julie Ault, who, as a founding member of the artists' collective Group Material (1979-1996), regularly included Wong in shows it curated, and Amy Zion, an independent curator whose contact with Wong comes from archival research into his papers in the Downtown Collection of New York University's Fales Library.
The walk extended only a few blocks, and, due to the neighborhood's ceaseless redevelopments and gentrification, consisted of almost no sightseeing. Many of the buildings in Wong's paintings have long been knocked down and replaced.
Instead, our stroll activated some of Ault's own memories of Wong and his milieu, which she and Zion evoked with a host of historical documents, which they passed around: Wong's photographs and drawings, installation views of and flyers for his shows, and other relics of a life lived in and through the making, collecting, studying and sponsoring of art.
Ault and Zion called the event "Everything Must Go" after a Wong painting that sets a pile of demolition debris, sourced from the intersection of Rivington and Attorney streets, in front of a starry backdrop with constellations drawn in and a series of hands rendering the painting's title in sign language emblazoned across the sky. Ault set as one of her tasks communicating Wong's "hilarity," the manic inventiveness that both tempers and underwrites the more obvious melancholia of paintings like Everything Must Go. She and Zion both expressed a hopeful wariness about how Wong is reentering critical discourse—as a painter/collector—and emphasized his work in other mediums, including drawings, snapshots, calligraphy and ceramics.
"Everything Must Go" was one of three tours of downtown Manhattan organized by the gallery arm of art network e-flux in conjunction with its show "太平天國/Taiping Tianguo, A History of Possible Encounters: Ai Weiwei, Frog King Kwok, Tehching Hsieh, and Martin Wong in New York" (through Mar. 15). That showdocuments connections between the four Chinese-American artists, who lived in New York in the 1980s and early '90s. The exhibition was curated by Cosmin Costinas, executive director and chief curator at Hong Kong nonprofit venue ParaSite, and Doryun Chong, who, as a MoMA curator at the time (he's now chief curator at Hong Kong's M+ Museum), facilitated the acquisition of Stanton near Forsyth.
To a group member's question "Why Martin Wong, why now?", Ault reasoned that Wong was always preternaturally adept at "generating a community and a context" for his own work; those members of our group who had been acquainted with him agreed, noting above all else his tireless generosity in supporting other artists. Equally embedded in his Loisaida community and in the art networks that sprung up there in the early '80s, much of his practice involved drawing together and galvanizing a public which is increasingly paying him back.