Magazine article Artforum International

Martin Wong

Magazine article Artforum International

Martin Wong

Article excerpt

NEW MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART/P.P.O.W.

Near a Long Island beach I visit in the summer is a lovely New England-style house, white shingled, wide porched, rundown, that reminds me of Edward Hopper. Chatting on the sand with its owner once, I decided to compliment him by telling him so, and got the reply, "Ah yes. Edward Hopper. Does he live around here?" This might have been a dry joke on the quality of art education in America, but coming from this particular man I doubt it. In any case, what surprised me with Hopper would not with Martin Wong: if New York's '80s generation of gallery-goers, seeing a certain building type, may think of Wong reflexively, he is scarcely a household name.

In the catalogue for Wong's winning retrospective "Sweet Oblivion," the New Museum's Dan Cameron (cocurator, with Illinois State University's Barry Blinderman) makes meat of this relative obscurity, attributing it to, oh, all that's wrong with today's art world. The truth is, though, that any number of good artists of the East Village era are just as pourly advertised (a personal favorite, for example, being Arch Connelly, once associated with the Cockettes, the '70s gay-oriented San Francisco performance troupe that Wong was involved with too). In fact, short of the work of comet-type stars like Keith Haring, Wong's '80s work is as fondly recalled as any of that time and place. His current paintings (seen at P.P.O.W.), including an interesting group in a new botanical vein, continue to impress; but Wong will probably always be associated with the walls of the Lower East Side, about which he was as melancholically lyrical as Hopper was about the clapboard architecture of Cape Cod.

Actually, Wong recalls more readily the Hopper of Greenwich Village, the painter of Early Sunday Morning, 1930. His work has precedents in the urban visual journalism of Hopper's Ash Can School cousins, and he often sounds a chord of Hopperesque big-city loneliness - which, however, he tempers with a warmer heart than Hopper ever pretended to. Through much of Wong's time in New York (he has now returned to San Francisco), he specialized in describing East Village tenements, fixing the walls of these often derelict buildings as fine grids, each brick an uneven, individually depicted rectangle. Although he is quite capable of rendering figures, faces, and even portraits, his walls have as much character as any human presence, which in fact they tend to overshadow. The result is that the paintings powerfully convey the literal hardness of the '80s EV as a place to live. …

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