In 1985, three years before his death, Puerto Rican playwright and actor Miguel Piñero wrote “Lower East Side Poem”: “Just once before I die / I want to climb up on a / tenement sky / to dream my lungs out till / I cry / then scatter my ashes thru / the Lower East Side ….”
That tragic lyricism also characterizes the paintings of Martin Wong (1946-1999), Piñero’s friend and lover, who moved from San Francisco to New York in 1978 to pursue his art career. Trained in ceramics, Wong taught himself to paint while living in a rundown hotel, where he worked as a night watchman, and later in an area blighted by heroin dealers and addicts, while working in a museum bookstore. “Everything I paint is within four blocks of where I live and the people are the people I know and see all the time,” Wong once said.
Wong’s urban landscape paintings (pointedly devoid of greenery) document the graffiti and hip-hop era, now generally associated with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and others. They combine gritty reality—brown and gray building faÇades, the brickwork and graffiti meticulously rendered in somber reds, grays, and ochers—with the Romantic excess of gay street culture in all its outrageously colorful theatricality. The cowboy-hatted Chinese-American artist from San Francisco who had once earned his living as the Human Instamatic, making $7.50 portraits at art fairs (with a personal record of 27 fairs in one day!) and designing sets for the hippie-radical street-theater commune, The Angels of Light, found the subject that combined his various interests—gay culture, graffiti, an updated social realism, and even autobiography of sorts—in the vibrant, polyglot, multiracial bohemia of Loisaida.
A roundtable discussion on Wong’s New York work will take place at 1 p.m., Nov. 11; a talk on Wong’s use of American Sign Language will take place at 3:30 p.m., Dec. 9. Martin Wong: Human Instamatic runs through Dec. 10, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808, BAMPFA.org.