“CITY AS CANVAS: GRAFFITI ART FROM THE THE MARTIN WONG COLLECTION” AT THE MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
Martin Wong, an East Village artist and collector of graffiti art, amassed a treasure trove of hundreds of works on paper and canvas—in aerosol, ink, and other mediums. The artists, including Keith Haring, Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, and Futura 2000, were seminal figures in an artistic movement that spawned a worldwide phenomenon, altering music, fashion, and popular visual culture. The exhibition City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection, currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York includes over 150 works on canvas and other media, along with photographs of graffiti writing long erased from subways and buildings.
Modern graffiti came to New York City in the late 1960s and exploded in the 1970s. For a time, graffiti not only defined the city, but, much like Hip Hop, it positioned New York as home of the movement. Covering subway cars, station walls, and building facades, the work produced was unprecedented. Growing media attention paid to “street art” led to interest from commercial galleries and collectors. As a result, by 1980, several gallery impresarios convinced young writers like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Futura 2000 to produce works on canvas. While these commissioned works survived, few of the original examples of graffiti exist today due to in large part to the municipal efforts to remove it from subways and buildings in the late 1980s and ’90s.
LEE was one of Wong’s first points of contact with the graffiti-writing movement, and he convinced the artist to paint him a surrogate Howard the Duck canvas, which would become one of Wong’s prized paintings. As he learned more about the graffiti writing of the early 1970s, Wong sought out black book drawings, and acquired a collection by Wicked Gary—a founding member of the first graffiti writing club, the Ex-Vandals, and a member of the United Graffiti Artists, a collective of young writers who were the first to exhibit their work in a traditional gallery setting.
Wong also collected early work by Rammellzee, who developed a complex philosophy of alphabetology he called “Ikonoklast Panzerism.” Additionally, he scored a number of seminal works by Futura 2000, a graffiti artist whose abstract Kandinsky-like paintings have attained artistic accolades, and Keith Haring, who built a name for himself as a graffiti artist and went on to gain commercial success worldwide.
Born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in San Francisco, California, Chinese-American artist Martin Wong is best known for his elegiac realist paintings of Lower East Side tenements and their inhabitants. Wong moved from the West Coast to New York City in 1978. Trained as a ceramicist, the colors that Wong used were culled from the paint hues in his ceramics from iron oxides to gold, accenting the decaying brick walls of abandoned Lower East Side tenements. Wong would come to be an influential artist within the Downtown scene and a mentor to a league of young artists, including Lady Pink, DAZE, and LEE, among others. In 1998, Dan Cameron, then curator at the New Museum, and Barry Blinderman, who had been Wong’s art dealer and had become the director at the Illinois State University Galleries at Normal, organized a major retrospective for Wong at the New Museum before the artist died from complications related to AIDS in 1999. He donated this collection to the New York City Museum in 1994.
Martin Wong in NYC, 1982
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