Martin Wong Papers
Language of Materials
Artist Martin Wong (1946-1999) was a respected and prolific painter in New York's downtown art scene. He also cultivated both working and personal relationships with graffiti artists and enthusiasts. The Martin Wong Papers date from 1982 to 1999 and contain Wong's artwork, including sketches, drawings, and graffiti, as well as correspondence, poetry, prose, and source material that informed his artwork.
Martin Wong is known for his paintings of gritty cityscapes, including New York's Chinatown and Lower East Side, and for championing graffiti as a legitimate art form in the 1980s and 1990s. Wong was a respected and prolific painter in New York's downtown art scene in the 1980s. In addition, Wong cultivated both working and personal relationships with graffiti artists and enthusiasts.
Born Martin Victor Wong (although sometimes playfully listed himself as "Martin Genghis Wong") in Portland, OR, on July 11, 1946, Wong was raised by his Chinese-American parents in San Francisco. He graduated from George Washington High School in 1964. Wong was involved in performance art in the 1970s, but focused almost exclusively on painting after moving to New York in the early 1980s.
In addition to his painting, Wong experimented with poetry and prose, much of which he recorded on long paper scrolls. Highly anecdotal and semi-autobiographical, Wong's writing features an exuberant and fanciful stream-of-consciousness style.
Fascinated by New York's renegade graffiti artists, Wong befriended "Daze" (Chris Ellis), "Lee" (Lee Quiñones), "Laroc" and "LA2" (Angel Ortiz) among others. Wong forged a particularly strong and enduring friendship with Daze, and helped publicize his work, as well as the work of other graffiti artists, in exhibitions and through the Museum of American Graffiti. This grassroots institution was devised to showcase the vibrant panoply of contemporary graffiti art.
Wong's circle also included arts journalist Theresa Herron, Steve Hernandez, "Magic Sam," artist John Ahearn, "Lady" Joyce Ryan, Barry Blinderman, and Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington of the PPOW gallery. Also significant in Wong's life were his mother, Mrs. Benjamin (Florence) Wong Fie, and his "Aunt Nora" (a.k.a. Aunt Ellie), Eleanora Tam. Wong's romantic relationship with poet and playwright Miguel Piñero, whom Wong met in 1982, also had a significant impact on his work, as they collaborated artistically throughout the 1980s. Affectionately referred to by Wong as both "Mikey" and "Mickey," Piñero was considered "Loisaida's reigning outlaw poet" (Sweet Oblivion, 35). Piñero collaborated with Wong on such paintings as "Attorney Street Handball Court" (1982-84) and "Little Got Rained On" (1983). Piñero's text was incorporated into the paintings such that Wong's imagery serves as evocative illustration. Piñero also appears in Wong's paintings as subject - "Portrait of Piñero" (1982), "Penitentiary Fox" (1988), "La Vida" (1988) - where he is typically depicted reading or writing.
In the span of a decade, Wong achieved considerable recognition and success, with solo and group exhibitions to his credit. Wong is most closely associated with downtown galleries Semaphore, Exit Art, and PPOW, but his work has also appeared at such venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the New-York Historical Society. Wong died in 1999, after a protracted battle with AIDS.
The Clones of Bruce Lee [videorecording]: the art of Martin Wong. (New York: Pow Wow Productions, 1995) Martin Wong [videorecording]. (New York: Pow Wow Productions, c1998) Sweet Oblivion: the urban landscape of Martin Wong. (New York: Rizzoli Books, c1998)
Folders are arranged alphabetically by subject/author heading and chronologically depending on the nature of the series. Oversized material, while included in the number sequence of the series is separated into oversized boxes.
The collections is grouped into 9 series: Series I: Correspondence Series II: Artwork Series III: Source Material Subseries III.A: Catalogs, Graffiti, Invites, Posters Subseries III.B: Asian-Language Source Material Series IV: Biographical Series V: Video & Audiocassettes Series VI: Photography Series VII: Personal Library Series VIII: Albums Series IX: Tax Receipts
Scope and Content Note
The Martin Wong Papers are comprised of over 100 sketches and drawings, more than 30 sketchbooks, correspondence, poetry and prose, biographical documents, source material, audio and videocassette recordings, photos, and graffiti tag-books, graffiti-related materials and parts of Wong's personal library.
Source material includes magazines, postcards, posters, memorabilia, and a vast collection of Wong's snapshots. Biographical material features Wong's curriculum vitae, copies of newspaper and magazine profiles of Wong, business cards and addresses of associates, and publicity materials related to Wong's exhibitions. Wong's poetry and prose contains a significant portion of the biographical material - much of it anecdotal in tone. The graffiti portion of the archive is comprehensive and includes sketchbooks, illustrations, text on graffiti (authored by both Wong and others), publicity material pertaining to graffiti exhibitions, and materials pertaining to the graffiti film: Wild Style. Of particular interest are the numerous examples of tagging found in both the sketchbooks and other artwork.
A zealous collector and graffiti enthusiast, Wong amassed a considerable cache of graffiti material in the 1980s. The Martin Wong Papers also document New York's downtown arts scene in the 1980s and 1990s, with particular emphasis on Wong's participation and recognition in the gallery scene.
Materials are open to researchers.
Copyright (or related rights to publicity and privacy) for materials in this collection was not transferred to New York University. Permission to use materials must be secured from the copyright holder. Please contact the Fales Library and Special Collections, firstname.lastname@example.org, 212-998-2596.
Published citations should take the following form: Identification of item, date (if known); Martin Wong Papers; MSS 102; box number; folder number; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
The Martin Wong Papers were donated by the estate of Martin Wong, overseen by Mrs. Benjamin (Florence) Wong Fie and assisted by Wendy Olsoff and Peter Broda, in December 1999 and January 2000. Most of the materials in the collection were retrieved from Wong's Lower East Side apartment; additional documents were donated by Mrs. Wong Fie from her personal papers.
Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements
Access to some audiovisual materials in this collection is available through digitized access copies. Researchers may view an item's original container, but the media themselves are not available for playback because of preservation concerns. Materials that have already been digitized are noted in the collection's finding aid and can be requested in our reading room.
There is no record of materials that are associated by provenance to the described materials that have been physically separated or removed.
About this Guide
Series VIII was added to the collection as an accretion in 2009. Series IX was added to the collection as an accretion in 2013. All other decisions regarding arrangement, description, and physical interventions for this collection prior to 2020 are unknown. In 2020, Anna Björnsson McCormick enhanced description of Sign Language works following conservation treatment. In 2021, Weatherly Stephan updated the container list to reflect rehousing of oversize materials, and reintegrated oversize material into their original series. Files were retitled with the first line of a work or a description of a prominent figure on the first page, or based on user suggestions, and dated where possible.