A major exhibition of work by Martin Wong opened at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
this fall, marking the acclaimed Chinese American artists first comprehensive retrospective since his untimely death in 1999. Martin Wong: Human Instamatic features more than 100 works by Wong, whose singular aesthetic captures the rhythms of life in the multicultural urban communities he inhabited. BAMPFAs exclusive West Coast presentation of the internationally touring retrospective features an expanded roster of work that highlights the artists formative emergence in the Northern California art scene of the 1970s.
On view from September 20 through December 10, Martin Wong: Human Instamatic surveys the large and eclectic body of work the artist produced over the course of a prolific thirty-year career that was tragically cut short by his death from AIDS-related causes. Though Wong is typically associated with the thriving art scene that emerged in New Yorks Lower East Side during the 1980s, he grew up in San Franciscos Chinatown and began his practice as a street artist working in San Francisco and Eureka, California. The BAMPFA exhibition highlights many rarely seen works that Wong produced during this early period, including set designs for San Franciscos psychedelic theater troupe the Cockettes; calligraphic poems that reference the artists Chinatown upbringing; and a series of portraits that Wong sold to passersby on the streets of Eureka under the nickname Human Instamatic.
Martin Wong: Human Instamatic also showcases the large body of work Wong produced after moving to New York in 1978, where he became connected with the citys Puerto Rican and queer communities through his relationship with the poet Miguel Piñero. Wong turned primarily to painting during this period, producing vivid figurative works that combine social realist and fantastical elements to portray life in the working-class immigrant communities of the Lower East Side. After contracting AIDS in 1994, Wong returned to live with his mother in San Francisco; the exhibition includes a series of enigmatic paintings he produced during these final years, which portray the potted cacti of his mothers backyard garden.
Martin Wong was a singular artist whose remarkable creative trajectory was profoundly influenced by the Bay Areas cultural and creative ferment during the 1970s, said BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder. As the sole West Coast venue to present this groundbreaking exploration of Wongs artistic legacy, were pleased to incorporate into the exhibition additional works and rare archival materials that highlight the artists deep roots in the Northern California art scene.
As an openly gay Chinese American artist from California who integrated himself into New Yorks Latino immigrant community, Martin Wong spent his life exploring the nuances of individual and communal identityan experience that richly informs his body of work, which captures the texture of its time and place even as it anticipates contemporary discourses around intersectionality, said Adjunct Curator Constance M. Lewallen, who curated the exhibitions BAMPFA presentation. By rediscovering the full scope of Wongs careerfrom his early contributions to Northern California counterculture, to his indelible depictions of New Yorks teeming multiethnic landscape, to the strange and haunting paintings of his final yearsvisitors to the exhibition will gain a newfound appreciation for the artists stylistic breadth and unique voice.