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BAMPFA mounts first exhibition in more than two decades of work by painter Martin Wong
Untitled (Self Portrait, Horizontal), 1961. Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W New York.

BERKELEY, CA.- 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 artist’s 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. BAMPFA’s exclusive West Coast presentation of the internationally touring retrospective features an expanded roster of work that highlights the artist’s 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 York’s Lower East Side during the 1980s, he grew up in San Francisco’s 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 Francisco’s psychedelic theater troupe the Cockettes; calligraphic poems that reference the artist’s 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 city’s 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 mother’s backyard garden.

“Martin Wong was a singular artist whose remarkable creative trajectory was profoundly influenced by the Bay Area’s 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 Wong’s artistic legacy, we’re pleased to incorporate into the exhibition additional works and rare archival materials that highlight the artist’s deep roots in the Northern California art scene.”

“As an openly gay Chinese American artist from California who integrated himself into New York’s Latino immigrant community, Martin Wong spent his life exploring the nuances of individual and communal identity—an 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 exhibition’s BAMPFA presentation. “By rediscovering the full scope of Wong’s career—from his early contributions to Northern California counterculture, to his indelible depictions of New York’s teeming multiethnic landscape, to the strange and haunting paintings of his final years—visitors to the exhibition will gain a newfound appreciation for the artist’s stylistic breadth and unique voice.”

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