NEW YORK – San Francisco and Eureka, California, residents in the mid-1970s were lucky enough to be approached by a young man calling himself “The Human Instamatic,” who promised portraits for a small fee. This man was Martin Wong, who after collaborating with legendary San Francisco artists and performers like the Cockettes, made his name as a painter in New York. His work was a visual diary of the struggles and triumphs of his community.
Wong has largely been overlooked since dying of AIDS-related complications in 1999. However, the Bronx Museum’s “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” is a thrilling tribute to a versatile artist whose work deserves just as much praise as contemporaries like Basquiat.
Martin Wong was not a street artist in the sense that he painted murals and tags on buildings. Still, between his stint as “Human Instamatic,” literally drawing people on the street, his painstakingly detailed depictions of basketball courts and tenements, of the Chinatowns of both New York and San Francisco in all of their colorful glory, he captured the spirit, the struggle of urban streets just as well, or even better than those that paint directly on the brick and concrete.
Wong supported himself working at the Met’s gift shop by day, while running with everyone from graffiti artists, poets, fireman and the entire vibrant community of the Lower East Side in the 1970s and ’80s. The exhibit showcases the broad range of his life and interests, from the brown brick of tenements to prisons to the muscles of the fireman he loved so much. Sometimes it seems unbelievable that the same painter employing rich blues, pinks and gold, is equally skilled at stark pictures of prisons and poverty, rendered in browns, grays and black, but his vision is never muddled; the different styles are all part of a glorious whole.
Part of what brings these diverse works together is how Wong elevated all of his subjects. Starry Night, one of my favorite pieces in the show, places tenements’ masonry rooftops among the heights of the stars, like these buildings are equal in the universe to our most treasured constellations. Even when depicting his beloved firemen, the portraits are sensual, not pornographic, admiring of both their bodies and their service, their willingness to dive headfirst into situations most of us run from.
I took the 4 train to the Bronx with a vague sense of Wong’s work, and walked out onto the Grand Concourse with a deep appreciation for it. “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” is on view at the Bronx Museums of the Arts through Feb. 14 . Get ready to find a new favorite.