Martin Wong’s lost art reemerges to bring awareness to a new generation
Designer street style brand Supreme’s new collection highlights the life and art of Martin Wong.
Wong, who embodied creativity, empathy and empowerment, lost his battle against an AIDS diagnosis in August of 1999, but his artwork continues to inspire and act as socio-political commentary after his death.
Wong attended Humboldt State University in 1964, enrolling himself in every available art class before focusing his studies in ceramics. After graduating, Wong left the comfortable walls of university-life to influence the art scene and bring widespread awareness to minority groups often overshadowed by society.
Wong’s family, friends and supporters partnered together on a collaborative collection with Supreme showcasing Wong’s lost works.
Anneliis Beadnell, Senior Director and Director of Estates at P.P.O.W Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in New York that represents Wong and his work, explains Wong’s appeal to Supreme.
“Over a year ago the artist KAWS, who is a good collector and friend of P.P.O.W, approached us to see if the Estate of Martin Wong would be interested in supporting a collaboration between Martin Wong’s work and Supreme,” Beadnell said. “The Estate was supportive, Martin’s circle of friends were encouraging and the collaboration felt right on many levels.”
The collaboration, as well as the overwhelming support towards the partnership of artist and brand, reinforces the importance of Wong’s legacy, advocacy and support represented through his artwork.
“Through Supreme’s platform, a new generation who may not have had access to the works through visiting galleries or museums, will have a new way to enter into his work,” Beadnell said. “Since Martin was interested in cultures that lived on the fringe of society, or outside the realm of the ‘art world,’ we felt that this collaboration would be successful in bringing his imagery into a new demographic.”
Like most of Wong’s art, the graphics showcase political and sometimes controversial subjects. Elements of poverty, misfortune and ruin bring attention to the unfair and inhumane treatment of minority groups. Encapsulating inclusion and representation was Wong’s strong suit.
The ability to take those underrepresented into the spotlight ripples throughout his work. Idolizing the “unprofessional” and disrespected street artists allowed for new perspectives to emerge not only in Wong’s works, but in the art world in general.
“In his lifetime, Martin gathered one of the largest graffiti collections in the world,” Beadnell said. “Martin turned to his friendship with the graffiti [artists] for collaboration and inspiration in his own works, which often took them as the subjects of various paintings.”
According to Beadnell, Wong also created several paintings with skateboarders as the primary subjects, like “Sweet ‘Enuff,” a 1987 painting which is in the collection of the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Capturing moments ignored by mainstream society gifted Wong the ability to cast a new light on the struggles and discrepancies in subcultures, raising widespread awareness in the art world.
This type of socio-political activism is still growing today, but there is a need for inclusion of identity and culture regardless of differences. Beadnell emphasized this and said the goal of the collaboration with Supreme was to reinforce those ideals with younger generations.
“Wanting to extend his demographic outside of the ‘art world’ speaks to wanting to continue his legacy of influence and inspiration as an artist,” Beadnell said. “There is a strong youth culture that follows Supreme and the collaboration with Martin’s work may open a door for those that purchase the items and want to learn about Martin Wong’s contribution to our visual history and culture.”
Wong’s work revolutionized the stigmas that dismissed groups from society, specifically focusing on the disadvantaged and underrepresented. From sexual orientation and economic standing to uncontrollable impairments, capturing the essence of groups often labeled insignificant or unworthy earned Wong his title of an activist and a visionary.
“Martin’s paintings connect to the denizens of the Loisaida, the crumbling tenement bricks and urban landscapes, the places where creative subculture thrived and since has been erased by gentrification,” Beadnell said. “The iconography that emerged through Martin’s depiction of the Lower East Side, of closed storefronts, firemen, ASL symbols, constellations and flaming eight balls became graphic points of interest for the line.”
Although Wong died over 20 years ago. His life and death are ever significant. More than 36 million people are currently suffering from HIV related illnesses.
The re-emergence of previously destroyed creative outlets allows the newer generation access to the extinguished memories and documentation of the past. The revamped accessibility stems with the hope of generating more activism for the future.
December 1 is World AIDS Day, recognizing and bringing awareness to the pandemic caused by HIV and mourning those who have died from the disease.
“Being that Martin was a gay Asian American, we hope this level of visibility will inspire others, that may have shared histories and identities, to look to Martin as a point of inspiration,” Beadnell said.