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An Immigrant's Imagination: Martin Wong's Lower East Side

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Abstract:

When the artist Martin Wong died in 1994, he was remembered by the New York Times and other publications as the “unsung genius” of the 1980s East Village art scene. A painter who depicted the crumbling tenements, gated storefronts, and struggling inhabitants of New York’s Lower East Side with both grit and humor, Wong’s work was in many ways out of step with the neo-Conceptualist objects and installations in vogue at the time. Though widely shown and collected, Wong failed to receive the recognition showered upon other downtown artists of his generation.

After his death of AIDs-related causes, however, Wong was recuperated as a sort of hero, a renegade forefather who ushered in the identity-driven art of the 1990s. A decade later, Wong’s paintings, particularly his erotic depictions of black and Latino men, including his friend, mentor, and rumored lover Miguel Pinero (playwright, actor, and founder of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café), would be heralded by scholars and critics as important examples of Asian American art. Wong certainly belongs within this tradition; it is clear that his work can not be divorced from his own ethnic identity and sensibilities. Yet, Wong’s affiliations—artistic, cultural, and political—were both much more capacious and singular. In this paper, I suggest that Wong was less interested in grappling with the complexities of his own identities than in documenting, reflecting, and commenting on the dynamics of immigration and urbanization that gripped New York city during the 1970s and 80s.

In a decade when deindustrialization, suburbanization, and mass immigration had resulted in a profoundly altered urban center (with ethnic white neighborhoods increasingly taken over by an influx of new, non-white immigrants), city planners and corporate developers worried about how to “reclaim” New York. Plans to reengineer the Lower East Side from an immigrant ghetto to a hipster Mecca were already underway by the time Wong arrived in the city. Wong’s work sought to capture these changes, and to champion the men whose very presence helped to justify these plans for urban renewal—the drug dealers, the prisoners, the destitute. The Lower East Side of Wong’s imagination was heroic, erotic, and fantastic, but it was also marked by the closed doors and dead ends that signaled the conditions of possibilities for its inhabitants. We might think of it as an immigrant’s imagination—one that captures the hopes and desperations endemic to immigrant life.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Tu, Thuy Lin. "An Immigrant's Imagination: Martin Wong's Lower East Side" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186157_index.html>

APA Citation:

Tu, T. N. , 2007-10-11 "An Immigrant's Imagination: Martin Wong's Lower East Side" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186157_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: When the artist Martin Wong died in 1994, he was remembered by the New York Times and other publications as the “unsung genius” of the 1980s East Village art scene. A painter who depicted the crumbling tenements, gated storefronts, and struggling inhabitants of New York’s Lower East Side with both grit and humor, Wong’s work was in many ways out of step with the neo-Conceptualist objects and installations in vogue at the time. Though widely shown and collected, Wong failed to receive the recognition showered upon other downtown artists of his generation.

After his death of AIDs-related causes, however, Wong was recuperated as a sort of hero, a renegade forefather who ushered in the identity-driven art of the 1990s. A decade later, Wong’s paintings, particularly his erotic depictions of black and Latino men, including his friend, mentor, and rumored lover Miguel Pinero (playwright, actor, and founder of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café), would be heralded by scholars and critics as important examples of Asian American art. Wong certainly belongs within this tradition; it is clear that his work can not be divorced from his own ethnic identity and sensibilities. Yet, Wong’s affiliations—artistic, cultural, and political—were both much more capacious and singular. In this paper, I suggest that Wong was less interested in grappling with the complexities of his own identities than in documenting, reflecting, and commenting on the dynamics of immigration and urbanization that gripped New York city during the 1970s and 80s.

In a decade when deindustrialization, suburbanization, and mass immigration had resulted in a profoundly altered urban center (with ethnic white neighborhoods increasingly taken over by an influx of new, non-white immigrants), city planners and corporate developers worried about how to “reclaim” New York. Plans to reengineer the Lower East Side from an immigrant ghetto to a hipster Mecca were already underway by the time Wong arrived in the city. Wong’s work sought to capture these changes, and to champion the men whose very presence helped to justify these plans for urban renewal—the drug dealers, the prisoners, the destitute. The Lower East Side of Wong’s imagination was heroic, erotic, and fantastic, but it was also marked by the closed doors and dead ends that signaled the conditions of possibilities for its inhabitants. We might think of it as an immigrant’s imagination—one that captures the hopes and desperations endemic to immigrant life.

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