Martin Wong - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips

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  • “We must be thankful that Martin Wong’s irascibly singular and idiosyncratically different way of seeing things produced a particular mindscape of fact and fantasy that is, in the end, timeless.” 
    — Carlo McCormick


    One of the most distinguished pieces by the artist to come to auction, Son of Sam Sleeps is a seminal masterwork from pioneering Chinese-American painter and bohemian’s bohemian Martin Wong. Created in 1983, five years following the West Coast native’s move to the Lower East Side of New York City, Son of Sam Sleeps heralds from what is critically considered as Wong’s most definitive period, with works from the same year now housed in the prestigious collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and The Art Institute of Chicago

    In various shares of russet red, Wong paints a meticulous composition of a densely layered brick wall encompassed by a teak frame. A curious juxtaposition is introduced not just in the perspectival depth between the small bricks and more prominent grain of the fake, painted wood, but also in the work’s materiality as the impossibly detailed trompe l'oeil texture has been rendered smooth. Situated at the centre is a chalky black placard that portrays graffiti-esque American Sign Language symbols spelling out the works title, Son of Sam Sleeps. Also written in a rusted-gold typeface beneath, the phrase alludes to the sensational tabloid coverage of the ‘Son of Sam’ serial killer who terrorised New York the year before the artist’s arrival, a story Wong explored in a number of his key works from this time. 

    A work of historical significance, Son of Sam Sleeps has been presented in exhibitions around the world. Firstly in 2010, in both New York and at the artist’s first solo exhibition in Europe which was held in Cologne; in Berlin between 2012-2013; and importantly, at Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, a major retrospective for the artist which travelled from The Bronx Museum in New York to Columbus and Berkeley between 2015-2017. Now in Hong Kong, Phillips in Association with Poly Auction are thrilled to be offering such an important work from Wong’s oeuvre in this Evening Sale.


    An International Presentation

  • Living Between the Cracks 


    Born in 1946 in Portland but raised in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, Wong moved to New York in 1978 and took up residence at the Meyers Hotel, a decrepit waterfront dive where he also worked as the hotel’s night porter. After completing his shift, he would lock himself in his room and spend countless solitary hours refining his painting practice. His distinctive colour palette of burnt sienna, ochre and earthy red derives from his background in pottery, as Wong had graduated in 1968 with a degree in ceramics from Humboldt State University. Although he had painted throughout his childhood, it was not until this moment that he fully immersed himself in the medium. In recalling this monastic existence, Wong has reminisced: ‘to me, that was like heaven’i

    Like most other great New York artists of the past century, Wong was an outsider. Although born to Chinese immigrant parents, his father also had Mexican ancestry. As such, he came to refer to himself as ‘Chino-Latino’, a cultural and generational hybrid who ‘live[d] in the cracks between counter-cultures’ii. After the Meyers Hotel changed hands, Wong relocated to the predominantly Black and Latino Lower East Side of the city, where he soon became an explosive presence in the vibrant arts scene, carving out a territory of his own as a self-described ‘Human Instamatic’. 



    Martin Wong, 1985
    Photo Courtesy of Peter Bellamy 



    Here, his not-so-simple story continued following a dizzying set of vectors: the Asian American movement, Nuyorican poetry, psychedelic theatre, and the thriving graffiti and hip-hop community most generally associated with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring; Latino prisoners, gay firemen, and the deaf. And whilst his work reflects this mélange of influences he was interacting with in his day-to-day life, it was further complicated by his ambivalent relationship to his heritage, his sexuality as an openly gay man during the height of AIDS, and ultimately, his quest for identity. 

    But rather than the overarching historical events and narratives that one might associate with the period in which he worked, Wong was instead concerned with the subtleties of the material world around him, and the secrets exposed by such inconsequential details, such as the rust on a weathered storefront sign or the eroding texture of a brick wall. 


    Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955
    Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


    An interesting comparison can be drawn between Wong’s use of bricks and American painter Jasper Johns’ renowned depictions of the United States flag, which challenge our understanding of what constitutes a national symbol. Similarities arise in both artist’s handling of paint and their appropriation of images of things the mind already knows, but also in their exploration of identity. 
    Indeed, for Wong, the symbolic function of his mortared bricks is more nuanced than once might expect, as he uses the wall motif to represent both obstacle and entrapment, but also the concealment of the truth and stories hidden behind their opaque facades. Whilst this can be considered in relation to the universally complex nature of the self, it presents another eerie allusion to the work’s title as a reference to .44 Calibre Killer who played a cat and mouse game with the NYPD on the brick-lined walls of New York’s streets, that, in the dead of night, bore witness to it all. 


    “The joys and pleasures of being a painter are almost identical to those of being a serial killer: the solitary quest, the thrill of the hunt, the compulsion of trying to complete an imaginary set, to live totally in the imagination, the suspense, the urgency, and finally the uncontrollable spasms…” 
    — Martin Wong

    ‘Sam Sleeps’ headline, New York Post, 5 December 1977


    Forming a Language of His Own


    With an affinity for the marginalised of society, especially those who engage in different communication systems, like Johns, Wong was also interested in American Sign Language and incorporated the alphabet into his work to explore the layered relations between seeing and reading. Ingeniously, Wong’s use of the finger-spelling symbols—which are only legible to viewers who comprehend ASL or are willing to decipher the puzzle of the artwork’s contents—also reference gang signals or the secret codes used by the gay community.


    Detail of the present work, spelling out ‘Son of Sam Sleeps’


    As exemplified by Son of Sam Sleeps, Wong made the alphabet his own with his now-iconic depictions of stylised hands emerging from French cuffs, which in the present painting, imbue the headline they spell out with an abstract power. Their cartoon-esque imagery further nods to graffiti tags, which was a style of art Wong was very involved with and collected in such abundance that in 1993, he donated 300 pieces to the museum of the City of New York. At the same time, however, each of the rounded, illustrated hands adorned with cufflinks is rendered with an almost mechanical identicality of line, scale and style - so much so that their precision recalls the impressions marked by traditional Asian seals used in lieu of signatures on any item requiring acknowledgement of authorship. Contributing to this interpretation is the fact that Wong was a highly skilled Chinese calligrapher and while it may seem a stretch to consider his employment of language in relation to the traditions of Chinese calligraphy, as critic Ingrid Dudek praises, it is ‘his linking of these disparate forms of art and visual communication, that makes Wong’s legacy so distinct’iii.



    Ni Yuanlu, Poem in Seven-Syllable Meter, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
    Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

    Collector’s Digest 

    Wong’s paintings have been exhibited in numerous galleries and institutions around the world, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, amongst others. Most recently, Wong was honoured with an exhibition held at P.P.O.W Gallery in New York. Entitled 1981-2021, the show was a joint presentation of work by Martin Wong and Aaron Gilbert, chronicling life in New York in the past 40 years. 

    Moreover, work by Wong is now housed in numerous prominent public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Whitney Museum, and Syracuse University Art Collection, all in New York; the de Young Museum in San Francisco; and the Art Institute of Chicago.  


    i Martin Wong, quoted in Caitlin Burkhart and Julian Myers-Szupinska, eds., My Trip to America by Martin Wong, California, 2015, p. 100
    ii Holland Cotter, ‘Martin Wong, an Urban Visionary With a Hungry Eye’, The New York Times, 19 November 1995, p. 25, online
    iii Ingrid Dudek, ‘Martin Wong: Human Instamatic’, The Brooklyn Rail, December 2015 – January 2016, online

    • Provenance

      P.P.O.W, New York (acquired directly from the Estate of the Artist)
      Galerie Buchholz, Germany
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, P.P.O.W, Everything Must Go, 10 December 2009 – 30 January 2010
      Cologne, Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Martin Wong: Works 1980-1998, 28 May – 22 August 2010
      Berlin, Galerie Buchholz, Neptune Society: San Francisco Columbarium, 4th FL, Dome Room, South Wall, Tier 4, Niche 2, 30 November 2012 – 19 January 2013
      New York, The Bronx Museum of the Arts; Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, 4 November 2015 – 10 December 2017

    • Literature

      Holland Cotter, 'An Urban Visionary With a Hungry Eye', The New York Times, 20 November 2015, page 23, online

Property from an Important Hong Kong Collection


Son of Sam Sleeps

acrylic on canvas
91 x 122 cm. (35 7/8 x 48 in.)
Painted in 1983.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for HK$2,772,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021