Martin Wong - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Rendered in stylized illustrations of American Sign Language, Martin Wong’s St. Joseph’s, 1988, spells out the name of a school for the hearing impaired in the Bronx. With the artist’s signature, earth-toned color palette, the hands jump off the canvas with bright white cuffs and golden nails placed against a background of deep black. Fascinated by the interplays between seeing and reading, Wong incorporated sign language frequently throughout his work, imbedding it within his art as a symbol to be deciphered. Positioning himself at the intersection of a variety of marginalized groups, including but not limited to the deaf, Asian American, Latino and gay communities, Wong was deeply connected to his diverse New York community, making it difficult to place him definitively within one category of people or artists. Wong’s vast collection of graffiti art was donated to the Museum of the City of New York upon the artist’s death in 1994, and his own works are housed in important collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.


    Created in an effort to make the public more aware of the deaf community, the present work relates to the artist’s Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired, a project that came to life during his residency at New York City’s Department of Transportation sign shop. These signs would appear near schools in all five boroughs of the city, spelling out words like “ONE WAY,” “STOP,” and “SCHOOL FOR THE DEAF.” In St. Joseph’s, Wong spells out “ST JOSEPHS” on cufflinks on the shirts from which the hands appear, creating a layered relationship between seeing and reading. These letters are not immediately visible, and only appear upon closer inspection. Though not deaf himself, the artist used ASL and finger-spelling gestures frequently in his work—such as in Stanton near Forsyth Street, 1983, the Museum of Modern Art, New York—elevating them beyond just a means of communicating into an art form. The depiction of language within his body of work also alludes to the use of writing in Old Master Chinese paintings. Taking inspiration from the mark-making in calligraphy, Wong incorporated text throughout his practice as a means to explore the connection between visual arts and reading or writing.


    Martin Wong, Traffic Signs for Hearing Impaired, 1980. Image/Artwork: © Martin Wong Foundation. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P·P·O·W, New York


    Having first moved to New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood in 1978, Wong’s connections to the city are deeply embedded within his practice. Along with his contemporaries Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, the artist was inspired by the graffiti scattered throughout the New York City streets, subway cars and stations. The almost cartoonish rendering of the hands of the signers in St. Joseph’s resembles those found in spray paint on demolished buildings downtown. The signs may also allude to secret codes used by the gay community, a subject which was familiar to the artist and explored frequently throughout his practice. Though undoubtedly influenced by his surroundings, Wong’s art avoids the categorization of his peers, referencing many art forms including but not limited to graffiti, neo-Expressionism and Conceptualism. The result is a unique and profound body of work that celebrates the diversity of human backgrounds and experience.


    Martin Wong, Stanton near Forsyth Street, 1983, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Martin Wong Foundation. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P·P·O·W, New York
    • Provenance

      The Artist
      The Estate of Martin Wong
      PPOW Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


St. Joseph's

acrylic on canvas
12 1/8 x 32 in. (30.8 x 81.3 cm)
Painted circa 1988.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for $190,500

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan

Specialist, Head of Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023