Matthew Wong - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

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    “I’d like to think of my art practice as an open-ended dialogue between myself and other painters, both living and dead.”
    — Matthew Wong

    Prostrating to The Past while Carving A Path to The Future


    Phillips is proud to present a monumental work by the revered Canadian-Hong Kong painter, Matthew Wong. More Nabi than Impressionist, Wong shared in the mystical dispositions of the hermetic Post-Impressionist group, and his virtuosic symphonies of pigment and rejection of tonal modelling in favour of autonomous fields of colour ally his practice with that of Paul Serusier — in particular his fabled The Talisman. Furthermore, he shared in the modernist conviction that the application of oil onto canvas could elicit intimate yet innovative forms of expression, producing works that are lyrical, whimsical, cerebral but most importantly, sincere.



    Paul Sérusier, Le Talisman, l'Aven au Bois d'Amour, 1888
    ©Musée d'Orsay


    Wong’s paintings are not quite surrealist, but rather the children of reverie; porticos into primordial worlds sourced directly from the artist’s complex imagination, as he eschewed preliminary drawings or photographs from which to base his scenes, taking inspiration instead from daydreams, movies and long walks. In a 2013 interview, Wong explained this process: ‘I’m just going with my gut…but often times my gut also cancels itself out and I keep painting over an image with a totally different image, and work like this can go on for months before a single surface is resolved’ i. His imagined landscapes are suffused with a poetic sorcery that ignites the surfaces of his compositions, an eternal dance that permits midnight forests to burn in the darkness, stretches ivory tundra infinite, and make flora and fauna become interchangeable. His Edenic tableaus ascend to become contemporary agalma, their wonderous features coaxing quiet meditation from the chaos of the quotidian.


    As much tactile as spiritual, Wong would combine thick impasto strokes with sweeping tracks of pattern and expanses of black canvas in a harmony that demanded incongruity yet delivered harmony. This is brilliantly exhibited in Pink Wave where teal and navy horizontals are broken up by the sweeping burgundy coastline and the speckled beach, while the golden tributary is crowned by a floral explosion of fuchsia. The dream dialectic that charges through the painting creates modal ambiguity. We question ourselves — what exactly are we looking at here, flower or wave? Representational elements become undermined and give way to flickerings of pure abstraction; compositional anxieties that are settled only by the solitary figure sat in the corner, almost swallowed by the chromostereopsis of red and white. Such rich detail removes a singular focal point, though lends the busy arrangement a ritualistic quality, and though one could feel overwhelmed by the painting’s granulated atmosphere and contrasting textures and colours, it in fact elicits a meditative tranquility, one of serenity and contemplation. Despite seeming to be set adrift amongst the undulations of pigment, the figure acts as an anchor against the abyssal depth of Pink Wave and allows an empathetic presence to flourish within the work.


    These figures, staffage for his preternatural scenes, are a constant feature in Wong’s paintings. Whether included directly or referenced by an empty chair, a trail of footprints or a plume of smoke rising from a house, they are inevitably swallowed by nature. Highlighting the deep well of influences that Wong drew from, the incorporation of a solitary figure into a landscape recalls the forms of Chinese landscape painting, which used such figures as a kind of vanitas for the impossible forces of nature. Ultimately, this allows Pink Wave to act as a bridge between Western and Asian artistic traditions and sensibilities.



    Ma Yuan, Poet Drinking by Moonlight, Song Dynasty


    Love Letters to Terra Firma


    This worship of the natural world forms a hallmark of Wong’s practice as a landscapist, yet this love took on a much more profound meaning. Like the English Romantics J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, the depiction of nature was a celebration of life itself, a profusion of devotion to that which lay before the artist’s eyes. Wong’s alchemy of poetry into pigment likewise places him alongside Victorian poets. With the presence of the figure against the power of Poseidon in Pink Wave, the artist evokes the musings of Wordsworth:


    “The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:
    Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
    And doth with his eternal motion make
    A sound like thunder — everlastingly.”
    — ‘By the Sea’, 1904, William Wordsworth


    He also shared practical similarities with the painterly nemophilists – applying thick dabs of opaque hues, like Constable, or working directly from imagination, like Turner. Although Wong would share in the former’s quixotic renderings of the world, it would be with Turner where undeniable kindship is found. Both artists embraced the power of nature in their paintings and sought visceral connection rather than scientific approach, bestowing primacy on the unity of environment through harmony of form the transmutability of compositional elements.


    Ultimately for these two analogous painters, the genre of landscape was simply a vehicle through which to profess their unbound love for nature, and thus, the universal state.



    J. M. W. Turner, Wreckers — Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore, 1883-84
    Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, New Haven


    Artist Interrupted


    Wong knew what it meant to be unrooted from the world; the grandson of a wealthy industrialist who fled the Cultural Revolution for Hong Kong, he would flit between his birthplace and Toronto for much of his childhood before settling in Hong Kong after studying Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Professional life would prove difficult as he bounced around white-collar jobs, unable to settle down and carve out a career in ‘Asia’s global city’. Neither local (his Cantonese was only passable) nor expat and without friends, he turned to poetry as a release and a calling before taking up photography and receiving a master’s in the medium from City University HK. With insatiable creative appetite he was soon hungry a higher register of expression, and so adopted painting to fulfil such desires, the catalyst being a visit to a Julian Schnabel retrospective. A child of the modern age, he took to Facebook to further his education, engaging in lengthy debates with figures like gallery owner John Cheim and artist Paul Behnke. This fascinating journey to becoming an artist makes his works all the more absorbing, while underlining the exceptional intuition of a practice that was unbounded by traditional teachings and institutional formation.


    “I do believe that there is an inherent loneliness or melancholy in much of contemporary life, and on a broader level I feel my work speaks to this quality in addition to being a reflection of my thoughts, fascinations and impulses.”
    Matthew Wong


    The wild exuberance that would come to lie at the core of his work — a certain joie de vivre — was tempered by the artist’s inner turmoil. Diagnosed with depression, Tourette’s Syndrome and autism, Wong struggled with his mental health throughout his life, a conflict that his mother has spoken of candidly: “He would just tell me, ‘you know, Mom, my mind, I’m fighting with the Devil every single day, every waking moment of my life’” ii.


    Suicide was a regular thought for the artist, often referring to it with friends or online. In his first forays as an artist, he became particularly interested in Yves Klein’s famed Leap into the Void (1960), a photomontage of a man leaping off a building. We can see these forms juxtaposed in his 2019 painting, See You on the Other Side, where a figure looks out into a blank void while encircled by a phoenix.



    Left: Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, 1960
    © Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris

    Right: Matthew Wong, See You on the Other Side, 2019 

    © 2022 Matthew Wong Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York


    In early October 2019, Wong would lose the fight he described to his mother, and take his life. He was 35 and on the cusp of immortality. Yet his story should not be diluted into the perverse caricature of yet another tortured artist, in the mode of Basquiat or Van Gogh. Instead his oeuvre should be celebrated for vivacity and singular creative vision; the life of a man who navigated the troubles of his inner and outer worlds through an honest dialogue between pigment and canvas.


    “The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.”
    — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


    In Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the tombstone of the great Amedeo Modigliani reads, ‘Struck down by death in the moment of glory’. On Wong’s, a simple line from one of his poems is inscribed: ‘I am that which is idle on a summer day. I am the mouth that does not move’. We may forever ask what would have become of this great artist, what masterpieces awaited our devotion further on in his career, but what is certain is that in Pink Wave, as in all his works, where he will live on — immortalised for eternity in its bewitching elegance, and powerful resonance.



    Collector’s Digest


    Wong’s works reside in notable public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Dallas Museum of Art; Estée Lauder Collection, New York; and the Aïshti Foundation, Beirut.


    Continuing the momentum around the artist’s acclaim, this October the Dallas Museum of Art will host Wong’s first museum retrospective in the United States, Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances, on the heels of the painter’s institutional debut, Matthew Wong: Blue View, which took place at the Art Gallery of Ontario from August 2021 to April 2022.



    Matthew Wong, quoted in interview with Studio Critical, 4 November 2013, online

    ii Monita Wong, quoted by Neil Genzlinger in ‘Matthew Wong, Painter on Cusp of Fame, Dies at 35’, New York Times, October 2019

    • Provenance

      Karma Gallery, New York
      Private Collection
      Sotheby's, New York, 8 December 2020, lot 6
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Matthew Wong

      Matthew Wong was a Canadian artist who enjoyed growing acclaim for his lush, dreamlike scenes that play on a rich tradition of art historical precedents. His work depicts the vivid but often melancholy terrain between sleep and wakefulness, lonely landscapes and isolated interiors rendered with a carefree hand and an ebullient palette, yet which contain an ineffable sorrow and a palpable but unnamed longing.  

      Wong spent his childhood between cultures: he was born in Toronto, Canada and at age 7 moved with his family to Hong Kong where he lived until he was 15, at which time the family returned to Canada. Wong began to experiment artistically already well into his adulthood, first with photography, which he pursued at the postgraduate level at the City University of Hong Kong, and then with painting. A self-taught painter, Wong developed his aptitude for the medium by immersing himself in online conversations with other artists and dedicated personal study of the history of art. His paintings attracted almost immediate attention, but Wong tragically passed away in 2019 just as his work was beginning to receive widespread critical praise.  

      View More Works

Property of a Distinguished Asian Collection


Pink Wave

signed, titled and dated '"PINK WAVE" Wong 2017 [in Chinese]' on the reverse
oil on canvas
121.9 x 152.4 cm. (47 7/8 x 60 in.)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

HK$16,000,000 - 26,000,000 

Sold for HK$22,635,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022