Matthew Wong - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Capturing a quiet moment in solitude spent staring out at a city romantically illuminated from within, Before Night Falls is unequivocally the most refined interior the artist executed in his all-too-brief career. Culling some of his most important motifs—the single figure, the flowering tree, the side table with fruit—into a single work, this masterpiece takes its place within the long legacy of interior painting, especially that of the Fauvists and Post-Impressionists. Redolent of Georges Seurat’s short, rich mark-making and Henri Matisse’s elegant contours and windowed interiors, such as The Pink Studio, 1911, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Before Night Falls depicts a woman looking out onto a cityscape; though this one is ambiguous, the composition could be read as a reference to the Parisian loneliness captured by Gustave Caillebotte’s Young Man at his Window, 1875.


    Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at His Window, 1875. 

    “Wong can be considered a kind of nouveau Nabi, a descendant of Post-Impressionist painters like Édouard Vuillard and Paul Sérusier,” critic Eric Sutphin proposed in Art in America. “Like his forebears, he synthesizes stylized representations, bright colors, and mystical themes to create rich, evocative scenes. His works, despite their ebullient palette, are frequently tinged with a melancholic yearning.”i Despite these conspicuous allusions, Before Night Falls feels contemporary during a time replete with self-isolation and quarantines; placing past and present in dialogue, Wong presciently reimagined the modernist approach for our era.

    "These paintings are extremely open and vulnerable. But once they lure you in, they leave you alone to explore their chromatic, spatial and psychological complexities."
     — Roberta Smith 

    Henri Matisse, The Pink Studio, 1911. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Photo credit SCALA / Art Resoruce, Artwork © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    Astoundingly, notwithstanding all of these complex and layered allusions to art history, Wong was a self-taught artist—and it wasn’t until 2012 that he first began to experiment with drawing. Using social media as an outlet for connection while suffering from crippling loneliness, Wong began to participate in Facebook communities of artists who introduced him to new techniques and ideas. Among these online friends were fellow painters Peter Shear and Brian Calvin, as well as prominent art dealer John Cheim, who even counseled the artist on which oil paint to utilize. Wong “would go to libraries and study all the masters—Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse,” his mother recalled, where he developed the robust knowledge of art history on view in Before Night Falls.ii


    The Culmination of a Career 


    Instead of approaching his canvases with a preconceived subject in mind, Wong would begin his paintings with dots and brushstrokes until an image started to reveal itself to him. At this point, according to the artist, “the image will eventually paint itself”—typically culminating in the form of a landscape or interior, his two most iconic genres.iii

    "[Wong] was the modern day Van Gogh."
    — Jonas Wood

    Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

    Despite this seeming spontaneity, however, Before Night Falls reflects a composition that was meticulously arranged. In fact, the work could even be considered to be a constellation of all of Wong’s favorite motifs that reappeared throughout his short career: the cerulean folding screen adorned with impasto-rich flamingoes is reminiscent of the subject of The Cat's Tail, 2018; the book and side table emerged periodically throughout his work; the rug also appears in Fireplace, 2018; the cityscape forms the backdrop of Solitude, 2018; and of course the flowering tree is one of the artist’s favorite tropes. On the left hand of Before Night Falls is also a potted plant with Ancient Greek imagery and an abstract red, yellow, and black painting—both of which are undeniably allusions to Wong’s friend, artist Jonas Wood, whose work Wong closely studied. These myriad references to his own work, his predecessors’, and his peers imbue Before Night Falls with a richness that embodies the very best of Wong’s approach.


    A Moment for Subjectivity


    Giorgio de Chirico, The Song of Love, 1914. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

    Bridging the real and the subliminal, Wong’s landscapes and interiors present highly subjective and transcendent viewing experiences that allow each viewer to perceive them in diverse ways. “Mr. Wong made some of the most irresistible paintings I’ve ever encountered,” Roberta Smith expressed, speaking about the first time she saw Wong’s paintings at Frieze Art Fair in 2017, though her response captured the sentiment of art world at large. “It was a visceral experience, like falling for an unforgettable song on first listen. It was deeply nourishing: my life had been improved and I know other people who have had the same reaction. Such relatively unalloyed pleasure is almost as essential as food.” iv


    i Eric Sutphin, “Matthew Wong,” Art in America, June 1, 2018, online.

    ii Monita (Cheng) Wong, quoted in Neil Genzlinger, “Matthew Wong, Painter on Cusp of Fame, Dies at 35,” The New York Times, October 21, 2019, online.

    iii Matthew Wong, quoted in “Artist Profile: Matthew Wong,” Structure and Imagery, November 3, 2013, online.

    iv Roberta Smith, “A Final Rhapsody in Blue from Matthew Wong,” The New York Times, December 27, 2019, online.

    • Provenance

      KARMA, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Maria Vogel, “Matthew Wong Reflects on the Melancholy of Life”, Art of Choice, November 15, 2018, online (illustrated)

    • 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.  

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Property from an Important West Coast Collection


Before Night Falls

signed and dated "Wong 2018 [in Chinese]" and titled "BEFORE NIGHT FALLS" on the reverse
oil on canvas
48 x 60 in. (121.9 x 152.4 cm)
Painted in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $1,252,100

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020