Crossing Bridges

The Martin Wong retrospective “Human Instamatic” — a road trip to the Bronx, and a family story.

by Kathy Weinberg

 

Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum

Driving along I95 you cross a bridge to get in and out of Maine. You cross a line that separates “here” and “from away,” in a State that declares on its Welcome sign, that it is “The way life should be.” On this sign, a local artists group (ARRT!) temporarily mounted their own sign depicting lobster buoys adorned with the insignias of national flags, and stating, “Maine welcomes our new residents.” A state, a culture, and history move forward — often in increments. Just as crossing bridges takes us from one place—or state of mind—into another, a work of art, or even a simple meal can transport us into another world, or make our own new again.

On one trip, “away,” I was fortunate to see the art and legacy created by Martin Wong who was representative of, yet on the edges of his times. Wong was not a part of a mainstream culture in his day, but is now moving into a broader appreciation.

Wong worked within the European canon, did not feel he had to throw it away, but made it his own. Martin Wong continued to make paintings at a time when painting was falling out of fashion, and became overshadowed by the rise of ironic and then predominantly formalist American art. By tying his personal American scene back to a European tradition that includes and embraces Van Gogh and Goya, Wong tells us that history is alive and available for artists of all times.

It is a five-mile walk to the Bronx Museum from where my husband and I met up with an old friend for lunch before going to see the Martin Wong Retrospective: Human Instamatic. We had spicy cumin lamb burgers at Xi’an, a new chain of North Chinese noodle shops featuring hand-pulled noodles in spicy sauces. Blocks later we stopped in at Patsy’s — the original 118th Street location — for a slice. Our friend knew the history of this oldest coal fired oven pizza in New York, and pointed to where Frank Sinatra once had his own reserved table. This part of Harlem was once an Italian neighborhood, but now Patsy’s, one bakery, and a “red sauce” restaurant were all that remained as evidence. Walking straight up 1st Avenue, we made a jog to reach the Third Avenue Bridge that took us out of Manhattan, into the Bronx, past Yankee Stadium then along the Grand Concourse. The Third Avenue Bridge offers a view of the canal-like, industrial landscape of Old Dutch, upper Manhattan. It is  pedestrian scale, and feels more like a continuation than a grand crossing.

Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum

We were going on what felt like a Pilgrimage — not only to see the Martin Wong retrospective, but to see it in a neighborhood once famous for its having burned, like ancient Rome. I had often heard stories from my husband’s family about the destruction of the Bronx, the landlords burning buildings to get money from insurance. It was years before I heard the story of how their Uncle burnt down the family house, a house with three generations all living together. He carried a shovel full of coals from the basement furnace to the back yard, dropping some  on his way to roast potatoes in a small fire in the backyard with his friends. They called this depression-era pastime “roasting Mickies.”

My husband’s family had moved to the Bronx at a time when Europe was burning and Jews were no longer safe — or welcome — in their home countries. His father and grandmother escaped just six months before WWII officially broke out, but the invasion had already begun and villages were burning as they departed in an ox cart. His mother was born in the Bronx and her parents arrived during WWI.

The paintings of Martin Wong’s life, friends and neighborhood are remarkable for the quality of the painting alone. But Wong’s body of work also chronicles both an area and era. The gentrification and expansion of the Lower East Side neighborhood began in Wong’s (too brief) lifetime, continues today, and makes his work an ever stronger, and not too distant, mirror.

Martin Wong moved from San Francisco’s Chinatown to New York in 1978 and eventually settled in the Lower East Side. He made paintings set in, and of, the urban decay in the 1980’s-90’s — after the urban decline of the 1970’s. He paints his adopted neighborhood and his times. His canvases contain detailed brick walls, graffiti, razor wire, paint-scumbled surfaces, but still offer a human tenderness. There is love among the ruins. Love between the firemen — who appear like friendly gladiators or awkward angels in Big Heat. These Romeos are seemingly oblivious to the vacant and rubble-filled lots they occupy. Love appears as a heart built out of bricks, bulletproof, and a visual pun on a heart of stone, capable of surviving in the ashes.

Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum

A wit and poetry is written through Wong’s paintings; words make appearances as a narrator’s voice, a poet’s oration. Graffiti words cover buildings, words frame the images; words are written on the walls, appear as headlines or epithets. Words are implied in the hand signs, the alphabet, for the hearing impaired. These signs are a visual language that can be deciphered, like a metaphor for painting itself. A section of the Lower East Side is known as “Alphabet City,” due to lettered rather than numbered streets, so it is fitting that the art of that area should have a written/visual component. Wong’s hand painted sign language for the deaf form hieroglyphs out of stylized symbols; disembodied hands emerge — with pearl buttons — from cuffed sleeves. Throughout art history hands have pointed famously; God’s hand reaches out to a languid Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Angel points Adam and Eve out of The Garden of Eden.

Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum

Wong’s paintings are filled with books, celestial charts, and cartoons articulated in a hyper-realistic style of trompe l’oeil. Wong’s focus on the details of his art alleviates any didactic or straight political, polemic reading. In The Flood, the hand of the Statue of Liberty, painted as if built from bricks, rises like a chimney in a vacant lot. My immediate association was of the final scene in Planet of the Apes. Actor Charlton Heston sees Liberty’s head and hand buried in the sand, realizes that the statue is beneath; Earth and America as he knows it has been destroyed. He asks of the sky, “What have they done?” That question certainly hovers in the smoky skies of Wong’s world.

The portraits and characters that appear in his paintings are mostly of men, often partially dressed. A giant “brick” phallus rises, like a statue, in a gilded frame, in My Vida Loca. Wong found in the melting pot culture of the Lower East Side, a home and a community, and he walks us through his life there; an exterior window view of his bedroom is seen, perhaps from several stories up, as if we are suspended in air looking in. In Rapture, a painting of a brick wall entirely fills three panels that are surrounded, engulfed even, by a gilded frame. The intertwining oval frames — filled with the bricks — terminate in leaf and filigree so that the rectangle pattern, the weight of the wall, is lightened and relieved. Wong’s scenes of a destroyed neighborhood are not freighted with bitterness. His love of detail and decoration bring a joy to the subject and to a sympathetic viewer. Wong’s paintings are a valentine to the citizens of urban blight.

Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum

Wong — as a highly original artist who painted a world that he made his own — worked outside of the dominant art historical canon of his contemporaries. His style recalls other artists, now or at one time, on the borders of that canon: late Philip Guston, De Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio, and the cartoonist R.Crumb. Wong was familiar with Renaissance art and other historic styles, which manifests in a crucifixion scene set in a basketball court, in the use of the circular or Tondo form, or in Top Cat, a portrait of a Hispanic reclining male, semi-nude in white briefs (tighty-whitey) — a nod to Goya’s clothed and unclothed Maja.

Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum

Holland Cotter’s essay/review on Wong (New York Times, November, 2015) refers — in passing — to Wong as an “exotic outsider.” Cotter met Wong many times at the Metropolitan Museum, where Wong worked in the gift shop and looked at art. Cotter’s perception, shared by others, was partly based on Wong’s cowboy clothing — boot to hat — persona, and not having the “correct” art world credentials. Wong had studied ceramics, but was considered “self-taught” as a painter, though he started teaching himself from an early age. He was considered, by some, as a folk artist, although he had showed in East Village Galleries, including Semaphore. He had a retrospective in 1998 at the New Museum, and the director Dan Cameron said that Wong entered the broader picture of art history as: “…one of the more prominent examples of a constructed multinational cultural identity” and, was “Probably the essential painter of the American scene of the second half of the twentieth century.” Wong’s work is now included in the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art collections.

This show in its Bronx location ties in to Wong’s close association to graffiti artists in the area — artists that Wong knew personally and collected. He donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York before his death in 1998, and it was recently on display there, in 2015. Wong’s is an unquestionable, yet still developing historic niche. Despite having lived for twenty years in New York City, this was my first visit to the Bronx Museum. Crossing bridges is slow work.

Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum

You cross bridges to get to Manhattan, a physical construction that is also a mental obstruction. There isn’t one fixed “Real New York,” “True American,” or “Mainer,” it is as evolving and as difficult to keep up with as what is or isn’t out of fashion. It can all change in a New York minute — defined by Johnnie Carson as the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn. Parallel histories flourish often unnoticed inside, and outside, its own walls. Sometimes, over time, recognition, appreciation and public opinion converge.

Martin Wong-Human Instamatic Retrospective, Bronx Museum, 2015-16. photo courtesy of the author

Driving home on highway 95, I thought about the density, diversity and sheer numbers of people living in America’s largest urban area, just a day’s drive down the road. One person’s life and life’s work can reach through time and transcend our differences. I thought about Maine Governor LePage’s remarks  about drug dealers from New York coming to Maine with heroin and impregnating white women before leaving .  He defended his racist stereotypes by pointing to a 2010 survey that showed that the population in Maine is 95% white. This fact makes Maine the whitest state in the Union. The state is also 83% forested, making it one of the most sparsely populated states as well.

You enter the State of Maine on the Piscataqua River Bridge, high above the river, and rising into the air. Whether you have been away for a short trip, for a long time, are “from away”, or are arriving for the first time, that crossing feels symbolic; especially at the summit where all that is past can fade away, the future is open, and neither is visible for that moment.

And then, with the descent, it all comes rushing back, where we have been, as individuals, and where we — as a culture — are heading.

 

 

Hell’s Gate Illuminated: A Tribute to Paul Oberst by Kathy Weinberg

above: Paul Oberst, Studio shot

When people talk about tragic events they often start with where they were and what they were doing as if by introducing the mundane back-story one could perform some crude magic and reverse the outcome. What this does is illustrate how our pact with the continuity of things has been ruptured and forever altered.

We follow our trail of breadcrumb memories, back to the time before.

I was on my couch when I heard the election results. The night before I went to bed with the stock market crashing, globally, and an electoral map turning red, like a wound, across the country.

One month later I drove into Manhattan at sunset with my husband. An oppressive, solid, cloudbank was low in the sky. Stopped in a long chain of traffic, we sat while the sun edged through from under the clouds. The city was backlit, darkened, and the low angle of the orange sun made harsh silhouettes out of the rows of cars, metal shells—the shadows between objects were like chasms. Looking to our left, there on the Major Deegan Expressway, Hell’s Gate Bridge was illuminated and glowing against the grey black world around. “An Apocalyptic sunset,” we agreed.

Did I remember then how the morning began when the handle on a full cup of coffee broke just as I handed it to my husband? Or did I remember that later, when all things became signs and portents.

Paul Oberst, Installation

That same night, just before midnight, an old friend had just left after a long dinner. My husband checked his phone because a call came through during the meal. We were sleepy, happy, tipsy—in good spirits. He listened to the message. “Its Simone,” he said and we both looked puzzled, she did not usually contact us. Our relationship to her was with, and through, Paul Oberst—Simone was Paul’s former wife, current friend, partner and collaborator. “She said to call as soon as I got this message,” he said, “is it too late?”

It was too late. We have never called anyone at midnight. But sensing, already, that this was not a usual call, without hesitation, I said no, it was not too late. I never say that. We were less sleepy, less tipsy.

What follows are images, both of us pacing, my husband just holding the phone, not speaking, then sitting down on the edge of the bed, silent and listening to the voice on the other end. “What is it?” I mouthed at him. “The worst,” he mouthed back, and kept listening, his eyes had the same look as on the day he saw the World Trade Center hit by the second plane, and then both towers crumble, from our rooftop, less than a half mile away.

Even then I did not know what I believed the worst to be. A dark road, a deer leaping flashed through my mind. A state of profound ignorance enveloped me. A few moments later I mouthed, “An accident?” now wide-awake and sober. He made one gesture that said it all, a common gesture children use: an extended thumb and forefinger pointed at his temple. It was no accident, and it was irrevocable.

Did I sleep or just lie in bed drifting in fragmented thoughts? The next morning I began to look through my correspondence with Paul, wondering what our last conversations had been, what had we been saying, were there signs? Certainly signs could now be seen in retrospect, signs that were obscured by the light of reason and belief in positive solutions to everyday or unexpected problems. And always, always assuming that despair was not an option.

I began slowly at first, and then methodically, to compile my email exchanges with Paul into a document. Starting at the beginning, following many twists of threads and tangents often several threads at a time. Over the course of hours, then days, I transcribed an 800-page document that spanned four years. My husband has a similar collection. During those years we also regularly shared studio visits and meals where we talked and carried on the conversations in person. Our correspondence covered a range of topics and moods from thoughtful and philosophical to silly, from analytic to bitchy, sometimes gossip, often poetic, ending days before my friend killed himself, and just as I arrived in New York.

Paul Oberst, studio

What does this number, 800, mean to me in an age where numbers work at cross-purposes—Popular Vote vs. Electoral College? Paul had friends he had known for thirty years, or fifteen, one friend never met him but exchanged a meaningful note that moved her. And then there is his artwork, compiled and filling a measured space in the new studio he was building. His recent video had him measuring a section of beach. Numbers represent a need repeated, like three meals a day, or two aspirin.

To me the numbers meant continuity. Daily, and often several times daily, our emails exchanges became a voice narrating our lives. Paul, being a few years older, often took on a role of older brother, sage advisor and flat-out cheerleader. My correspondence with Paul continues now in my head, some days narrating events, describing an exhibit, something I read, or a fleeting thought. And times all I can say is “Dear Paul,” followed by a long silence, concluding with “Love Kathy.” Sometimes I repeat these lines, over and over, like a mantra.

Paul Oberst

We do not know what the next four years will bring. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at the start of the second Bush term; despair set in even when his voice would have been helpful to counter what was to come. Paul’s abrupt departure took some of the light out of the room at a time when we feel dark forces gathering. Will I look back to the events of this time and read them like tea leaves, an oracle, as a prophecy? Whatever is to come, I will always look back on this moment in time as silhouetted by a late fall sunset, not shedding light, but casting darkness and deepening shadow. A time when Hell’s Gate was illuminated.

Paul Oberst, studio

 

Letters and fragments

from Paul Oberst to Kathy Weinberg

October 25, 2016

Sure is gorgeous at this moment with this sunrise. I just walked down the drive to appreciate my humongous pile of firewood. I can’t believe I have done that in such order. My peacock tail was in full display as I walked by it and picked up a stray stick to throw in the stove, which is stoked and running at this very moment. Life is good and graceful at this very moment.

Have a lovely day creating and being.

Paulo

February14, 2016

As for success, I was most successful as a child. All I really want and need to do is play like that and all is fine, and I do that at times and am going to work a lot harder at it from now on out. I think our culture is insane and at times I think somehow I am supposed to heal it. That is not possible. I can do a little counseling, I can be a shaman in the studio, and I can hang with my buds tearing it all asunder over a meal and drinks. And you know what. That is mighty fine my dear. Chin up. P

January 25, 2016

I’m caught in these streams of thought that are along the lines of, “Now why is it that this really matters?” I look around and for the most part I have rather efficiently organized my life and creations. Again the question is raised “Why?” It only matters if I am inspired. And I have been so inspired in this life. But I have learned not to avoid this current form of questioning knowing full well that such matters are best penetrated and explored fully.

L, P

May 29, 2015

Dear Kathy, You know, no matter how hard one works in an alternative way to one’s nature, the truth of one’s nature always comes through. I have always been drawn to black and to the mysterious. Death has always been fascinating to me. Even though I do banded poles of lovely colors, they suggest passage…passage to what, through what. The answer, LIFE. Back to the mystery, back to black. I take a set of dice and photograph them…dice, game! Light subject! Wrong! Luck. Death. Life.

I swear. It is insane. Kathy, when the dice are blown up…any of the out of focus images, the resulting mist of jet sprayed fine ink is so gorgeous my jaw drops…if only Seurat could have seen this printing…he would have stopped painting.

What a stunning day! Peggy Lee is in the background singing, but I can hardly hear her today.   Paulo

May 27, 2015

Art is so damned hard. It is exactly like life. And at times it is so flawlessly graceful. Remember the Barnes Collection tour. Imagine the struggles that went into the creation of all those works. Imagine the struggles to exhibit it all! Sobering. It is like walking this warrior’s path of heart. Not for the faint of heart. But, there is no choice.

Paulo

May 26 2015

There is a song by Peggy Lee that goes “Is that all there is to—“. And it goes from her childhood up to her mature years and then reflection on life at the very end. Is that all there is to a circus, is that all there is to life, etc. So, Simone and I call such days as today, “A Peggy Lee Day.” … It is irrational, art. IT defies logic. I defy logic.

December 13, 2014

Kathy my dear, one could argue that I am an arrogant son of bitch about my art….and the art of my friends. I just feel that what we are doing is sacred work, pure and simple. As long as it is sacred and speaks to the great and noble longings of humanity and creation, then the art world can kiss my scrawny ass. Their loss…surely not mine because I am making the shit no matter what. Sacred Shit. We make this shit because it brings balance to the world because creation deems it necessary to do so because it is the nature of our nature in resonance with nature.

July 9, 2013

Okay the gardens are now in peak performance…the fireworks of plant blossoms…the Day Lilies and the lavender spiked native Maine flowers and Black Eyed Susan. The Hosta is starting to bloom and so much more. The day lily are over 5 feet tall and each year get taller. The last picture is taken from the enclosed porch above the entrance door. Eventually the garden may all displace me.

Paulo

December 12, 2013– Part of a poem, in a letter

Most appreciative

I am most appreciative of the moments

(I was going to say time

but it wasn’t time.

Such events are moments

we string together like beads on a rosary.)

Such moments are prayer.

Sunset, December 2, 2016

 

Paul Oberst
January 11, 1955 – December 2, 2016