Created in 1978, the same year he relocated to New York City, (Untitled) Nutz Boy marks an important transition in Martin Wong’s work. Scribbled in pencil on a brown paper bag with the artist’s “Human Instamatic” stamp embossed at the bottom, Nutz Boy recounts a love affair during Wong’s hippie years in Northern California. While the work’s vertical oblong shape (28 3/4 by 6 1/4 inches) is in keeping with the series of long rice paper scrolls he started producing in the late 1960s, the poem itself hints at important shifts in Wong’s work that would come to fruition during his years in New York—most notably, the strong autobiographical tone that would characterize his production thereafter.
Writing was intrinsic to Wong’s practice and, as the extensive number of poems in his archives suggests, it might have been his first vocation. William Blake’s poetry seems to have been an early influence, and most of Wong’s early poetry followed a nursery rhyme pattern reminiscent of Blake without the dark depths. A poem from 1967, for example, reads: “Silent rain come fade the night / crystal morning silver light / wind thru the trees / echoing distant sea.” Over the span of a decade, the youthful attempt to emulate visionary poetry progressively became incorporated into visual artworks, and it is not entirely surprising that his most arresting works from the late 1980s take on the format of large-scale illuminated manuscripts like Blake’s.
Following the progression of Wong’s writing one is able to trace his transformation from hippie communard to urban denizen. One early dramatic shift is telegraphed in the painting Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball (Eureka) (1978–1981), which memorializes his move to New York City. This work also represents his first successful attempt at mixing text and image. Instead of trippy descriptions of the weather we are offered the suggestion of personal anguish. From then on, Wong’s work was imbued with that sense of immediacy, most of it fueled by his close proximity to Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero, from whose poetry he borrowed plenty. Piñero was already a legendary figure in the Lower East Side when the two men met, and many of Wong’s paintings of the neighborhood are seen through Piñero’s eyes (or words), as in Attorney Street Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero (1982–1984).
One could argue that the pared-down language of Wong’s New York phase was inspired by Piñero’s straightforward delivery. That seems to be the case in works such as Pedro’s Lament, an ode to a has-been boxer that Wong picked up at a ring in New Jersey. With terse lines such as “Give me $6.00 / You can touch me all over / I won’t tell no body,” Wong conveys the complicated dynamic of their volatile relationship while also shedding some light on his attraction to straight men. Another striking example of his writing at this time is a small canvas of a fireman with the following text written over the image: “I really like the way firemen smell when they get off work / It’s like hickory smoked rubber and B.O. / After he showers and throws on the Old Spice I always loose interest / He thinks I’m only into him for his uniform / in reality I’m only into him for the smell.” As in Nutz Boy, body odor is a door into pure sexual desire, and in a sense the two works are closely connected, the earlier as a premonition of the latter and all that was to come. Wong’s text, unlike the previous poetry, does not try to charm the reader with beauty and faux gravitas; instead, it is all about his most personal craving: “His body had the strong odor of cypress trees and juniper axle grease and of dirty motor oil and pure animal sweat.” The embossed stamp, “Human Instamatic,” at the bottom of the scroll also bears Wong’s motto IMU UR2 (“I am you / You are too”). At first reading, the gimmicky riddle smacks of the easy spiritualism pervasive during the hippie era. In the broader scope of Wong’s career, however, the motto acquires new resonance as we consider the abnegation with which he pursued his goal of losing himself in the other(s).
When we started research for a retrospective of Martin Wong at the Bronx Museum in 2015, I was excited that his work offered an opportunity to look back at the counterculture movement of the 1960s. I was particularly interested in understanding how its utopian ideals gave way so soon to the proliferation of radical fringe groups and the toughening of political discourse. On a personal level, I also appreciated that Wong’s life and work cast light on the evolution of the gay rights movement from the closeted atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s, through the exuberance of the hippie era and its androgynous/pansexual archetype, to arrive finally at the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. As an artist, Wong was actively present throughout these important moments in American gay culture, having played important roles in two of the most radical performance groups of the late ’60s, the Cockettes and Angels of Light. Moving to New York in 1978—a period chronicled in the photographs of Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe and Alvin Baltrop, among others—Wong opted to shed his old hippie skin and become a cosmopolitan dandy, surveying the dilapidated quarters of the Lower East Side in the company of Piñero and their coterie. In this context, Nutz Boy offers insight into that pivotal moment when Wong turned his back on the utopia of the counterculture without accepting that the dream was over.