What is it about the personal collection on display that is so appealing, so instantly resonant?
Until recently, the only collections museums presented were of the “Treasures from the Collection of [Wealthy Donor]” sort. Shifts in artistic and curatorial thinking have liberated the ‘collection’ exhibition: the desire to see artists within their social context, the elevation of material culture to art.
Danh Vo, the artist best known for his conceptual sculpture series We the People (detail), has presented in the exhibition I M U U R 2 some 4,000 objects from the home of Martin Wong. Wong, the iconoclastic painter who died in 1999 of AIDS-related causes, gathered these objects over many years with his mother Florence Wong Fie, who assisted in the creation of this exhibition.
It is tempting but misguided to search the exhibition for clues to the internal life and artistic inspirations of Martin Wong (how would any of us be judged by what sits in our homes?). And we must take two grains of salt for the curatorial intents of both Vo and Florence Wong Fie. These competing ingredients produce a portrait of the artist as idiosyncratic as it is intimate.
Vo, in his artist talk at the Guggenheim last week, mentioned that Wong’s mother had difficulty coming to terms with her son’s sexuality. Indeed, the fireman fetish and gritty leather subculture that filled so much of Wong’s work is mostly absent here. Nor do we see the legendary graffiti that Wong collected (Wong and his friend Peter Broda secured a home for it at Museum of the City of New York). Wong spent his last years in San Francisco, but almost none of the objects on view suggest the Loisaida of brick, fire escapes, handball courts, and empty lots that his paintings passionately embodied.
Which is not to say that the collection is unrevealing. We learn of Wong’s interest in Chineseness, how the idea of Chinese culture is filtered in America through knickknacks and reproductions. The rows of paper fans, Buddhas and faux-precious figurines would seem just as home at a stall on Canal Street. These pieces sit beautifully in dialogue with his survey of Americana. From Nixon buttons to Popeye to mammy dolls, we see Wong digesting the fragmented faces of this country: optimistic, cartoonish, ugly.
Nestled among all this, like the prizes in cereal boxes, are some of Wong’s own paintings. In frames not much bigger than postcards, iterations of his iconic bricks recall the paintings of Giorgio Morandi more than Wild Style. We find stamps engraved with his stylized sign language, and even one engraved onto a Chinese stone seal — Wong transposing his personal pictorial language onto an ancient tool built for another.
A collection is more seductive and less informative than its dustier counterpart, the archive. There is nothing definitive or complete about I M U U R 2, but that’s not what we should ask of it. The most enduring artist legacies are their influence on other artists: Vo, whose work seems to have little in common with Wong’s, was enchanted by the first Wong painting he saw (of an FDNY trampoline that looks at first like a sun mandala). He has translated that enchantment into this portrait through parts. It is a reminder that we cannot know anyone in full, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be utterly charmed by them.
Danh Vo’s I M U U R 2 exhibition continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until May 27.
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