The Bronx Museum of the Arts is currently featuring the first museum retrospective of Martin Wong's work since his death in 1999 from an AIDS-related illness. In his obituary, Wong was described as "a painter whose meticulous visionary realism is among the lasting legacies of New York's East Village art scene of the 1980s and a precursor of the identity-driven work of the 90s."
Wong was known as the "Human Instamatic"—a reference to Kodak's easy-use cameras that would have been popular during Wong's youth in the '60s (not to be confused with Instagram). The retrospective bears the same name, and Martin Wong: Human Instamatic features nearly 100 of the artist's works, including seldom seen archival materials.
The exhibition traces Wong's brief but prolific career, beginning with his early work in San Francisco in the 1970s, where, according to the New York Times, he worked as a sidewalk portrait sketcher after college and earned his eponymous nickname. He also joined a gay theater troupe, Angels of Light; some of his early work captures his time with that group. He then moved to New York in 1978, where he documented the gentrification sweeping across the Lower East Side; his obituary described these works as "stage-set-like...offer[ing] the viewer enthralling fusions of the decorative and the real, the documentary and the fantastic, the religious and the erotic."
In the 1990s, Wong returned home to San Francisco to live with his parents as his condition became more serious. He continued to paint, capturing the constellations as seen through a telescope and the plants growing in his mother's garden, among others.
The Times describes Wong as "[living] in the cracks between countercultures and [taking] from all of them as needed"—he had a unique style and, if this exhibit is any indication, has left a legacy that will far outlast his early death.
Martin Wong: Human Instamatic is open now and will be on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts until February 14th, 2016. The museum is also publishing a collection of essays, archival materials, and a previously-unpublished interview with Wong. Admission to the museum is free.