Neal Baer Collection

Martin Wong

77th Precinct


Etching and aquatint in colors
Edition 18/36

Image: 31 1/4 x 21 3/4 in. (79.4 x 55.2 cm)
Sheet: 38 x 26 7/8 in. (96.5 x 68.3 cm)

Martin Wong (1946-1999) was raised in the Chinatown district of San Francisco and started painting at age 13. Wong received his degree from Humboldt State University in ceramics, but primarily worked in painting over the course of his lifetime, practicing in San Francisco in the 1960s and active in the Bay Area art scene at the time. Wong moved to New York City in the 1970s, living on the Lower East Side and rendering the gritty life and environment around him in his paintings. 77th Precinct refers to the NYPD precinct covering the northern portion of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with one of the highest murder rates and known as the “Alamo”, a dumping ground for corrupt cops. The precinct became infamous for its corruption in the 1980s, which, among other things, involved officers robbing drug dealers, selling drugs and goods themselves, and forcing new officers to do the same. Thirteen officers were eventually indicted. Wong’s 77th Precinct memorializes this grim New York City history through idiosyncratic visual language, such as the brick wall border and the constellation of stars.

The transcription of the opening line of Roy Orbison’s song “In Dreams” imparts an unsettling yet romantic mood: A CANDY-COLORED CLOWN THEY CALL THE SANDMAN TIPTOES INTO MY ROOM AT NIGHT AND SPRINKLES STARDUST IN MY EYES AND WHISPERS IN MY EARS TO GO TO SLEEP NOW EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT. Another example of this work is found in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Wong became integrated in the local Lower East Side Latino community through his partner, Miguel Piñero, a Nuyorican poet. 

Taking it down to street level this time, I wanted to focus in close on some of the endless layers of conflict and confinement that has us all bound together. In this life without possibility of parole by whatever chains of desire be they financial, chemical or karmic….Always locked in. Always locked out, winners and loosers [sic] all, it is only when we are down for the final count that the two twin fireman (sleep and death) come silently to reclaim their own for only then, within their peaceful realm are we truly equal.

Martin Wong, Original drawing for press release for Semaphore Gallery, 1985, featured in Julie Ault’s “Afterlife”, Galerie Buchholz, New York

Wong’s paintings are marked by a visionary realism and feature graffiti-styled American Sign Language symbols spelling out work titles or other work ideas, star constellations (the human language of the stars), gay firemen, as well as brick borders and brick walls, summoning New York City’s confined tenement architecture as well as more symbolic confinements. The interest in creating enigmatic visual languages resonates with the coded language and signals used by the gay community at the time.

Wong died of AIDS in 1999.

Phillips Editions and Works on Paper Sale, 21 October 2021, Lot 379

See also
Michael Daly, “The Crack in the Shield,” New York Magazine, September 16, 2008

Martin Wong in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art

Martin Wong in the collection of the MoMA

Martin Wong at P.P.O.W.

Martin Wong at Galerie Buchholz

Martin Wong, “Son of Sam Sleeps,” 1983 at Phillips