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Post-War & Contemporary Art / MARTIN WONG (1946-1999) Quong Yuen Shing & Co. 1992
Sold for US$1,260,375 inc. premium
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Exit Art, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1998
San Francisco, San Francisco Art Institute, Martin Wong: The Chinatown Paintings, 1993
New York, The Bronx Museum of the Arts; Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts; Berkeley, UC Berkeley Art Museum, Martin Wong: Instamatic, 2015-2017, p. 81, illustrated in color (titled Quong Sang Chong Co. Sky Ship and dated 1982) and p. 157, illustrated in color (dated 1994)
One of Martin Wong's most significant paintings to ever come to auction, Quong Yuen Shing & Co. (1992) is a superlative example of the artist's practice. Demonstrating his virtuosic technique, and his instantly recognizable imagery, this exceptional painting is a quintessential example of Wong's legacy as the "painter of modern life" of the downtown New York neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Fresh to the market having never been offered at auction previously, the present work was acquired by the current owner in 1998, at the behest and recommendation of the artist shortly before his untimely death just a year later.
Raised in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, Wong studied ceramics and was an active member of the Bay Area art scene as a performance artist and portraitist. In the late 1970s, he moved to New York, settling in the Lower East Side and turning his practice exclusively to painting. When an image of Quong Yuen Shing & Co. at 32 Mott Street appeared in a local Chinese language publication, Wong rushed across town from his home and studio on the Lower East Side to Chinatown to see the building for himself. Wong discovered that this building, with its lavish interior had earned the distinction of being the longest continuously operating store in the neighborhood.
Quong Yuen Shing & Co. first opened in 1891. From the façade, the business operated as a general store, but inside the space served as a larger resource for Chinese immigrants coming to New York. The store acted as a home address for numerous migrants yet to find permanent housing where they would receive mail, reunite with loved ones, and socialize with others in their community. Most intriguing to Wong, the space also hosted the local bachelor's society where young men would come in hopes of planning an arranged marriage.
An essential exponent of the American scene, Martin Wong's practice ennobled the crumbling edifices and oft-neglected denizens of downtown New York. This capturing of contemporary urban life was the natural bookend to 20th Century art in New York. The century began with the emergence of the Ashcan School, a group of artists rejecting the refinement of Impressionism and Academic Realism, in favor of reflecting the contemporaneous sights and sounds of the city. Works such as George Bellow's The Cliff Dwellers (1913) and John Sloan's Hairdresser's Window (1907) (at right), reflected the artists' surroundings in veracious detail.
While some of Wong's paintings of the same urban locations, and scenes at the end of the century, are updated with an end of empire atmosphere of romanticized decay, Quong Yuen Shing & Co. is not one of them. The façade of the storefront and Wong's depiction of the intricate carving that surround it, give way to an even more ornate interior, with delicate latticework and fine molding. As a building that doubles as the beating heart of the community, Wong presents the store in the form of a portrait, in its vertical orientation and focalized presentation on the architectural subject. Consciously excluding extraneous figures, which he would have surely encountered on his many trips to the store, Wong constructs a reverent portrait of a New York institution. In his insistence upon human absence, he imbues the store with an almost specter-like presence that pulsates with life.
A remarkable and visionary artist of the late 20th Century, Martin Wong's work can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the de Young Museum, Los Angeles; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the New York Historical Society. Retrospectives of his work took place at New York's New Museum in 1998 and the Bronx Museum, New York, in 2015, the latter of which included the present painting.
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