Solomon Adler on Martin Wong’s Eureka Years
IN A RICKETY WOOD-FRAME BUILDING near Eureka, California, along a slough that leads to Humboldt Bay, there is a self-portrait by Martin Wong. He left it unfinished—a quick acrylic underpainting in shades of blue. It shows the artist cross-legged and palms open, some contours so faint they disappear into the canvas. The painting’s surface is slightly buckled from exposure to the fog that rolls over the region, rusting metal, peeling away house paint, and activating blooms of mold. Its slight weathering makes it appear at home among the other relics (retired buoys, milk-stand signs) that a local antiquarian has assembled inside. Throughout Eureka, one finds similar places with similar things. The city has become a repository for the abandoned and the worn away.
This fate was what drew Wong to Eureka. “I remember the first time I saw Old Town, it was so beautifully desolate,” he said in 1977. “It was really what I always imagined what America would be like.”1 Many people associate Wong with his time in New York City, where he romanticized a similar desolation in the crumbling brick tenements of the Lower East Side. But from 1973 until 1978, he savored a more provincial air of neglect in the Old Town commercial district of Eureka.2 It epitomized for him a national condition of erosion—a condition to which paintings like his self-portrait were ultimately consigned.
Wong was part of a wave of artists and hippies who moved northward from the San Francisco Bay Area after California’s countercultural explosion in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Some were galvanized by the back-to-the-land movement and carved out communes in the countryside. Others settled near the college town of Arcata, home of Wong’s alma mater, Humboldt State College (now California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt). But Wong made the less popular decision to live in Eureka among a motley cast of artists, fishermen, potters, and loggers. The city was by and large the preserve of a working-class community on the ebb. Many residents were former lumbermen who had migrated from the American interior to raze the region’s redwoods and Douglas firs. By the ’70s, the depletion of old growth had contributed to the closure of most sawmills, and an aging workforce found itself living out its golden years on slim pensions. The city became what John Rotter, Wong’s friend and collaborator, called a “sea of disenfranchised people.”3
MUCH OF WONG’S WORK captures the remnants of Eureka’s last logging boom in the 1950s, particularly its eateries, taverns, and merchant outposts. Weatherby’s, a painting from 1974, takes its name from a diner along Route 101, which snakes through the center of downtown. Dominating the scene is one of Wong’s favorite “tacky neon” signs, featuring a crab with flashing pincers.4 Across the road, the Thunderbird Lodge advertises “COLOR TV,” while a pink 1958 Chevrolet Impala loiters in the foreground. Route 101 extends toward the horizon line, meeting a darkened sky. The city’s establishments look like way stations on the course of obsolescence.
Wong’s Eureka years inaugurated a form of social semirealism that would continue for much of his career. But his engagement with the city ran deeper. He illustrated calendars for Fog’s, a bar and venue, and drew benefit flyers for the Humboldt Child Care Council and the Old Town Business and Cultural Association. He designed menus for Peggy’s diner and business cards for dentist Dr. Robert Berg. He worked as a courtroom artist during the corruption trial of Sheriff Gene Cox, producing drawings that appeared in the pages of the Times-Standard newspaper. When local band Freddy and the Starliners sought an artist for their album cover, Wong was chosen for his “homegrown” reputation.5 It was as if he had sprouted from the Humboldt soil, despite having been born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in San Francisco (Eureka is a popular pit stop for those driving between the two cities).
Among his neighbors and art historians alike, Wong is perhaps best known for running a portrait business out of Chirimoya, a showroom and studio for a collective of artisans. Marketing himself as the “Human Instamatic,” he offered on-the-spot likenesses for modest fees. Standard pencil portraits often took mere minutes; he allegedly drew five hundred in 1977 alone.6 Wong did not always wait for his sitters to solicit his services. He offered drawings in trade—for meals at Tomaso’s pizzeria, for example, or dental treatment at the office of Dr. Berg (received immediately following the completion of the doctor’s portrait). These forays, like his menus and handbills, scattered traces of the artist throughout the region. Eurekans needed not seek him out; his art would invariably find them.
In Eureka, Wong transformed himself into a local personality and, in his own words, a manifest “country boy.”7 When he first moved there, his daily uniform consisted of a white denim jacket and matching trousers. The outfit signaled his immersion in San Francisco’s counterculture, from whose mystical idealism he took inspiration. But just one year later, a self-portrait shows him in a leather jacket and limp Stetson, paraphernalia to match that of the hinterlanders who drew his (often erotic) fascination. During the ’70s, Wong would lead a double life, traveling back to San Francisco for morsels of bohemia and then returning to what he called “sad and beautiful” Eureka.8 His new guise, however, endured—even through his time in New York, where friends remembered him as a “vamping cowboy” who added glitter and graffiti to a “persona that’s more American than apple pie.”9
Eureka epitomized for Wong a national condition of erosion—a condition to which many of his works were ultimately fated.
His most definitive ode to Eureka is found in a self-published book of drawings from 1976, simply titled Eureka, which catalogues the places where residents gathered in previous eras. Stories abound of unruly miners during the gold rush, lumberjacks during the Great Depression, and sailors between the World Wars clogging the roadhouses and street corners that crop up throughout the book. In its introduction, local reporter John Ross describes Wong’s predilection for “the storefronts and saloons fronting this hunk of the city,” places once “alive with hotshot spenders, burly loggers and mustachioed hookers, drunks, gamblers, bikers, brawlers, sailors, Indians, cowboys, cops, and assorted other highrolling lowlivers.”10 Eureka offers the afterimages of this exuberance. Derelict train yards and literal piles of rubble slip in between portraits of friends and acquaintances. Two pages are reserved for the Vance Hotel, built by lumber baron John Vance in 1872 and a crowning example of the Victorian architecture that attended the region’s economic ascent (the Carson House, built by rival baron William Carson, remains a tourist attraction). Wong’s drawings attest to the Vance Hotel’s subsequent decline. One shows a hallway of lurching walls and doorframes that bulge as if saturated with water. The other shows the lobby, where a man cradles his head in his hands while a television drones in the background. We seem to see as the man does, lost in a haze, his connection to the wider world distant and indistinct. The Vance, as it was known, becomes the architectural husk of a once pulsing civic body.
The history of the Chinese in Eureka—without landmarks, buried in its sediment—hovers over Wong’s depictions of the city.
MUCH HAS BEEN FORGOTTEN about Wong’s time in Eureka, despite increasing interest in his work. In recent years, his paintings of urban life in New York during the ’80s have become fixtures of museum displays. The intersection of Wong’s homosexuality, his Chinese ancestry, and his representations of Puerto Ricans has offered a new lens through which to view this seemingly well-trodden period. However, other layers of his work are now in the process of excavation. Marci Kwon has brought attention to Wong’s early years in San Francisco, including his phantasmagorical set designs for the “acid drag” performance troupe the Angels of Light.11 P.P.O.W Gallery in New York and Galerie Buchholz in Berlin have both mounted exhibitions featuring ceramic sculptures the artist made during his student years. “Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief,” an exhibition initiated by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen and Agustín Pérez Rubio, begins its European tour this month at the Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo near Madrid. It promises to articulate the links between Wong’s New York years and his time in California. Other efforts by Mark Dean Johnson have brought forward his dialogue with the history of Chinese art, which began in the ’60s and continued to inform the rest of his work.12 But Wong’s Eureka years demonstrate that the surface has only been scratched. A digital catalogue raisonné hosted by Stanford University was just recently published.13 With more than eight hundred artworks, this freely accessible resource provides the first opportunity to exhume what remains of hitherto sidelined bodies of work, including approximately fifty pieces that tell the story of his time in Eureka.
The output of these years at first appears inconsistent with the rest of his artwork. Many of Wong’s subjects in Humboldt were white hippies and fishermen, far removed from the ethnic enclaves and syncretisms celebrated in his later paintings. But the history of the Chinese in Eureka—without landmarks, buried in its sediment—was not lost on him. Chinese migrants came to the region during the gold rush but were relegated to the tailings already mined by white prospectors. In 1885, a white city council member was killed in the cross fire between two rival Chinese groups. In an act of mob retaliation, white settlers rounded up more than two hundred Chinese residents, tracked down many who attempted to flee, and forced them onto two steamships bound for San Francisco. Gallows and effigies were put on display to intimidate those who might resist. Within two days, all the Chinese residents of Eureka were gone, banished in a swift and systemic act of ethnic cleansing that became known as the “Eureka Method.”14 In the mid-’80s, Wong proposed a mural to commemorate this episode. Although the project was never realized, it would have shown Chinese exiles aboard a vessel in an image reminiscent of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.
In Eureka, this lost community hovers over Wong’s depictions of the city. On the book’s title page, he stamped two Chinese seals in traditional red cinnabar ink. Translating these characters proves difficult. Their archaic clerical script has puzzled some well versed in the language, but pooled wisdom has helped decipher the larger block as Kuang yi zhi xiang—the “aroma” or “flavor” of the “crazy and strange.”15 The translation tracks with a line from Wong’s early poem “Psycic Bandits” (ca. 1972), written in wild calligraphy on a vertical scroll: glistening secret of the strangest flavor. These Chinese characters reappear across Eureka’s pages, accompanying the distortions and hyperdetailed surfaces that transform the city into a surreal panorama. The effect is uncanny, or, more precisely, unheimlich—literally “unhomely” in German. It turns the city that Wong called his “living room” into a place both familiar and strange.16 The Vance Hotel becomes unheimliche Haus—a haunted house, suffused with the ghosts of Eureka’s past.
Wong’s particular strain of psychedelia was induced by a quality he called the “melty.”
One recalls that Wong conveyed a similar estrangement when he described Eureka as “what I always imagined what America would be like.” His words seem to belong to someone coming to this country from the outside. But Wong was born in the United States, and his mother, Florence Fie, like many of his friends, described him as a quintessential American. Works like Eureka show the artist viewing his native land from without. As he told a local reporter in 1975, “Sometimes it helps to be able to step out of a culture, to view it from the outside for a while. Things stand out which you didn’t notice before because they were too prosaic, too ordinary.”17 Indeed, the second seal in Eureka translates as Meng jun or “dream mushroom”—an approximation of “Dream Fungus,” the title Wong had given to a 1970 exhibition of his ceramics in Berkeley. As a not-so-subtle nod to psilocybin, “Dream Fungus” suggests a psychotropic hallucination, the great countercultural defamiliarizer. Wong steps out of his own experience, tripping out on America.
IN EUREKA, Wong’s particular strain of psychedelia was induced by a quality he called the “melty.”18 The city in Weatherby’s softens and loses its solidity. Cars look like jelly beans left out in the sun. Even the night sky is neither solid nor liquid, squeezing through telephone poles and into the foreground. Eureka becomes slimy, viscous. As Sartre said of le visqueux, it grips back at those who grasp it: “Its softness is leech-like.”19 Wong’s painting fuses our gaze with the city’s deliquescence. Consider an untitled mid-’70s painting of a man with a cigarette in his mouth. His skin is gloopy; his clothes are like wet noodles congealing. He looks out toward Wong, or us, with a certain sleaziness (the stare of a “slimeball”?), which drags us down with him. In an untitled interior scene from the same period, we look out from behind a similar figure’s softening legs and fingers. The room wobbles and glistens. “Distortion is what everyone really sees,” Wong said upon the publication of Eureka. “People’s eyes are round and filled with jelly. They’re not square and hard.”20 Our vision turns gelatinous, melting into this musty, turbid interior.
Wong’s work, too, melted into Eureka. Many pieces are simply lost.21 Of the art that can be located, much has degraded. Over several trips to the area, I have watched locals pull paintings and sculptures out of closets and from under bed frames, many covered in cobwebs and soot—one work had barely survived a fire. Others are flecked with more disagreeable substances. A 1998 condition report for The Melon Eaters, ca. 1975–76, from Humboldt State University’s First Street Gallery, includes a bevy of arrows pointing to the bat guano scattered across its surface. It is tempting to interpret these developments as tragic, but that would mean ignoring the nature of Wong’s relationship with the city. In certain respects, such loss finally joined him with the desolation he found so stirring. Wong’s sentimentality was tinged with a distinctly romantic nihilism—a “Sweet Oblivion,” as he titled his final exhibition in his lifetime.22
ALL ALONG the Humboldt Bay coastline, Martin Wong collected driftwood. Exposure to sun and salt had stripped its bark, bleached its surface, and exposed the twists of its grain. “Just the smell & the feel of [it],” he wrote to his lifelong friend Gary Ware, induced an urge to walk “them lonely beaches.”23 The ostensibly simple pleasure of driftwood masks the unusual terms of its attraction. It is, by definition, cast adrift and devitalized; that it has become a hallmark of beachside getaways and other demesnes of ersatz rustification only deepens the warp in its charm. In Humboldt, these remains often constitute the leavings of loggers, who dumped root systems, burls, and other gnarled fragments into waterways that lead to the ocean. The contours of this driftwood are acutely poetic, but they also speak of violent extraction. Enjoying them requires a certain suspension of judgment, embracing the allure of complexity and smoothness at the cost of attrition. Perhaps Wong’s artwork requires a similar suspension. To savor his Eureka years is to linger with him at the threshold of forgetting, finding sweetness in oblivion.
Solomon Adler is a doctoral candidate in contemporary art history and theory at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, UK.
1. Cassandra Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds City’s Beauty in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” Times-Standard (Eureka, CA), April 28, 1977, sec. Accent on People, 10.
2. Wong was already familiar with the area when he moved to Eureka in 1973. He attended Humboldt State College in nearby Arcata from 1964 to 1966, followed by a brief stint at University of California, Berkeley. He returned to Humboldt State to complete his degree in 1968, graduating two years later. From 1970 to 1973, he lived in the Bay Area and traveled the “hippie trail” through Europe, Morocco, Afghanistan, and India.
3. John Rotter, interview by Solomon Adler, August 11, 2021.
4. Quoted in Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds City’s Beauty in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” 10.
5. Fred Neighbor and Joyce Hough, interview by Solomon Adler, August 26, 2021.
6. Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds City’s Beauty in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” 10.
7. Martin Wong to Tim Englert, 3 June 1984, collection of Tim Englert.
8. Martin Wong to Tim Englert, 16 March 1980, collection of Tim Englert.
9. Julie Ault, “Martin Wong Was Here,” in Martin Wong: Human Instamatic (New York: The Bronx Museum; London: Black Dog Publishing, 2015), 85. Dan Cameron, “On the Outside Looking In: Martin Wong and New York in the 1980s,” in Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, 104.
10. John Ross, introduction, in Eureka (Eureka, CA: Martin Wong, 1976), 1.
11. This research will be published in the KW Institute’s forthcoming exhibition catalogue for “Martin Wong. Malicious Mischief.” Kwon has also done extensive work on Wong’s Chinatown paintings, part of a book in progress on artists in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
12. See Mark Dean Johnson, Martin Wong’s Utopia: A Peaceful Life and Heavenly Place (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 2004).
13. A catalogue raisonné of this magnitude required years of research and coordination between Marci Kwon, Mark Dean Johnson, and Anneliis Beadnell, as well as Gary Ware, president of the Martin Wong Foundation, and D. Vanessa Cam, electronic-resources librarian at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.
14. Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 121. Pfaelzer offers a thorough account of the atrocities committed against Chinese migrants to California during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This description of the Chinese expulsion from Eureka is indebted to her exhaustive research.
15. Craig Clunas, “Two Questions,” May 9, 2022. I am grateful for the expertise provided by professor Pedith Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Dr. Craig Clunas of the University of Oxford.
16. Quoted in Ross, introduction.
17. David Anderson, “Local Painter Believes Art Should Be Part of Daily Life,” Times-Standard (Eureka, CA), January 27, 1975, 2.
18. Yasmin Ramirez-Harwood, “Martin Wong: Writing in the Sky,” East Village Eye, October 1984, 25.
19. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1993), 608.
20. Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds City’s Beauty in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” 10.
21. For almost half a century, Florence Fie preserved several paintings from this period in the Wong-Fie family home on Ewing Terrace in San Francisco. The paintings have since become part of Dahn Vo’s installation I M U U R 2, 2013, in the collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. They remain nestled among thousands of trinkets and antiquarian objects amassed by Fie and Wong since the 1950s, which together constitute Vo’s artwork.
22. “Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong” was organized by Dan Cameron for New York’s New Museum in 1998.
23. Martin Wong to Gary Ware, 1967, Gary Ware Collection of Martin Wong Letters, the Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University. I am grateful to Dr. Marci Kwon for sharing critical documents and insights into the early correspondence between Ware and Wong.
3 thoughts on “Solomon Adler on Martin Wong’s Eureka Years”
Fascinating. I would like to hear more expert opinions on this 🙂
The material is five-plus. But there is a minus! I have an internet speed of 56kb/sec. The page took about 40 seconds to load.
Aha, now I see…I didn’t really understand the connection to the title itself…