Not on view
Acrylic on linen
Overall: 60 1/8 × 48 1/8in. (152.7 × 122.2 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee
Rights and reproductions
Courtesy of The Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, NY
In 1981, Martin Wong moved from San Francisco to New York’s Lower East Side, an area known as “Loisaida” by its predominantly Hispanic residents. He began to chronicle the neighborhood’s people, run-down buildings, and storefronts with a straightforward, naturalistic approach, reminiscent of the Ashcan School painters of the early twentieth century and the urban realists who succeeded them in the 1930s. Like Paul Cadmus and Reginald Marsh, among others, Wong infused his “realism” with healthy doses of fantasy and desire. In Big Heat, a typical brick tenement of the Lower East Side is the backdrop for a striking image of two firemen kissing. The ethereal sensations of romance are contrasted with the stark physicality of the tenement bricks, which Wong rendered with thick deposits of acrylic paint that give them a palpable presence, even to the brick-painted frame around the canvas. The passages of green spray paint on the frame of Big Heat are a reminder that Wong was an avid collector and supporter of graffiti art. He saw graffiti as evidence that art and beauty can flourish even in the most unexpected places. Big Heat is Wong’s utopian vision of hope, love, and redemption within the crumbling environs of what was once one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.
Martin Wong, Big Heat, 1988
From America Is Hard to See
Martin Wong, Big Heat, 1988
Narrator: This 1988 painting by artist Martin Wong is called Big Heat. Andrew Castrucci was a friend of the artist. During the 1980s, he and Wong were both residents of the Lower East Side.
Andrew Castrucci: I knew him as a character of the neighborhood. He used to walk around with this, the firemen's uniform, actually. So he was kind of very theatrical. Martin lived, I believe on Attorney Street in a tenement there and he did have an obsession and love for, for bricks.
The tenements were beautiful to Martin, no matter how empty it was or, or so forth. It was like a Roman ruin or a Greek ruin or an Egyptian ruin, the pyramids. What Martin was part of, what I was part of, we were trying to hold on to. . .the whole tradition of what the Lower East Side was about. The diversity of it. . .It's very gentrified now and so forth.
Artists are constantly redefining what beauty is. So I think this is just another perspective of redefining beauty—the kissing firemen. It certainly celebrates gay life, but it's also, I think, more abstract than that. It's just about human contacts, somehow. I mean it's part of the nature of the city is this beautiful chaos, somehow. And I really see this in this painting even though it's very calm and still.