Modern and Contemporary Art
Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
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Artist: Martin Wong, American, 1946–1999

La Vida


Oil on canvas

243.841 × 289.561 cm (96 × 114 in.)
Charles B. Benenson, B.A. 1933, Collection

Martin Wong’s La Vida is a large, celebratory depiction of the poor, vibrant, largely black and Puerto Rican neighborhood that was the Lower East Side—or Loisaida— in the 1980s. Evoking the portrait drawings the artist made and sold for a living early in his career, La Vida is populated with the faces of local residents, artists, musicians, and poets —as well as popular figures such as film star Mr. T (visible on the lower right). These characters fill the tenement windows, which Wong renders brick by brick in a fashion characteristic of his oeuvre. Many are clearly identifiable as members of the artist’s social and artistic community, including graffiti artists DAZE, Sharp, LA2, as well as poet and writer Amiri Baraka. Perhaps most importantly, Wong’s lover, collaborator, and supporter, poet and playwright Miguel Piñero, appears in the painting three times. Made only a few months after Piñero’s death, La Vida is not only a powerful and playful depiction of a neighborhood, but is also a joyful commemoration of the poet and local figurehead who insisted in his A Lower Eastside Poem: “… let all eyes be dry when they scatter my ashes thru the Lower Eastside.”

On view
20th century

“Acquisitions, July 1, 2006–June 30, 2007,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2007): 241.

Yasmin Ramirez, Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong, exh. cat. (New York: New Museum, 1998), 32–47, no. 26, ill.

Cathleen Chaffee, Eye on a Century: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Charles B. Benenson Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2012), 156–57, 177, no. 74.

Bennett Simpson, Blues for Smoke, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2012), 105, 198, ill.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.