A Self-Taught Artist’s Mastery and Pain

Matthew Wong was a brilliant Canadian painter who died by suicide at the age of thirty-five, just before the start of the pandemic. Largely self-taught, he “spent no more than seven years with a brush in hand,” Raffi Khatchadourian writes, in a breathtaking and wide-ranging Profile in this week’s The New Yorker issue.

Matthew Wong: The squat building that houses Wong’s workspace—which remains as he left it, with barely a brush moved—has more loading docks than doors, and stands before a parking strip that can accommodate eighteen-wheelers. One part of the facility is devoted to a manufacturer of industrial lubricants, another to a food-processing company.

Wong sometimes created several paintings in a single day, in works that evoked “astonishing lyricism, melancholy, whimsy, intelligence, and, perhaps most important, sincerity.” The critic Jerry Saltz recalls seeing Wong’s painting for the first time: “It was like the top of my head caught on fire. I saw a kind of visionary.” He became one of the most celebrated painters of his generation. Museums have begun assembling his art into major exhibitions, with one currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario and a retrospective opening this year at the Dallas Museum of Art. Wong’s paintings have been acquired by MOMA and the Met.

One of Wong’s late works, “See You on the Other Side,” reflects a longtime interest in lone figures in otherworldly landscapes. Art work © 2019 Matthew Wong Foundation

Behind Wong’s art was a darker universe. As a child, Wong was bullied, and he was later diagnosed with depression, Tourette’s syndrome, and autism. He thought often about death and said that existence was “something I question all the time.” He vacillated between bravado and doubt, and could be charismatic—the life of a dinner party—yet saw himself as socially awkward, an outsider. After his death, a frenzy of attention followed. The Times heralded him “one of the most talented painters of his generation.” But there was a crasser kind of interest, too. As Khatchadourian writes, his story was being shaped into another caricature of a tortured genius—“another Basquiat, another van Gogh.”

Matthew Wong (1984-2019) artwork: Untitled, 2018. Oil on Canvas

The gifted painter who worked from a studio in Edmonton, on the east side of the North Saskatchewan River, conducted most of his relationships through social media, and even some of his closest contacts found him hard to know. In the three years since his death, the art market has been in a frenzy over his work, with prices escalating to multiple millions, and the rabid auctioneering has helped to shape his story. Read all of it here >