By Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Will Adler
Since founding his Mr. Chow fine-dining empire in 1968, Michael Chow has become most associated with his restaurants. But that may not be the case for long. The Chinese-born polymath could be considered a Renaissance Man, as President Obama recently described him. Like his friend Julian Schnabel—someone who’s at once an artist, filmmaker, designer, and architect—Chow is an architectural designer, actor, restaurateur, and, though many don’t yet know this, an artist. Last winter, at the Pearl Lam Gallery in Hong Kong, Chow unveiled his first-ever solo exhibition after returning to painting following a nearly 50-year self-described “radical sabbatical.” From Jan. 24 to March 22, 2015, Chow will present “Michael Chow: Voice for My Father” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. It will be his first museum retrospective —of sorts; other artists will be included—and his first show in mainland China.
Curated by UCCA director Philip Tinari, the exhibition will be divided into three parts and installed in two galleries. The first part, taking over a whole gallery, will feature Chow’s newest paintings, which implement materials such as raw eggs, rubber gloves, $2 bills, silver sheets, and gold leaf. The works, wholly of Chow’s devising and artistic skill, have an appearance that brings to mind the art of a varied group of 20th-century painters, from Monet to Tàpies; a polyptych spanning 50 feet will act as the centerpiece. In the second gallery will be the other two parts of the show. One part will be portraits of Chow from his own collection by artists including Schnabel, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ed Ruscha, and Urs Fischer. The other part will consist of archival images of Chow’s father, Zhou Xinfang (1895–1975), who was one of the most famous Beijing opera actors of the 20th century. Following its debut at the UCCA, the show—coinciding with major celebrations of the 120th anniversary of Chow’s father’s birth—will travel to the Power Station of Art in Shanghai next spring.
Sent to boarding school in England at age 12, Chow later studied art and architecture in London at Central Saint Martins (though he never graduated) before opening his restaurant business. With the restaurant’s success and feeling little support for Chinese artists in the West, he stopped practicing art, only to finally return to painting in 2012. Though conflicted about the disappearance of his parents during the Cultural Revolution, Chow has an undying desire to boost both China and Chinese culture in the West. For decades, he has done this through his restaurants, and now, with his art, he sees a new way to help the West in better understanding the East—and vice versa. As China’s economy has risen, so too has the prominence and presence of its culture. With his UCCA exhibition, Chow celebrates this moment in a global way through the show’s three mediums: his own work, the work of mostly Western artists who have created portraits of him, and images of his father.
Surface recently visited the West Los Angeles studio of Chow—who’s soon to relocate to a 50,000-square-foot space he acquired in the city of Vernon—to talk about the upcoming UCCA show, the ways in which the West continues to misinterpret the East, and why art and money are so interconnected. >
Your father is a legendary figure in China. How did his approach to his craft inform your work?
My father informed almost everything. The thing is, I had a somewhat unusual life. I left China when I was young, alone, to England. I was devastated. After that, I never communicated with or saw my father ever again. We were completely disconnected due to political reasons. When I left China, I had a culture shock. I was in totally unfamiliar territory. Even the food was different. There wasn’t anything that resembled my home or my country; I had lost everything. My journey as a person has been about rebuilding.
At the same time, after having been so great for so many centuries, China declined for a long period of time due to the invasion. From the Ming Dynasty on, it completely changed and declined. In my opinion, there was only furniture, Beijing opera, and maybe food. All other arts declined. Then, in the 20th century, China was in a devastated state with civil wars. There was famine and humiliation from foreign power. The Chinese people suffered so much. All that reversed, if you must put a date on it, on 08/08/08—the Beijing Olympics.
Coming back to my influence: It’s 100 percent my father, because he’s basically an expressionist, and expressionists are universal. In Western history, one would immediately think of expressionists from [Hieronymus] Bosch onward—to Rembrandt, to Turner, to Munch, to Bacon, to Pollock. Expression also lies at the root of music. Beethoven is a classic example. My father was basically an expressionist. His plays exploded onstage and built like Beethoven. They were very humanistic and powerful. My father’s technique was beyond. He started when he was 6 years old. He was famous when he was 7.
My father encompasses all the important events of 20th-century China. That’s the drama—or melodrama—of my life, which I carried from China at a very young age to the West, mainly England. Then I studied at art and architecture school. I never graduated, but I painted rigorously for 10 years [from 1957 to 1968]. It was difficult for a Chinese painter then. There was no support for us.
I eventually appointed myself as a cultural ambassador to show the West how great China is, and the only practical medium I could do that through was food. In China, food happened to be very sophisticated and current and had not declined. I’ve turned the restaurant—for 46 years now—into theater. It’s like a long-running musical. Only on these terms can I survive: first myself, and then the restaurant. Basically I’m an artist. Every time someone says I’m a businessman, I go [makes sound of disgust]. Of course, I’m quite good at business, but that’s not what motivates me. I’m motivated to reunite with China and to meet my father in China as one. It’s merged into selective memory. I’ve become this clichéd patriotic Chinese man who wants to communicate to the West how great China is and how great my father is. That’s my journey. What are your strongest memories of your father?
I once spent two weeks with him. Before that, it was very vague. I’d just see him at dinnertime—and he was very stern, so no one talked. But during those two weeks, he took me everywhere: to rehearsals, to lunch, to dinner, to performances. Those became golden weeks for me.
I wanted to be a Beijing opera actor like him so badly. But of course it was totally unrealistic. I would’ve been too old. Also, it’s too hard. My father’s school of acting—he created it—is especially the most difficult. In it, every detail is the universe.
Was it during your time at Saint Martins that you started to really focus on painting?
When I was very young, I had asthma, so I hardly went to school. I had a broken education in China, and when I came to England, I had another broken education. I arrived in England not speaking any English. I was all messed up. I couldn’t assimilate.
When I went to Saint Martins it was total freedom. It was, “Whoa—this is wonderful!” At that time, I was, of course, very disappointed that I couldn’t be a Beijing opera actor. But I wanted to be a great artist. In fact, I just wanted to be great, like my father. I didn’t know what I was going to be great at, but I knew I was going to be great, no matter what. It was very childish thinking, but it was a good motivator. I had an overachiever’s internal desire.
I was very lucky with the environment of painters I was around at the time: Peter Blake, Richard Smith, and two Chinese painters, Henry Lee and Richard Lin. We painted every day, canvas after canvas. We were productive beyond. We used to stretch and size our own canvases with tacks. I was very lucky early on, in 1957, to get into mixed shows. I even sold a woodcut to MoMA. I had a few more shows, at the ICA London and so on, and then it was just too tough. Then the restaurant became really successful, and I quit painting.
I’ve always connected with artists, though. Peter Blake started my portrait collection in 1966. I’ve since been collecting portraits of myself. Many of these portraits are part of the Ullens show. I even have a portrait by Dan Flavin. I didn’t commission him. I was sitting in this Los Angeles restaurant called L’Orangerie, just minding my own business, and he drew my profile with an ink pen—a fantastic, kind of fatalistic portrait.
You essentially dropped painting for five decades. Did you ever get the itch to return to it during that time?
No. Painting can be very lonely and very painful. I didn’t miss it until very late. Jeffrey Deitch almost singlehandedly is why I returned to it. He saw an early painting of mine and encouraged me. Simultaneously I was thinking about pure gold. Andy [Warhol] used to say, “Let’s put some money on the wall.” So I said, “Let’s put some gold on the wall.” It’s a conceptual idea. From that idea, gold turned to silver, and that was my breakthrough in painting just two and a half years ago.
For the show of Andy’s work Jeffrey put on at MOCA in 2012 [“The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Andy Warhol”], all the big boys came in: Christopher Wool and all the usual subjects [including Urs Fischer, Sterling Ruby, and Glenn Ligon]. So I went in there, looked at it, and said, “Wow”—apart from a few who shall remain nameless—“I can take them on!” I had that feeling. I went home, did a small painting and a big one. The big one was a hit. It is, from my point of view, like [Lucio] Fontana’s cut-off paintings—a breakthrough. From then on, I’ve never looked back. I was very encouraged by this. I’ve accumulated a lifetime of experience, and I’ve just been obsessively painting now.
It’s unusual for an artist to have such a long hiatus. Do you think that has brought a particular energy or certain emotion to your new work?
I wouldn’t recommend to any artist to wait for 50 years—you don’t know what’s going to happen. But I think it’s been marinating inside me. It just exploded. Barnett Newman once made a statement that painting is for old men. There are two sides to it: You have “young poets,” like Jean-Michel Basquiat, and then you have the very old, like Rembrandt and Turner and Monet, those who painted masterpieces at the ends of their lives. Then, of course, there are those who are in between. I think it’s difficult for artists to sustain—unless you’re a genius, like Andy or Picasso. Usually there’s a certain Golden Period, and if you’re lucky, you have two Golden Periods. And if you’re very, very lucky—like those geniuses I mentioned—you have half a dozen Golden Periods, no problem.
Right now my time is very precious, obviously. My work is evolving at great speed just by its nature, by the urgency of it.
For the rest of the interview with Michael Chow, order your copy of the December/January issue here.