BY CHRISTINA YU YU
VOICE FOR MY FATHER
Michael Chow’s large, ambitious paintings have been slowly fermenting for the last fifty years—his last one-person exhibition was in London at the Lincoln Gallery in 1962. Without any prior warning, in 2012, they suddenly reemerged to the surprise not only of his family and wide circle of friends and admirers, but also seemingly to the artist himself.
Although today he is somewhat dismissive of the self-conscious answers he gave to questions posed by English critic Kenneth Frampton in the catalogue of the Lincoln Gallery exhibition, much of what Chow said then still pertains to the 2012 and later paintings.1 Here in embryo, then, is an approach to painting that would lie dormant for fifty years until two years ago, when Jeffrey Deitch was visiting Chow at his home and happened to notice a small painting of his from 1962 leaning against the wall. It impressed Deitch so much that he encouraged the reluctant painter to pick up his brushes again. The floodgates opened!
Michael Chow has returned to painting at an age—he is seventy-five years old—when some of the greatest artists have begun developing a “late style,” a stylistic definition that means much more than the chronological period close to the end of an artist’s life. The late works of such colossal figures as Titian, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Matisse are characterized by a new-found freedom in which all constraints, formal and technical, are swept aside. This is the point where Chow has resumed his career, after the self-imposed abstention from painting during which he concentrated on other aspects of his innate creativity.
While it is tempting to investigate the psychological causes of this unusual phenomenon— this late blooming—we would be ill-advised to do so, as Michael Chow is very much in charge of this effusion of challenging paintings. They are paintings insofar as they hang on the wall, but the word paintings is not sufficiently inclusive, as their heavily encrusted surfaces project into the viewer’s space and incorporate all kinds of found materials. In Recipe for a Painter, 2 Chow gives an account of the earliest stages of this fast-paced journey, describing a gold-colored sculpture by Miró that inspired him to make pure silver sheets, which he stretches and welds to create works in which two- and three-dimensional qualities vie for priority.
There is a strange metaphorical aspect to this story, an egglike sculpture giving birth to an ongoing body of work that rivals Miró’s oeuvre in its total disregard for any distinction between high and low, traditional materials and all kinds of debris. This was a freedom that Miró claimed for himself in his extraordinary Surrealist objects of the 1930s and then largely abandoned until he was near the end of his life; it is a similarly extraordinary abandon that first impresses a visitor to Chow’s studio. Initially the wild visual rhythms of the heavily encrusted paint surfaces seem to be a development of the gestural abstraction that reached a climax in American Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s, or with the more painterly members of the Gutai group, until one notices the array of readymade materials that have been swept into the maelstrom. Among these bits and pieces might be mentioned the following: sponges, plastic gloves, netting, nails, eggs and eggshells, newspaper, ashes, and money—two-dollar bills stapled to the painting or enclosed in Ziploc bags.
Of course, such a practice has a long history in Western modern art, from Picasso and Kurt Schwitters to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but seldom are the objects embraced with such lavish applications of pigment. Certainly the obvious relish in the materials and the sculptural treatment of the surfaces can be traced back to the paintings of the 1950s and 60s, but the art that Michael Chow has been exposed to in the fifty years since that brief efflorescence has undoubtedly contributed vastly to the magisterial scale and ambition of his recent works. In conversation and interviews, he has referred to artists whose work he has admired since then; these include Jackson Pollock, who also on occasion incorporated objects such as cigarette butts, nails, and screws into his canvases, although not to any great degree, Cy Twombly, and several artists of a younger generation, above all Jean-Michel Basquiat. Notably missing from the list of his artistic affiliations are any Pop artists, perhaps because they are too specific in their references to contemporary life.
Under different circumstances this stagestruck youngster might have followed the family tradition—he is the son of Zhou Xinfang (1895–1975), one of China’s greatest twentieth-century Beijing opera singers and composers, well known not only for his vocal and acting abilities but also for his personal involvement with every aspect of the productions—but this was not to be. In 1952 Chow was sent to boarding school in England, a rude shock and certainly the greatest contrast possible with the colorful world of Shanghai. There would not have been much emphasis on the visual arts in this new environment but, three years later, he managed to escape. An interest in photography led to a year at Saint Martin’s School of Art, and from 1956 to 1958 he studied architecture at the Hammersmith School of Art and Building.
Success came fairly early. His work was shown in important London venues such as the Leicester Galleries and the Redfern Galleries. His show at the Lincoln Gallery revealed the work of a young artist who knew exactly what he was doing. Like Chinese artists of a slightly earlier generation who went to Europe to study—such as Zao Wou-ki (1920– 2013) to France and Hsiao Chin (b. 1935) to Spain—Chow, while immersed in London’s experimental art community, was fully aware of the ancient Eastern traditions and philosophy he grew up with. Discussing the influence of Zen, in an interview with Ken Frampton in 1962, he remarked:
I aspired to “paint by not painting,” and in spite of the inevitable western influenceI work towards these characteristics. I also work towards a certain feeling of “alone- ness,” which is peculiar to Zen thought. For this reason the feeling of space in my work suggests the isolation of man dwarfed in nature. My painting is specifically concerned with trying to capture certain moments when the rhythm of life is brought to a height. It is only at these moments that one can hope to see the “oneness” of life. I place elements in my canvases in order to create a pause. A composer once said that “music happens between notes.” I am rather interested in this idea. For instance, the particular moment just before a bird lands. This notion of pause is closely connected to a sense of awakening which gives one an unexpected feeling of enlightenment.3
Always keenly interested in locating commonalities between Asian and Western art, Chow refers to a number of influences, including Mark Tobey, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt, “for their tendency to obtain the maximum from the minimum,” and also admits to the role of “controlled accident” in his work, stating that, “within the limit of my thrown- paint technique, I can anticipate results only up to a certain point.”4 The clearest debt seems to be to Alberto Burri, whose use of commonplace materials he particularly admires. Relatively small in scale (none larger than five by four feet), Chow’s early paintings emphasize the materiality of the pigment and the manner in which it is applied to the canvas support. In recent work such as Remembering 1781 at Sea (2014), one can see a clear reference to J. M. W. Turner in composition and color, and above all in the burst of vigor and energy (“violence,” to use Chow’s own word), anticipating more to come.
Reflecting on the relationship between the Chinese and Western sides of his personality in a recent interview with Emily McDermott, Chow said, “My Chinese side is never conscious. It’s all subconsciously coming out,” in contrast to his Western side, which is “much more conscious.”5 That is to say, the material aspect of his paintings reflects an inborn acknowledgement that the artist is part of a much larger whole, that his role is not to express his own emotions but the harmony between all things, from the humble to the sublime. It is important to see how this might manifest itself in his return to painting. In a recent series, Four Seasons (2013–14), inspired by a set of Ming dynasty flower-and-bird paintings that he saw at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, there is an explicit acknowledgment of a deep-rooted philosophical connection with the aesthetics of classical Chinese painting.
For his whole life, Michael Chow has been in the public eye. He developed a persona that has served him very well. However, when he is in his studio he is alone, confronted with his materials—orthodox and not so orthodox—and with a lifetime of memories, of family life in Shanghai, of heady days in London in the sixties and seventies, followed by equally stimulating periods in New York and Los Angeles. He has always been in the right place at the right time. As a public figure he is deservedly renowned for the panache of his entrepreneurial activities, the elegance of his designs and lifestyle. Now that he has taken the major step of returning to painting, he is performing for himself, gleefully handling large masses of seemingly incompatible materials. Notable for its Dionysian quality, his painting is in marked contrast to the studied elegance that most people associate with his name. In the performative aspect of his work, the spontaneous assembly of diverse materials in dynamic visual displays, it is difficult not to look for antecedents in the triumphant career of his father and hero, Zhou Xinfang, in whose productions and compositions singing, acting, acrobatics, and visual qualities were triumphantly melded. In spite of the fact that Michael Chow saw very little of his father as a child, even while still living in China, and did not see him again after he moved to England, he always idolized him. A career in the Beijing opera was not for him, but he felt a strong desire to make his mark in a creative field that would equal in distinction the trailblazing career of Zhou Xinfang. Even before the Cultural Revolution was over, Michael Chow was representative of a newly confident China that was not to become a reality until the 1990s. This was accomplished in his hugely successful business empire, which placed him at the forefront of many interlocking facets of the business, cultural, and fashion worlds.
Michael Chow’s career as an artist has recommenced after a hiatus of fifty years, perhaps a unique phenomenon in the visual arts—or any other art form, for that matter. The paintings of 1958–62 give us a foretaste of the paintings that began to emerge from his studio in 2012, but no hint as to the grand ebullience of his “late style.”
1. “Some questions to the artist by Kenneth Frampton,” Michael Chow (London: Lincoln Gallery, 1962).
2. “Michael Chow Interviewed by Jeffrey Deitch,” Recipe for a Painter (Shanghai: Pearl Lam Galleries, 2014).
5. Emily McDermott, “Where Michael Chow Paints,” Interview Magazine, accessed September 15, 2014, http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/michael-chow-restaurant-for-a-painter