THEATER OF PAINTING
BY JEFFREY DEITCH
VOICE FOR MY FATHER
It looks like an explosion in a paint factory. Every surface of Michael Chow’s studio is splattered with paint spray. Layers of spilled paint pool on the floor. Crinkled sheets of metal, bales of plastic, fishnets, and blown-out rubber tires are thrown against the walls. Large sheets of acrylic paint are drying on an adjacent terrace. Pliers, shears, scrapers, staplers, and propane torches are laid out on a worktable next to tins of lighter fluid. An immense flat expanse that looks like a topographical model is propped on a set of tables in the center of the room. Michael Chow asks me to climb the ladder beside it and look down.
Michael Chow’s latest painting in progress looks like an apocalyptic battlefield. The ladder is not there just to offer a better view. It is the perch from where the artist pours thick household paint, shoots from a paint gun, and scatters studio debris to create a controlled composition out of the chaos. Dismounting the ladder and working closer to the painting he fastens sheets of paint, plastic, and metal foil to the surface, going through one to four thousand staples per painting. Cracked eggs, bumper stickers, and see-through bags of money are among the other elements that are added to complete the composition. It is a demanding physical process, almost a performance. While he is making the work, the artist is virtually inside the painting.
One month later, on a return visit, the turbulent landscape that I looked down upon is now mounted vertically on the wall of Michael Chow’s second studio. The violent composition has been reshaped into a luminous, atmospheric rendering of the cosmos. A galaxy like form sweeps across the surface, punctuated by rhythmic diagonal lines. It has become the artist’s ambitious response to one of the seminal American paintings, Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.
Michael Chow’s work fuses Asian, American, and European aesthetic approaches, drawing on his extraordinary international background. His paintings embody his experience in theater, painting, and even cuisine. His sixty years of creativity have now been distilled into the most concentrated and perhaps the most challenging art form: abstract painting.
Michael Chow points to two modest paintings leaning against the wall of his pristine auxiliary studio in a warehouse area near the 405 Freeway. The calm order of this second studio, where he has the space to contemplate his work, contrasts with the whirlwind inside his home studio in his former pool house. “This is where it all comes from,” he says, referring to the two paintings from the early 1960s. They are the only works he has retained from his early, promising painting career when his work was presented at the ICA and the prestigious Redfern Gallery in London. One of the paintings is cut and slashed like a work by Lucio Fontana, with a thick, earthy surface reminiscent of Antoni Tàpies. The other is a poured painting in Pop colors, in dialogue with American Color Field painters like Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. These works represent the European and American approaches to abstract painting that Chow has combined with a Chinese conception of space and texture to form his unique aesthetic.
The necessity to earn a living during a period when contemporary art still had a small audience, and then the tremendous success of MR CHOW, the restaurant he started in London in 1968, took Michael Chow away from painting, but not away from creative expression. His MR CHOW restaurants are like gesamtkunstwerks, where he orchestrates the art, architecture, design, and cuisine into a participatory theater. He remained engaged in art through his famous collection of portraits and his friendships with Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other leading artists. But despite his celebrity in the art world, Michael Chow stopped painting for fifty years.
I had seen the small poured painting leaning against a wall near the kitchen of his house when I visited Chow in early 2012 to prepare a talk at Soho House about his creative achievements in architecture, design, acting, and other fields. At the time, I did not know that painting had once been the focus of his life. I was intrigued by this diminutive but impactful painting, and, responding to my interest, he retrieved a 1962 ICA catalogue that reproduced works from this series.
I was presenting The Painting Factory, an exhibition of new abstract painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. During the run of the show, I would often find Michael Chow in the galleries studying the paintings by Andy Warhol, Christopher Wool, Rudolf Stingel, and promising younger artists. One day he confidently announced to me that he might not be able to stand up to the work of the senior artists, but he could make paintings that could match or surpass the achievement of most of the artists in the show. He was ready to begin a remarkable painting marathon that would compress into two years what an artist would normally take five years to achieve. The work would build on where he left off in the early sixties but would also incorporate his fifty years of insights and his conversations about art with the world’s greatest artists and connoisseurs.
Michael Chow now starts his working day watching artist interviews and documentaries on YouTube. His actor’s facility of remembering lines is now channeled into quoting statements from the artists he most admires. He often repeats his own version of a comment by Francis Bacon, declaring that he wants to use every variation of painting known to man. Inspired by the artists’ insights, he then plunges into his own painting, spending the entire day in the studio. He works alone, without an assistant, pouring, burning, tearing, scraping, melting, flipping, dripping, and stapling. The fifty years of creative energy that he held back is now bursting out. Michael Chow does not want to waste time. Aware of his age and the tremendous physical demands of the work, he wants to accomplish as much as he can while he can still climb up and down the ladder and punch in thousands of staples a day.
Michael Chow’s first paintings in 2012 were dense all-over compositions built up with accumulations of sheets of silver. The silver gives the paintings a powerful, magnetic quality. They are both otherworldly with their reflective surfaces and earthy with their abundant use of natural metal. They evoke the texturologies of Jean Dubuffet and the physical approach to painting of Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Antoni Tàpies.
These “early” paintings are startling in their boldness. Chow did not return to painting tentatively; he began painting again with outsized ambition and confidence. After the density of the first series, the compositions opened up. The work soon began to incorporate the spatial structure of Chinese landscape and the grace of Chinese calligraphy. The negative space became just as important as the image. Energized by the examples of Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein and the concept of immersing the body into the painting process, he became freer in his gestures. He also became more comfortable mixing chance with control in composition. The latest work is characterized by a sense of movement and fluidity.
It is now Michael Chow’s paintings, much more than the living theater of his restaurants, which synthesize all aspects of his remarkable background and creative life. When he first returned to painting he was advised by many of his friends to paint under his Chinese name and to separate his work as a painter from the celebrity of MR CHOW. Rather than contradicting each other, his accomplishments as a restaurateur, architect, actor, and visionary collector contribute to his achievement as a painter. Michael Chow’s paintings represent not only an exceptional artistic vision, but an extraordinary life story.