MICHAEL CHOW, QI PAINTER
BY PHILIP TINARI
VOICE FOR MY FATHER
It's early one evening at the start of October, and Mr. Chow is sitting in his restaurant on Camden Drive in Beverly Hills, at the corner table closest to the door. He surveys the dining room, swarming with white male waiters in livery straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec, captains in white jackets, footmen in black. “Do you know the secret of serving a glass of water?” he asks his dinner companion in a tone somewhere between Socratic interlocutor and drill sergeant. His companion offers a reply along the lines of putting the glass down. “That’s right!” he confirms. “The landing!” A few minutes later Chow starts on another path of inquiry. “How do you approach a table?” This one is harder to answer. He jumps up from his seat to demonstrate—to the delight of the diners, who universally recognize him in his trademark mustache and round glasses—how one closes in on a group of guests: the approach beginning a few feet away and moving through a mannerist flow of steps until shoulders are aligned squarely with the table and the waiter is confidently present. It resembles nothing so much as the sequence of hand and foot motions that precede the beginning of song in Beijing opera, accented by syncopated bangs of the luo. “There is an incredible amount of gongfu contained in that single action,” Michael Chow notes. “And that is how I’ve managed to stay creative running a restaurant all these decades. This is theater. We are a musical that has been on stage for forty-five years!”
To talk about Michael Chow the artist, one must first solve the problem of Mr. Chow the restaurateur. This is after all what the world knows him for, and more to the point, where he has spent the bulk of his professional life. The restaurant, at its core, is two things: a place where Chinese food is served on fine silver by Caucasian waiters in formal dress; and a place where artists (and actors, and models, and titans) come to congregate, often in the presence of its owner. A happening ahead of its time, MR CHOW, first in Knightsbridge, then Beverly Hills, then midtown Manhattan, is relational feast as a functioning business. And it is actually premised on a very specific set of circumstances that became a starting point for Michael Chow’s involvement in the world: “Everything I do is to fight racism,” he states, with an impassioned combination of adamancy and wist. While he would deny it, one could just as easily make a case for MR CHOW—at once the vessel of his fame and the content of his daily practice—as what Joseph Beuys called “social sculpture.” “When all of these elements are accumulated and put together, they become very powerful,” Chow concludes, speaking of both his restaurants and his paintings.
“The key question for me was always: How to overcome that China is treated as the lowest of the low,” he argues, as the prawns arrive. To go any further is to engage a stock narrative that has been recounted many times: the story of Michael Chow. Other texts in this volume contextualize the privileged Shanghai world into which he was born Zhou Yinghua in 1938 and the unique artistic contributions of his father, Zhou Xinfang, the inimitable grand master of Beijing opera. Still others speak of Michael Chow’s outsized position in the art/film/fashion nexus from the late 1960s onward, as evidenced by the range and caliber of the artists who have admiringly portrayed him. In interviews Michael Chow has spoken about his life as that of a journeyman artist, particularly since leaving China in 1951 at the age of thirteen, in advance of a cascade of social movements that would lay waste to his family’s fortune and legacy for many decades.
We have seen his two key extant early works, one from 1959, one from 1962, in which his central techniques of collage and drip painting become separately apparent. We know that he studied painting at St. Martin’s: the communist exile became a beneficiary of the great postwar boom in British art education, when the schools opened art-making to the working class. We know that he showed in a range of exhibitions in the early sixties with titles like “Three Contemporary Chinese Artists” and “Artists of Fame and Promise.” And he tells us that, at a certain point, the burden of trying to lay claim to a position in an art history—and a place in an art scene—that was still chauvinistically Euro-American became simply too great. In the London of the Swinging Sixties, no one had heard of Zhou Xinfang. That’s when the restaurant—that Gesamtkunstwerk of antiracism—was hatched and his painting career went into hibernation. “There are three things that eliminate racism,” he once said. “Being a prince, being eccentric, and/or being creative. If you possess two out of the three things, then society will embrace you.”1
The paintings that Michael Chow began to make in 2012 have already garnered a healthy amount of critical and journalistic attention. Inevitably they have been discussed in the context of a “return,” the endpoint of a Homeric journey. Like many artists, his biography lends itself to precisely this sort of myth making. Less attention has been paid to the works themselves, products of an alchemical arsenal of techniques ranging from splashing to burning to stapling. These paintings incorporate a pharmacopeia of materials, breathtaking less for their physical properties than for the range of technical and aesthetic demands they imply. In a single painting one finds sheets of gold and silver foil poking through plastic wrap which has been burned; small-denomination US currency sealed in Ziploc bags and stapled to sheets of dried paint, stapled in turn to the canvas below; rubber gloves and rubber tires and egg yolks preserved in resin; colors straight from cans poured and dripped with the profligacy of Pollock in his timeless LIFE magazine pictorial. This ecumenism of source material is less remarkable however than the compositional tenor of the resulting works, abstract meditations on timeless structures: the four seasons, sunrise, sunset, the sea.
Hanging on the walls of his studio, along an industrial street tucked away in West L.A., the paintings pose more questions than they answer. The most pressing however is also the key question of Michael Chow’s life: put crudely, are we to view these creations through a Chinese, or a Western, lens? The arguments for the latter are certainly strong. On the canvases, aside from the aforementioned traces of Pollock, we see hints toward the skepticism of the pigment–support relationship of Fontana, the radical combinatory logic of Rauschenberg, the performative palimpsests of Yves Klein, and the no-holds-barred materiality of Schnabel. As works inhabiting a particular tradition—that of gestural abstraction, as practiced from the mid-century onward—Michael Chow’s works find a natural and loving home. These are not the imaginings of a distant practitioner, but responses honed over decades of close contact with some of the key protagonists of postwar Western art. They speak not only for themselves, but for all that their maker has seen.
And yet, at the peril of Essentialism, might we also not effectively look at Michael Chow’s artistic persona as somehow innately Chinese? To begin we need only examine the portrait collection—assembled in the timehonored artist-scholar tradition of lively exchange among peers and the poetic commemoration of jovial encounters—to find a very different kind of connoisseur. From there we might look at his own creations in the light of modern Chinese masters who, over the course of the long twentieth century, each made their separate peace with Western modernism. Zao Wou-ki, a senior contemporary, comes to mind for the gentle luminosity of his palette and for the ineffable qi which infuses his compositions. But so does Wu Guanzhong, with his inky drips that nearly seem to tessellate, Liu Kuo-sung and his cosmic reflection on how to make ink modern, or the early oilists Hiunkin Pang and Yan Wenliang with their studied embrace of European technique put to the service of another aesthetic register. In more recent Chinese history, we might usefully compare him to Xu Bing, who remains fascinated with the meaning-making potential of language and its instruments, or Cai Guo-Qiang, who has embraced the creative potential of the singular explosive moment. Might we not then see Michael Chow in the same trajectory of Chinese-born artists who, driven by the disruptive pressures of a nation seeking a return to what scholars Orville Schell and John Delury have recently called “wealth and power,”2 have found themselves on extended sojourns that have lasted anywhere from a few years to a lifetime?
Perhaps the real question is what it means that Michael Chow, himself the product of uniquely profound historical experiences, has embraced an artistic language—that of abstract painting—that grows from another distinct history. In other words, what, about our larger predicament, can be gleaned from the fact that this man, at this moment, has decided to make these things, in this way? The terrain of art expanded during the second half of the twentieth century such that, now, disparate objects can be stapled to a canvas without a lick of subversion, even with a certain amount of classicism. Likewise the world has opened so that young Chinese artists now work in contexts and languages that are implicitly global, while their elders in the generation that emerged during the eighties command market prices on a par with, and often exceeding, those of their peers in Europe and the United States Michael Chow has witnessed both of these arcs, and now lives comfortably at their intersection. The corollary to this question might be: What does it mean for China that it produced such a son? How does his prolonged presence on the global scene work to enrich and subvert our most persistent understandings of China and its place in the world? What sort of exceptionalism might be built from this single case? These are the tensions that swirl implicitly around his studio.
Back in the restaurant, on to fried rice, he starts to point out details. The junior waiters’ aprons are just tablecloths, tied from behind in a fastidious single knot. The square tables are illuminated by square spotlights, the round tables by round spotlights. “Alex Israel has built a career out of appropriating Hollywood glamour and kitsch,” he notes of the young Los Angeles artist whose video interview, which is part of Israel’s As It LAys series, constitutes the most recent addition to Chow’s ongoing portrait collection. “I did that decades ago!” he says, pointing to the restaurant’s storied black-and-white checkerboard floor. “Back then there was nothing more glamorous than a floor like this!”
Conversation returns to the importance of timing, placement, technique— the common body of skill shared by opera singers, painters, restaurateurs. From there to loss: the Shanghai of his childhood, multiply vanished, multiply rebuilt. His signature balance of delight and melancholy, perhaps the fate of the successful émigré, prevails. “My life is like a movie,” he says. “In a movie, you always find a parking space, you win over the beautiful woman, you live in a lovely house.” President Obama is coming for breakfast the next morning, and it is getting late. His father, first censured during the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late fifties and later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, has been rehabilitated; in a few months Michael Chow will travel to Shanghai and Beijing first to commemorate the 120th anniversary of his father’s birth, then to show his paintings for the first time on the Chinese mainland, in a museum inside a former factory built just a few years after he first left home. A home- coming, a reunion, a testament: history vindicated not just by auditoriums renamed or official biographies rewritten, but through the sort of living, filial creation that carries on the legacy of one’s forebears, reshaping it for a world reshaped. An actor of the Qi school begets a painter of the Qi school, the son one in being with the father. A kind of salvation through another kind of reincarnation.
“My whole life has been about trying to create something that could recreate the extraordinary world I knew as a child,” he glosses as he heads for the door. “And I have done all of this in order to prove to my father that it could be done.”
1. “Michael Chow Interviewed by Jeffrey Deitch,” Recipe for a Painter (Shanghai: Pearl Lam Galleries, 2014).
2. Orville Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century (New York: Random House, 2013).