Painter, restaurateur, celebrity—whatever you prefer to call him, Michael Chow is an artist in the broadest sense of the term. In his own words, his artwork is not just sexy, but very sexy and infused with passion. His contemporary paintings take on large scales and his restaurants are not merely places to eat, but nightly theatrical productions.
Though he painted in the ’50s, Chow’s friendships with artists like Warhol, Basquiat, and Haring resulted not from his art, but rather from his Mr. Chow restaurants, starting with his first location in London, which after opening in 1968 became the place to be and be seen. During the last 46 years, he gave up painting, focused on the restaurant, and expanded to places like L.A., Miami, and New York. But Chow, now 74, has decided to embrace painting once again.
“I woke up and immediately jumped into the post-Pollock sizes and scale,” Chow says. “I think I’m pretty current.” On January 14, Chow’s first solo exhibition in over 50 years will open in Hong Kong and feature paintings that were all made within the past 18 months. With his large scale and abstract style, Chow embraces the legacy of this father, an actor who was considered one of the greatest stars of the Beijing Opera. “My work is not an homage to my father. It is my father,” he explains.
Despite the fact that he left China to attend English boarding school at 13 and did not return until the age of 45, Chow’s work does not simply reference China. It is Chinese. Like his restaurants blend Chinese cuisine with a European setting, Chow produces Chinese art from a Western perspective. It’s natural, and he doesn’t overthink it. “I’m not an intellectual,” Chow says without hesitation. “Intellect is good for preventing one from falling down a cliff, but at the end it’s in the way of what I want to do.”
Sitting in slightly tattered jeans and a t-shirt at the W Hotel in Miami, Chow abandoned his typical uniform of custom tailored Hermès suits. His thick, black circular glasses, however, remained the same. We spoke with him about his reemergence as an artist.
EMILY MCDERMOTT: Was there a specific moment when you were like, “I need to do painting again?”
MICHAEL CHOW: I’ve lived a long time, and a lot of things shut down. Painting is one of them. It never occurred to me that I wanted to go back. The world, in a pathetic way, doesn’t want me to be an artist; they want me to be in the kitchen, which I just can’t do. Jeffrey Deitch saw my painting a few years ago and awakened me. Jeffrey said, “Wow. What’s that?” And I said, “Oh. You like this? You think it’s good?” He said, “Yeah. It’s fantastic.” That planted a seed.
Simultaneously, there were two things happening. One is my trip to New York, where I saw an egg by Joan Miró. That developed into gold, gold developed into silver, silver developed into material to use for my painting. Then the punch line came when I saw Andy Warhol’s Factory show. I walked in and I thought, “Maybe I can paint again.” So I did a small [painting] first, then I did this big one. It happened like a dream. Two weeks later, I have this painting in front of me. I don’t recognize it. I don’t know what happened, but it’s there. Then my wife came back from Basel and she liked it. She used to be a Chinese ink painting protégée, so that was very important. She confirmed it. From that moment I showed it to Jeffrey and everybody. It was almost like a movie script, a compression of time. Things happen very quickly now. Then I did the second one, which took a little bit longer.
MCDERMOTT: How long did the second one take?
CHOW: A month. The struggle was lucky. The second one, at the end, worked out fantastic. In the last 18 months, I developed a lot of techniques and evolved in a major way. I take a lot of chances, but everything is falling into place. There’s an opposition in terms of being an artist. For me it’s difficult because I have the restaurant and a little bit of celebrity—people laughing at me and not taking me seriously. If you say to someone, “Michael Chow is painting,” they say, “Where do you paint?” Meaning, if you paint at home, you’re a Sunday painter. Now I’m going to say, “I paint in the laundry room.” [laughs]
MCDERMOTT: I heard someone ask that yesterday. I had never heard that question before.
CHOW: The subliminal subtext they want to find out is how serious are you. Kiefer has the biggest studio in the world. I’m thinking of renting 30,000 square feet. I have two studios already. Just out of anger, I’ll probably have a million square feet. My studio is a million square feet. That’s where I paint. [laughs]
MCDERMOTT: [laughs] Yes, I paint in the biggest studio in the world.
CHOW: [laughs] And with 400 assistants… I didn’t paint with any assistants. These paintings are very physical and [about] the return to the physicality of painting because it’s been detachment, it’s been ready-made, it’s been conceptual. That fashion has been going on for 30 years, so I think the time has come to reverse this. Romanticism has been a dirty word in the past 10 years. You don’t say romantic. You don’t say beautiful. You’ve got to say motherfucker. [laughs] But then my Beijing Opera, Chinese landscape painting, eternal calligraphy—that side comes in. Basically, I’m trained in the European tradition—although, I had two Chinese friends I painted with, so I have a lot of Chinese in me.
MCDERMOTT: I was interested when you said you had this painting at the end and you didn’t recognize it. When you were making it, how did you feel?
CHOW: There’s a difference between craft and painting. Craft, your job is to make it exactly the same every time. Painting is the opposite, but in painting there is some craftsmanship, which is called technique. But technique is spontaneous. That’s the treasure, the most important part. You are in it. In acting terms, you are in the moment. If anything bothers me, I deal with it immediately. I don’t do it later. Sometimes you look at a painting and certain parts are so beautiful. You say, “Wow, this is fantastic,” but 10 minutes later you most likely have to kill it. Every painting wants to live. You want to build and bring this type of painting to the climax. When it’s at the highest point, you want more. And then if you want more, you might destroy it. So you take a chance.
MCDERMOTT: You’re obviously very interested in blending European style with Chinese culture, and Chinese culture is very much about meditation and calligraphy—having a very balanced place. I’m wondering how you think you reflect that?
CHOW: I don’t intellectually say, “I’ve got this Chinese thing. I’ve got this European thing. Now I’m going to design it with a bit of Chinese…” No. It’s not like that. It’s inside me with lifelong experience. Although the painting mainly from the exterior doesn’t look Chinese, in fact it actually does. The feeling is very Chinese. My Chinese side is never conscious. It’s all subconsciously coming out. It’s like hypnotization and you’re getting sleepy.
MCDERMOTT: Is your European side conscious?
CHOW: Much more conscious. I would have conversations with European artists. Meaning, people look at my painting and one person would say, “Oh, your painting is just like so-and-so!” Another person would say, “It’s just like so-and-so.” But at the end, it’s a chain of relay like a marathon. There are so many so-and-so’s that eventually it becomes mine. My dialogue was completely European, with the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s artists, but on the exterior side I do big painting. It’s post-Pollock. It’s current. It’s a meeting of the time. The Chinese side just comes out.
MCDERMOTT: You left China when you were very young for school. How did you stay in touch with your Chinese cultural side while you were in Europe?
CHOW: When I was 12 years old, I had my father’s Beijing Opera. That’s very deep culture. The Beijing Opera is very potent and very powerful. It’s inside me. When I went to England, I had two very good Chinese friends. One of them came from a family that has bookstores in Hong Kong. He was very cultured and familiar with history, so he taught me a lot about how true and great China is and how the essence of Chinese in the past—meaning Han Dynasty, Sung Dynasty—reached its climax and started to decline. The true spirit of Chinese essence that can match everybody, that’s very much inside me.
MCDERMOTT: How would you describe this true essence of Chinese culture?
CHOW: It’s sophistication, refinement, the spirit of poetry. The spirit of ink painting and calligraphy lives on forever. Calligraphy is more important than painting. Chinese always consider nature. Man is a very small part of nature. That’s why in Chinese painting you see huge mountains and man very small, very humble before nature. You must be harmonious and one with nature. You don’t fight it. And then there’s a bit of a poetry. Of course, it’s very complicated, but also very simple.
MCDERMOTT: Back to the works you’re doing now—I was shocked when you said there were 1,000 to 2,000 staples on each work. What are some of the strangest materials that you’ve stapled?
CHOW: Egg. The egg, you see, is a very sexy thing. Egg is like birth. Eggshell is sexy. Egg yolk is definitely sexy. Oh, I love egg. The first time I used it, I recorded it. I threw it and it didn’t break the yolk, so I sealed it and mummified it with lots of varnish over 10 days. The egg also gives you feeling of scale. And I put money. That came from when I did my first painting. I knew Pollock put cigarette butts on his. It’s very violent—cigarette butts, screws and nuts. In other words, it’s a little bit of “Fuck you,” right? You never do any harm in painting. My first painting has a little bit of leaves, but then I said I want to put good shit in. Everything is very spontaneous. One thing leads to another.
MCDERMOTT: The money adds to your juxtaposition of high and low.
CHOW: Well, the gold came from Andy. Andy says, “Why don’t you just put a bag of money on the wall?” It’s a conceptual idea. Instead of million-dollar paintings, just put a million dollars on the wall. So I said, “Wow. That’s a good idea. Why don’t you put a million dollars of gold on the wall?” Again, it’s society. That was the beginning of the idea, and gold turned out to be silver.
MCDERMOTT: Where did you get the idea at first to throw an egg at the painting?
CHOW: All of that came because I painted during the ’50s, so you have action painting—Yves Klein and that physical happening and violence. That’s inside me. The egg is part of that. Because I woke up 50 years later, I’m very fresh and very vague at the same time. You’re not bogged down by in between periods. I didn’t get involved with Pop Art. I didn’t get involved with minimalism.
MCDERMOTT: You keep referring to yourself “waking up again as an artist.” Do you ever think of the period you’ve spent doing the restaurants as a dream?
CHOW: The thing is that I’m a fucking artist, but they say, “No you’re not an artist. You’re a restaurateur.” It’s like okay. Whatever. But I always treat the restaurant as a theater, and that’s why it worked so well. Every night is a performance trying to reach a climax of this musical. There’s a moment and I cast everybody. You have a leader who will carry the restaurant like Tom Cruise carries a movie. If I just did a restaurant, I’d kill myself. I would never have lasted 46 years. The restaurant is about this theater I’m creating, not what other people think is a restaurant. It’s a different interpretation.
MCDERMOTT: Have you found it difficult to transition from the role of celebrity back to artist?
CHOW: I get very surprised and shocked because there is so much prejudice against me as a celebrity, instead of them looking at the quality of my work. Just look at the work. Forget about who I am. But there is so much perception in the art business that blurs that insight. The work speaks, so just look and then judge from there.
MCDERMOTT: How would you describe your philosophy toward art?
CHOW: [pauses] True to my time, true to my dream, and true to myself.
“RECIPE FOR A PAINTER: MICHAEL CHOW AKA ZHOU YINGHUA ~0-0~” OPENS JANUARY 14 AT PEARL LAM GALLERY IN HONG KONG.