Michael Chow

The iconic restauranteur and multi-hyphenate on his art exhibition.

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.

Michael Chow in his West Los Angeles studio.

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.

Inside Chow's studio.

Your show at Pearl Lam earlier this year was the predecessor for what’s to come at the UCCA. What do these exhibitions mean to you? How did the one at the UCCA come about?

The Ullens Center founders [Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten] started the UCCA as a very brave thing. Guy is what they call “Old China.” He was very involved with the Chinese people in the early ’80s. He had a vision to create this museum, which basically has developed a philosophy similar to mine: to connect China to the West. Only the UCCA’s is kind of a reversal: to connect the West to China.

[UCCA director] Phil Tinari started there the same time that I started painting again. Phil had this vision for the show—he speaks Chinese fluently; he’s more Chinese than I am, but that’s another thing. No one in the West knows who my father is or anything about Beijing opera. China and the West are classically disconnected. It’s been centuries of stereotyping, and especially in the 20th century, a chinoiserie/Hollywood disconnect. It’s intentionally put there because of political or social reasons. Phil sees the connection, and especially at a time when China is coming up fast.

The country cannot be ignored. When I was young, the Chinese population was 500 million. Now it’s almost 1.4 billion. China’s not going anywhere. My journey of connecting China to the West started when Mr. Chow’s restaurant opened. In my mother’s way, I’ve succeeded in making a connection, in saying, “You don’t have to fear Chinese too much. The food is okay!”

Ullens has a similar concept, I think—I don’t want to speak on behalf of the museum. This show will encompass my paintings, mostly; my father’s 60 years in the Beijing opera; and at the same time, my portrait collection and an artist book I’ve created for 40-some years. In the artist book there are all these great artists from the second part of the 20th century, like Bacon, Noguchi, Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, Dieter Roth, Lichtenstein, the list goes on. It’s very eclectic. It’s a little bit like how at Mr. Chow’s you have the authentic Chinese cuisine and the [mostly Caucasian] waiters. And it’s like my paintings, which are a way of collaging: You put things together that aren’t supposed to go together, yet you make it all natural and harmonious. That’s what’s happening with this show. It’s very rich in that sense.

How will your father’s work be presented in the exhibition?

He was onstage for more than 60 years, so there are hundreds of photographs from that time. I put his early photographs into the exhibition book. Also in the book I have eight essays from writers—some on contemporary art, some on my collecting, some on my father’s work. This is really about me, the son, returning home after so long.

Do you think in some ways the show represents how globalized China has become?

I think in many ways the show is very current because it encompasses the whole of 20th-century China and its art. And it represents the greatest art form of the last few centuries in China: Beijing opera. It was itself the most sophisticated thing—light-years ahead of theater. It should be preserved. It’s a magnificent thing. It has everything in it: ballet, martial arts. All the martial artists you see in the movies—that’s rooted in Beijing opera.

Tell me more about your portrait collection.

At the risk of dropping names—I hate people who drop names, and Lady Gaga agrees with me; that’s the standard joke—President Obama came to our house the other week and looked at my paintings and the architecture of the home I built. He said, “Oh, you’re a Renaissance Man.” I said, “That can be a negative word these days.” He said, “Not in my book.” In one way, “Renaissance Man” is a negative word. The case in point is Julian Schnabel, who is truly a Renaissance Man. He can do everything and anything, and yet people cannot accept that. They say he’s a better film director than an artist, but he’s a great film director and a great artist and also an architect and designer.

At this turn of the century, you have to integrate everything. It’s like what your magazine is doing—you interview this kind of person, then that kind of person, no problem. You filter the ideas together. Whether you’re doing a political piece or something on design or something on art, it’s all connected. Especially with today’s globalization, you have to connect more.

Why do you think the West has this confusion about the East?

It’s all politics. It’s all business. It’s all economization.

So this lack of connection is about money?

Everything is about money. Take the Opium Wars. In early days, when a foreigner used to come to China, they couldn’t make any money. China would say, “We have everything we need.” So foreigners sold opium. Then it got out of hand and turned into the wars. The Chinese messed up. On the one hand, the Chinese were so great and confident that they called the country Middle Kingdom—China means “middle kingdom.” China began declining for centuries, though, becoming weaker and weaker.

Now things have turned around, and we’re at the beginning of something. This is a very exciting and important time for China. Culture therefore follows. There was no culture in China. When you have blood running in the street, and when no one has anything to eat, forget about culture. Impressionists came from a period of 40 years of peace. There was no war for 40 years until the First World War in 1914. Before that, you could develop arts. You only have art when you have money. Art is usually produced by money. This is what’s happening now in China: The country’s got a lot of money. The Beijing Olympics cost $15 billion, just for fun. [Editor’s note: The spending on the Beijing Olympics was actually estimated at $42 billion.] Now we can have arts. You see Chinese artists following the money. Art’s flourishing there.

What are your thoughts on the phrase “money creates taste”?

The enemy of art is taste. I would say that art follows money. Art used to be paid for by the kings and queens. Art was dominated by Europe, and then, after World War I, it was dominated by America and Europe. Before Pollock, it was dominated by Europe, Paris, Picasso, all that. Where was the Chinese art?

As someone who has lived in the West—in London, New York, and L.A.—what do you think are some of the biggest misinterpretations or misunderstandings westerners have about Chinese art?

There’s simply been a huge disconnect. There’s no understanding whatsoever, a lot of mistrust, and a lot of fear. I’ll articulate it a little bit better: It’s all fucked up.

What do you think about Chinese-born artists now getting global attention, like Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang?

Almost all the good ones—they’ll kill me in China for saying this—were educated in the West. But, don’t get me wrong, before 700, 800 years ago, for three centuries, Chinese art was the greatest, most sophisticated in the world. Take calligraphy. Everybody writes calligraphy, and yet no single human being writing calligraphy now can surpass the old calligraphy. It shows how much power is there. Talk about minimalism. Talk about internal expression.

At the moment, we’re at the beginning of another century, and we have the right to be true to our time. Therefore we have the richness to take a look at all the movements of the 20th century, to use and spin them into the 21st century. This is a really exciting time. Look at the development of art in the turn of the 20th century—that was fantastic.

In terms of the art you were practicing 50 years ago and the art you’re practicing now, what’s its binding force? How is it similar?

I’ve grown up and gotten sophisticated. I come from the school of [Antoni] Tàpies, [Alberto] Burri, [Lucio] Fontana—where Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly came from, too. I’m one generation younger than Pollock and the expressionists. I have the good fortune to be trained in Europe. They froze me for 50 years, and then I woke up and adopted Pollock’s scale. Internally, I’m Chinese and related to my father’s expressionist approach onstage. I literally take his expressionism and transcend it into a different medium. My paintings are 50 percent sculpture, 50 percent painting.

Did any of the artists you met and befriended through your Mr. Chow restaurants, like Basquiat and Schnabel, influence your thinking upon returning to art?

The first time I saw Julian’s work was when he showed some powerful stuff in the early ’80s. I walked in and was very jealous. I said, “Shit, this is what I want to do!” Of course I didn’t do it. His scale was so fantastic, and the show was very powerful. We very much come from the same source: giant Tàpies paintings. His art is very physical.

Right now, the paintings I do, it’s like I’m having a conversation with all these people. Everybody. I don’t consciously have a conversation. I’m just totally free. I feel like I have the right—because we’re at the turn of the 21st century—that I can have a conversation with Miró, with Yves Klein, with Pollock. When you make a mark on a painting, it will go to somebody else in the future. It’s the combination of all these marks that makes each artist’s works slightly different.

How do you choose your mediums for materials?

That’s easy. It’s a philosophical choice. Pollock had an urge—he put cigarette butts in paintings, he put in washes and screws. There’s a desire to put stuff in a painting. When I started painting again, the first painting I did had leaves in it. You see, my works are half-sculptures, and the materials sculptors use become very personal. In my case, the material I use is the trash around me—not really trash, just stuff—but it’s dominated by pure silver sheets I can sculpt. That’s my foundation. It’s a high-low culture. And I put eggs in. I freeze egg yolks with varnish so that they’re almost mummified.

I want to be free, just like my father was on stage. Ultimately, in the end—I don’t know when it is, but probably soon, because I’m pretty old—technique can’t be in the way. When you first start as an artist, you say, “Wow, I wish I had the technique.” It constitutes a craft. In the end, though, you want to be totally—as they would say in acting—in the moment. That’s when you break through to a new orbit, to the cosmos.

So painting is really about doing without thinking.

Yes. This is very much Taoism. It’s very Chinese. It’s about taking one breath, and in that split second, in that moment, the universe is in front of you. Francis Bacon is my hero. He would just throw a lot of paint on the canvas, and there you have it—that’s it. What a fantastic idea. Every painting is a struggle; you don’t know where you’re going to take it. The painting always dominates. That’s the difference between craft and painting: Craft is for seeking perfection through repetition; painting is for seeking expression.

You were mentioning this idea of rebuilding earlier. Do you see the connection between the rebirth of Chinese culture and yourself as an artist?

When it comes to the whole business about rebuilding, whether it’s a person or a country, a case in point is Beethoven. When you listen to his music, he would build, build, build—to a point where you think there’s nowhere else to build. And he would build some more. China itself wants to build, build, build. It’s a process, a journey you seek, nothing else. You keep on doing it, and when does it end? Never.

You have an impressive art collection. Have you approached collecting the way you approach your art, by not overthinking?

No, collecting has many elements of consideration. Collecting has structure. People who say, “I only buy what I want”—no, if you spend a million dollars or more on something, it’s impossible to just do what you want. It’s not like eating some spaghetti bolognese just because you want to. When you spend a million dollars on an object, you want to make sure you’re going to get a million back at some point. The most important thing about collecting is to follow your heart and your passion. But having said that, the rest is business, the market, and money.

Leonard Lauder, for example, is a great collector. He just gave his Cubist collection to the Metropolitan Museum. He had to consider everything [when building that collection]. He had to use a weapon: money. Collecting is temporary ownership; you’re a caretaker. As a collector, you experience things—your heart goes [makes excited deep pounding noise]. That’s collecting. When you see something, you say, “Oh my God! This motorcycle is the one Elvis gave to James Dean. I want that!” Collecting is in your genes. I collect everything. I collect doorknobs—I have all the world’s greatest doorknobs in my head. I collect floor materials. I collect the first shots of movies. I used to collect stamps. I collect artist books.

The way I collect is I have boundaries. You create a boundary and then you become the king of the boundary, like Leonard Lauder with Cubist paintings. You will it and do whatever you have to do. You’re very patient.

So what parallels, if any, do you see between your practices as an artist and as a collector? Your UCCA show will feature both work from your collection and your own pieces.

Well, this show is a retrospective bio-connection between countries, between father and son, between all the different mediums of culture, between East and West. It’s also between these artists who have done my portrait, like Urs Fischer, who did this wax candle of me—it’s 10 percent bigger than I am—and Alex Israel, who did an “As It LAys” with me.

What ultimately do you want people to walk away from the show feeling or thinking?

I want them to walk away realizing all creative processes have no national boundaries, and that all mediums have no boundaries. I want no pigeonholing. This is Chinese, this is not Chinese—we can’t do that. In the end, analyzing is great—it’s necessary—but then you have to throw it all away. I want them see the beauty of Beijing opera, and to give Beijing opera a chance, to learn the language of how to watch it. To taste great wine, you have to taste a lot of great wine. You can’t just taste wine for the first time and say, “I love this wine!” With Coca-Cola, maybe, but not wine. When something has depth, you need to earn it. You can’t be so defensive. You have to let everything integrate. You have to do as Julian Schnabel does: I mean, the motherfucker can practically do anything.

So you want the museumgoers to approach the show as you would a painting: to let their preconceived notions go.

I don’t think they will, but yes, it’s an attempt. I’m hoping to get one step closer to bringing China to the West—and the West to China. It’s a very high level of communication.

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