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Chow w art copy 470x260

CREATIVE INFERNO: MR. CHOW Restaurateur/Artist Mr. Chow Sets Off Smoke Alarms

Chow w art copy 470x260

Mr. Chow standing next to “Four Seasons.” Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

Before I interview Mr. Chow, he sets my copy of his book on fire. After smashing large Sharpies onto a blank page of the book in a riot of color (“green always goes well with red”), he pours flammable paint thinner on the page and calls for his “darlings” to bring him some Kleenex which he rubs onto the page (“I like having some dimensionality”) while his assistant hands him a blowtorch to set the page on fire. Just before it gets out of control, another assistant quickly douses the flames with a spray water bottle. He hands back my book and pronounces it a work of art.

A couple of weeks earlier, I’d attended a party at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery near Hancock Park to mark the closing of his eye-popping neo-sculptural show, PeopleUrs Fischer had rendered a full-scale wax figure of Mr. Chow in his signature double-breasted suit and owl glasses, and when I spotted Chow, he was holding his head in his hands courtesy of Deitch, who periodically allowed the wicks at the top of the waxwork to be lit—Chow’s head had melted off at the neck. Chow had enough of the party and as I followed him out I said, “I’ve been told your latest art work is spectacular.” “It is!,” he said. “Come to the studio and see.”

sculpture of mr chows likeness by urs fischer

Sculpture of Mr. Chow’s likeness by Urs Fischer. Photo (detail) by Fredrik Nilsen. Photo courtesy Mr. Chow.

Michael Chow (referred to by friends as “M”), now 80, recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his legendary eponymous restaurants known as Mr. Chow, but Chow is not serving Chinese food this afternoon. That much is clear. I’m in his enormous bow-and-truss art studio in the warehouse district of the city of Vernon, just outside DTLA, having survived a potential collision with the dozens of tractor-trailers and freight trains weaving in and out of the side streets. I’m hungry (our meeting was around noon), but he’s a man obsessed about creating art—no time for lunch.

Chow is wearing a surgical mask to protect himself against the paint fumes and tugs it down below his chin as we sit in front of his large abstract works, decorated with sheets of richly colored hardened house paint on canvas. He uses eggs to color the painting, and sometimes leaves the shells on the canvases. He also makes use of cellophane wrap, bubble wrap, coils of dried varnish and other surprises.

Chow left China in his teens and was educated at St. Martins School of Art in London. At the time he knew artists Peter BlakeDavid Hockney (a student at the Royal Academy of Art) and Howard Hodgkin. He pursued the life of an artist, but he says a “Chinaman” had no chance in those days and that it’s all “fucking different today.” “Now if you’re a gay, black, female artist, you’re set,” he says matter-of-factly. So he took a “fucking side trip” into the restaurant world and opened his Mr. Chows in London, New York, Beverly Hills and Miami.

mr chow phoenix rising mixed media collage 2019

Mr. Chow, Phoenix Rising, mixed media collage, 2019. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

Chow tells me he painted a huge canvas titled “Four Seasons” in “four fucking seconds.” When I give him the fish-eye, he proudly explains that he punched a concentration of paint with a hammer to create a colorful splatter pattern that took only a second each for the four joined canvases.

When he realizes I haven’t read the two books his assistant just gave me, he dismisses me and tells me to return after I’ve done my homework. I figured there was no use trying to push it—he just wasn’t in the mood for an interview and really wanted to paint.

When I return about a month later, having read Chow’s books, his signed “art work,” Mr. Chow 50 Years (which reproduces art works of Mr. Chow and of his family made by Hockney, Ruscha, Warhol, Schnabel, Basquiat, Clemente, Haring, Scharf and Jonas Wood) and one about his father, Zhou Xingang, the longtime superstar of the pre-Cultural Revolution Peking Opera. Chow is more subdued than the manic version I’d encountered previously. But first he gives me a test: “Quick. Name the top five AbEx painters in order of importance.” I rattle off Willem de KooningFranz KlineMark RothkoClyfford Still and Barnett Newman.

But you left out number one—Jackson Pollock

“Not bad. But you left out number one—Jackson Pollock—and take Rothko out of the top five,” he says, allowing no room for my explanation. This makes sense since Chow clearly fits into the subcategory of action painting—there’s a lot of chance involved in the creation of his work. Pollock almost “singlehandedly shifted the focus of the art world from Europe to America,” he says.

In 1968 Chow opened Mr. Chow in London. He recalls swinging London in the ‘60s as “a British cultural revolution—The Beatles and Michael Caine had working-class accents and achieved instant prominence, unheard of before.”

It’s how you serve the fucking food

He attributes the restaurants’ success to integrating food with art and theater: “It’s how you serve the fucking food—the waiters’ body language must be like a dance. You have to transcend the restaurant experience. It’s like entertainment—making a show out of the waiters carving a duck, the chef twisting the noodles by hand, the wine steward rolling out the Champagne trolley.” His restaurants were “global melting pots” that had Chinese cooks and Italian waiters.

“The restaurant is like a musical,” he says, and he took it on the road. By 1980, the show reached New York City and Mr. Chow became a center of New York café society. But it also became a haven for the city’s artists, whose superstars included Chow’s friend Julian Schnabel, who “exploded onto the scene.” David SalleFrancesco ClementeAndy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat also hung out at Mr. Chow. The art crowd partied at the Palladium and Studio 54 where Chow was given a birthday party. Artists were making a lot of money and Chow encouraged them to spend it at his restaurant—Keith Haring pre-ordered 80 bottles of Cristal for his birthday party at Mr. Chow. By the early ‘90s the party was over—many of the ‘80s artists fell out of favor.

mr chow tiger mountain mixed media collage 2019

Mr. Chow, Tiger Mountain, mixed media collage, 2019. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

In the ‘90s Chow spent most of his time in Los Angeles, but he didn’t think much of the art scene, and so he spent the first decade of the new century in what he calls his “Tibet,” watching movies and playing poker.

In the last three or four years he has returned full circle to focus on his own art practice. He calls himself “a collagist.” “Collaging puts things together in harmony that weren’t supposed to go together, like oil and water. Collage is one of the most important art movements.”

He points out that many of his paintings are in 3D and are part sculpture. He says his innovations include the use of dried sheets of house paint and silver leaf that oxidizes into different metallic shades.

No form is a form allowing for spontaneity.

Chow seeks freedom in his art. “No form is a form allowing for spontaneity. In collage nature does the work for me.” Chow describes what he calls the “controlled accident,” as exemplified by his large work “Four Seasons.” When Chow brings up his burning technique I mention the work of contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who uses gunpowder explosions on his canvases. Chow says he’s a fan of Cai. “You can’t paint better than nature. There’s minimal execution – you let nature paint for you.” But he warns that it requires a lot of practice. He’s motivated by Kung Fu and his process comes from “Chinese spirit and energy.”

mr chow downhill racing mixed media collage 2019

Mr. Chow, Downhill Racing, mixed media collage, 2019. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

When I ask him how he was inspired to get back into art, he mentions encouragement from Julian Schnabel and Jeffrey Deitch “who rediscovered me.” He credits Deitch, Larry Gagosian (Chow hosts Gagosian’s February pre-Oscar parties at his Beverly Hills restaurant) and Hauser & Wirth for presenting “museum quality” shows in LA. As for a possible Los Angeles show of Chow’s works, he says that an exhibition will be forthcoming, but he declines to reveal where—although I’m told it will be at a major gallery.

Mr. Chow burned down the traditional Chinese restaurant and reinvented it and now he seems poised to set the art world on fire too.

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art brief artists and bad behavior

Art Brief: Artists & Bad Behavior

emil nolde three russians 1914

Emil Nolde, “Three Russians,” 1914

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

Should an artist’s vile personal acts or beliefs be considered in whether to hear or view their work?

The Me Too movement has pushed the private behavior of artists and performers into the public square. Accusations of sexual harassment have damaged the reputations of dozens of artistic figures from Chuck Close to Kevin Spacey. The question is whether these controversies—proven or not—should be cause for a boycott of a performer’s works. Should people turn off Michael Jackson’s music and Woody Allen’s films even though the accusations against them have never been proven? Should an artist’s vile personal acts or beliefs be considered in whether to hear or view their work?

One of the oldest controversies involves the racist writings of the German composer, Richard Wagner, whose Ring cycle is usually an event whenever and wherever it is staged. Wagner was anti-Semitic and was worshipped by Hitler. Some of Wagner’s warped 19th-century writings were referenced in anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda. While I’m an avid fan of the LA Philharmonic, I’ve never attended a Wagner concert. The main reasons are that I do not enjoy Wagner’s music and because I decline to support a racist composer or artist in any way—even by buying a ticket.

Controversy surrounding German Expressionist Emil Nolde (1867–1956) was recently revived when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to remove two of his paintings that were hanging in her office in the Chancellery. Merkel lent the paintings to a recent survey of his art—“Emil Nolde. A German Legend: The Artist During the Nazi Regime” currently showing at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum. This provided Merkel with a convenient excuse to announce that the works wouldn’t be returning to her chambers. The chancellor made her decision after the Nolde Foundation’s new leaders decided to open its 25,000 documents to the public. Amongst the trove was renewed evidence of Nolde’s unswerving allegiance to the Nazi party.

Emil Nolde Seebüll Farm in Nordfriesland Evening Mood 1935 1940

Emil Nolde Seebüll Farm in Nordfriesland Evening Mood 1935 1940

Nolde’s affiliation with Nazism was not just something that started when Hitler took power in 1933; he had been an ardent supporter since the early 1920s. To keep in the Nazi’s good graces, Nolde never failed to point out that he had been at odds with what he perceived as the “undue influence” of Jews in European art circles, taking particular aim at artist and writer Max Liebermann, the long-tenured president of the Prussian Academy of Arts until 1933 when he was dismissed by the Nazis.

What makes Nolde’s case so interesting is that despite the fact of his loyalty to the Nazi Party, Nolde himself was one of the greatest victims of the Nazis’ war on what they labeled “degenerate art.” This resulted in the censoring and confiscation of thousands of works of modern art from Germany’s museums and galleries, culminating in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937 which traveled all over Germany and Austria for the next two years attracting millions of viewers.

nmil nolde old peasant couple 1942

Emil Nolde, Old Peasant Couple, 1942

More than 1,000 of Nolde’s works were confiscated during the Nazi lunacy spearheaded by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (who years earlier, like Merkel, actually hung Nolde’s work in his office). Ironically, the centerpiece of the Degenerate Art exhibit was Nolde’s epic nine-canvas life-of-Christ altarpiece. The problem for Nolde was that his work was firmly rendered in the expressionist style which Hitler (who flunked out of art school) personally despised. No matter how hard Nolde tried to get back into favor with the Nazis, he never would.

emil nolde life of the christ la vie du christ 1912

Emil Nolde, Life of the Christ (La Vie du Christ), 1912

After the war, Nolde began a campaign to show that he was, in fact, victimized by the Nazis, but artfully concealed anything that would show his allegiance to their cause. Over time all was forgiven, his work was displayed again, and his reputation whitewashed, until recent years when his own foundation outed him.

The legendary degenerate art show of 1991 at LACMA curated by Stephanie Barron, which gathered many of the works banned in 1937, was groundbreaking. Scholarship into the degenerate art catastrophe was further advanced in 2014 when the Neue Galerie in New York held a show of the work of the “degenerate artists” that included such expressionist greats as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Ernst Kirchner and Nolde. Catalogs from both shows are essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about how attacks on artists and intellectuals are de rigueur for authoritarian regimes (The Nazis also banned music by a long list of composers).

degenerate art the fate of the avant garde

Installation photograph, “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991

The tale of Emil Nolde has resonance in our turbulent times. If one thing is clear, it’s that an artist’s private misbehavior will always shadow him or her throughout history. There should be no rush to judgment about alleged misconduct of an artist. For some, like Nolde, it took decades for the case to be closed. For others—like Woody Allen or Michael Jackson—evidence is still coming to light.

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art brief theater of the absurd

Art Brief: Theater of the Absurd

by Stephen J. Goldberg Esq.

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”—intended to be the most important show of Chinese dissident art in recent years—limped into California late last year. The show traveled to the Guggenheim Museums in Bilbao, Spain and New York before its display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The namesake of the show and the first piece on display—Theater of the World (1993) by Huang Yong Ping and two other works were censored by SFMOMA, which claimed it was following the lead of the New York Guggenheim’s controversial decision to pull the works due to “serious” security threats received after PETA and other animal rights groups vehemently protested.

There are a number of striking works of dissident art in the show including Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (2006), a video of numbing repetitive tasks performed by workers at a light bulb factory in Guangzhou, China, Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder mushroom-cloud works, and Ai Weiwei’s somber display of a wall-size register of his “citizen’s investigation” exposing the suppressed identities of the 5,386 children who died when their shoddily constructed schools collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—an event that was heavily covered up by the Chinese government. However, the censorship issue casts a pall over the entire show. Upon entering the first room, visitors are confronted with two large empty hand-made terrariums carefully crafted by Huang intended to contain his Theater of the World. They were originally meant to be filled with a variety of insects and reptiles which would fight for dominance of their miniature world—perhaps a parable of the human struggle for survival (Huang referenced Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy as an influence). We are greeted with a plaque containing the “artist’s statement”: “It is a ‘living’ work in the truest sense, as there are living insects inside. But this work has repeatedly encountered ‘premature death’ without ever having a chance to ‘live.’ … [It] is said that more than 700,000 people are opposed to this work [through an online petition circulated at the time of the New York opening] that involves living animals; but how many of those people have really looked at and understood this work? …Everyone can express their views, but unfortunately their views are too often mere repetitions of others’ views.”

A second censored work, Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994), is a video showing two pigs that the artist stamped with lettering—one with Roman lettering and the other with made-up Chinese characters—mating in a pen while spectators watch.

A curator’s statement situated next to the blank video screen says that the pigs copulate “ …in an allegorical, nonsensical meeting of East and West. For Xu …the performance was a literal and visceral critique of Chinese artists’ desire for enlightenment through Western cultural ‘transference.’ …This work has gone on to become one of the seminal images of experimental art in China during this period, and Xu has since received honors in his adopted U.S. home—including a MacArthur Fellowship …” The curator considers it “a seminal work” and yet we can’t even view it.
The third censored work, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, is a disturbing video of tethered pit bulls that face each other on treadmills. SFMOMA placed a statement next to the blank monitor: “When the [Guggenheim] was planning this exhibition in 2017, it received repeated threats of violence in response to the role of animals in the creation of this artwork. In consultation with the artists, the Guggenheim left the video documentation in place but turned it off. SFMOMA has chosen to replicate this modification to acknowledge the fact that the tension between political activism and animal rights is now part of the history of the artwork.”

This museum statement is absurd—an artwork should speak for itself. An artwork should not be replaced by a statement claiming that controversy “is now part of the history of the artwork.” The “history” of the dispute should be left to news reports. This statement is a bad precedent for the way museums should handle attempts at censorship that may become more frequent now that online petitions are in vogue.

A spokesperson for SFMOMA, Jill Lynch, assured me that the threats of violence against the Guggenheim were “very serious,” but would not go into detail because of “security issues.” It may be necessary to increase security at art museums, including the use of metal detectors, due to the coarse times we are living in, with internet trolls running amok spreading misinformation. These may be costly measures, but the mission of these institutions is to preserve artistic freedom above all else, not to bow to mob rule.
Ironically, a major show focused on dissident Chinese art by artists who may have risked their freedom and their lives for the sake of art has devolved into a fiasco in which America, the supposed paragon of artistic freedom, has engaged in wholesale censorship of these brave artists.

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