HOW MICHAEL CHOW CREATED MR. CHOW
By Cyril Duval
Meeting the legendary restaurateur & art muse Mr. Chow is truly a rare experience of sorts. Invited to Las Vegas to celebrate the opening of his new restaurant (the seventh) and his new art exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum, our envoyé special Cyril Duval – aka artist item idem – sits down for a one on one discussion with the 76 years old artist who is returning to painting after decades spent in the limelight of celebrity culture & glamor sparkles. Seated below ‘The Moon’, his massive kinetic sculpture dominating the entire dome of his now restaurant, Michael Chow explains how he created Mr. Chow, the brand.
Chow has led a remarkable and fulfilling life, marked by an opulent and comfortable childhood in pre-war China as the son of an acclaimed Beijing Opera actor. A frail child struggling with asthma & homeschooled (he recalled that the notion of sufferance as a child revealed itself to him as one of the most important tools to becoming an artist) who spent his early days developing an adoration for his father and his work, but whose life suddenly took a very different turn when his family was forced to leave the country for political reasons and relocate to England. Calling this an “Oliver Twist Dickens plot twist,” the abrupt change tore the teenager apart before he quickly realized that this experience would “either break him or make him.” The rest is history: he studies architecture, starts painting in his early twenties, becomes an interior designer before opening his first restaurant in London in 1968, quickly followed by many others in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami Beach.
About Vegas and the opening of his seventh restaurant at the Caesars Palace, Chow explains that the city lacks on cultural aspects but compensates with its raw energy and newness: “Vegas requires from me that I entertain you. It’s a city of the modern world, very late XXth century.” Riffing on our name Visionaire, Chow quirkily smiles and explains that he “deals with glamor, like Visionaire and creative people.” His restaurants are entirely designed by him & conceptually conceived as theaters (remnants of his fastuous existence in China). Chinese cuisine, which he considers a national treasure, is here being magnified by these theatres and the performance he unfolds for his guests. Armed with his understanding of the opulence & sophistication of Chinese culture (largely ignored or misrepresented in the US), Chow’s restaurants are conceived as global artworks with hundreds of details that are being puzzled into a larger result, or as he qualifies it himself, where the goal is to “find the truth of the detail, find the focus and execute it in the only & best way possible.” By staging this constant performance, Chow managed to live his life fully immersed in the art world, in his own territory he built for himself at the crossings of entrepreneurial spirit, art collecting, and celebrity friendships. Frequently referring to Warhol, he moves on to emphasize on the numerous celebrities he has befriended. With the help of a prodigious memory and legendary anecdotes, Chow unfolds and name-drops dozens of iconic performers and artists of all kinds who came to his restaurants: his friends & peers, the artists that were or became legends such as Warhol, Basquiat, Haring, but also Hollywood stars and international figures such as Mae West, Groucho Marx, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Rudolf Nureyev, Billy Wilder, Jacques Cousteau and the French mime Marcel Marceau.
Still, the unstoppable entrepreneur is always reaching for new goals: five decades later, he has returned to painting, a practice he is now doing daily. Comparing the Beijing opera that influenced him as a child to the “art of calligraphy embodied,” his new paintings dedicated to his father are playing with the tropes of Abstract Expressionism (a movement Chow was extremely influenced by) mixed with the gestures of the Qi School Beijing Opera. ‘Voice For My Father’, his first solo exhibition in the US, opens on February 13th at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and will be presenting his recent paintings (the first in five decades), monumental formats he qualifies as ‘abstract landscapes’ by pouring layers of thick household paint in his 20,000 square feet studio in Los Angeles. Describing his style in his effortless humor and taste for grandiosity, Chow affirms that he is “internally Chinese, European trained, with a post-Pollock approach” and that he has “basically conquered 3 continents.” Within the context of the exhibition; photographs of his father’s art will be displayed next to the large collection of portraits of him by his illustrious artist friends. Although Chow has not yet signed with a specific gallery, he has previously exhibited with Pearl Lam in HK, and is hoping that the current exhibition will travel to other museums around in the world. Simultaneously, Michael Chow is working on finishing the script of his first feature film, which he is also planning on directing.