The female and male wrestlers that entered Peter Blake’s pictorial vocabulary in the early 1960s occupy a key position in the ever-growing cast of self-possessed characters and oddballs whose quirky personalities and unforgettable looks have been central to the humanity of the artist’s Pop portraiture ever since. As early as the mid-1950s he had portrayed eccentric individuals who appear to exist on the fringes of polite society, even as freaks or outcasts, often in the guise of low-grade entertainers. Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady 1955 (sold in these Rooms, London, 11 November 2010, lot 124) and Cherie, Only Bearded Tattooed Lady 1957, both painted on ‘distressed’ wooden supports that identify these paintings as battered found objects rescued from the side-shows of travelling circuses, were among the first of many women to enter Blake’s company of surprisingly cheerful misfits.
Blake’s portraits of wrestlers – all painted on a relatively small scale but dominated by their larger-than-life personalities – were initiated in 1961 with Baron Adolf Kaiser (Arts Council Collection), which he completed in 1963. With rare exceptions such as Masked Zebra Kid 1965 (Tate, London), a portrait of an American that the artist had seen in action and whose autograph he pasted onto the picture, and the much later Kendo Nagazaki 1992, all of them portray fictional characters invented by Blake rather than actual performers from the professional wrestling circuit. Blake clearly enjoyed the act of fantasy and imagination that lay at the heart of each of the portraits, enabling him to project into each boisterous character an alter-ego of his much more reticent self. Long before it became fashionable to speak of the ways in which each of us constructs and performs our identity, Blake intuitively alighted on this theme and pursued it for its rich visual and psychological possibilities.
Little Lady Luck, like most of the fancifully named stars in Blake’s pantheon, is a purely imaginary character but one who exudes the defiant self-belief and self-possession of those who have reinvented themselves. Her features are borrowed, as in most of these paintings, from photographs found in mass-circulation magazines, in this case from the same range of men’s magazines that served as sources for paintings such as Kandy! 1962-65 and Pin-up Girl 1965. Her assured stance, the forthrightness with which she holds the viewer’s gaze and the firmness with which she occupies the centre of the composition all contribute to her compelling physical presence and to a sense that she is animated by a powerful personality. By contrast with the paintings made a decade earlier, the realism with which her body and particularly her face are depicted – with a devotion to detail in the rendering of her facial features rivalling that of the early 15th Century Flemish masters whose work has been a lifelong point of reference for Blake’s naturalism – endows her with an urgent sense of her actual existence. Having previously used oil paints, Blake was quick to adopt the Cryla range of acrylic paints introduced to the market in 1963. This much faster-drying water-based medium is comparable to watercolour or gouache in the possibilities it offers for layering and glazing without lengthy waits. Blake evidently found it particularly helpful for the painstaking building up of flesh tones and volume of his figures. His steady progression towards naturalism, which was to become a major factor in his ‘Ruralist’ period of the 1970s, was hastened by the change of procedure facilitated by the medium.
Blake had collaged and appended both printed images and found objects to his paintings since the late 1950s, inspired both by the Dada and Surrealist collages he had first encountered in 1955 and by the combine paintings and object paintings of the two American artists of his generation, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, to whose work he has maintained a lifelong attachment. As he began to elaborate his wrestling pictures, he started to glue little toys and figures to the top edge of their frames, as in Da Vinci Brothers 1963, a feature that was to become particularly elaborate in the series of wrestlers painted in 1965, of which Little Lady Luck is a prime example. The male wrestlers in the 1965 group, such as Kamikaze (National Museums Wales) and Doktor K. Tortur have an aggressive air of exaggerated masculinity that sits in stark contrast to the sensuously appealing atmosphere exuded by their female counterparts, such as Roxy Roxy (Pallant House Gallery, Chichester [Wilson Loan]), also begun in 1965 but completed only in 1983.
Though these wrestling pictures look entirely of their time, they relate to the religious iconography of Old Master paintings of the saints, identifiable by their attributes, and to shrines found in churches as well as private homes, particularly in Catholic countries. Though the materials he chose to embed into the surface of Little Lady Luck, to rest along the top of its frame or to suspend from the lower edge like a pendant were all recently produced, cheaply available, deliberately Kitschy and throwaway mass-produced objects, they were chosen with great care to amplify the pictorial biography of the imaginary protagonist. The four figurines along the top measure her age from infancy to early adulthood. On the surface itself Blake rings the changes on lucky charms, the luck of the Irish, lucky number 7 and three and four-leaf clovers, their abundance reaching a saturation level of comical absurdity and superstition. Her very name and the way it is spelled out in colourful fun-fair lettering, suggestive of the one-armed bandits where one might try one’s luck at winning at least a few coins, conveys a sense of wish fulfilment. Is she therefore a messenger bearing good fortune, a temptress or a sexy young woman with whom the (notionally male) viewer might hope to ‘get lucky’? That there is no correct answer to the question helps keep the painting, and one’s encounter with it, in a state of permanent suspense.
We are very grateful to Marco Livingstone for preparing this catalogue entry.
William Paton in conversation with Michael Chow, August 2013
William Paton: I was wondering if we could start off with your impressions of London when you first arrived here?
Michael Chow: Well, I got there when I was thirteen years old, uprooted from China, and London was still rationing sweets. And foggy and completely out of context and familiarity, to put it mildly.
W. P: Sort of an Ealing comedy London without the laughs?
M. C: Well, zero laughs. I didn’t speak the language very well and had no parents, nothing familiar, no culture, nothing. I lost everything. Unfortunately, I never saw my parents again…my father anyway never again, and I never communicated with him so that was very devastating. From there, the first relief of life was when I went to St Martin's School.
W. P: What was it that drew you to St Martins in particular?
M. C: Well, in those days in England, you already know that there was a government policy or something like that through which all the young people were trained in the arts school. There were many, right? Central, Royal Academy and many…So everyone went there… So the concept of that in the 50s produced the 60s, when as you know London becomes the centre of the world, bursting with energy, even winning soccer matches. I mean photographers, the hairdressers, Vidal Sassoon, Lana Lewis… I mean, everything is British, everything, there is this true cultural revolution unlike the Chinese one. So the 60s are bursting with energy: Michael Caine, Terence Stamp in movies… Slessinger, Joseph Losey, even Americans are making movies in England. As a result of that, which came from this art school, I think, class barriers are broken. This is a very, very important moment: suddenly England becomes the centre of the world, everybody looks to England all creatively and the remnants of that still continue as we speak.
W. P: Of Course.
M. C: So I was in the middle, and I give up painting mainly because there was not much support for me. You know, nationality-wise there were no Chinese painters, you can’t be a Chinese painter apart from Zao Wou-Ki, who has had some success. Apart from that, there’s no black painters or women painters. So anyway, that’s my background. I grew up with everyone, in particular Peter Blake and Richard Smith. And Jim Dine at that time was working in London, even Richard Chamberlain, you know.
W. P: So there was a good interaction between all the different art schools when you were an art student and then afterwards as well?
M. C: Well, I don’t know if between art schools but certainly between all the painters. We used to live in a house, I painted with Henry Lee and Lee Cho-Yu, who is another Chinese artist. The three of us sort of barricaded ourselves, we used to produce paintings everyday, like the 'house of paintings'. We were all very poor in those days of course; for artists to make living of it was impossible, almost impossible. So it was a good training ground and there was so much energy and it was also a very vital period of global…
W. P: On the subject of ‘global-ness’ as it were, you were very obviously a Chinese person in Britain which was still a very white society. Did you feel the racism of the society here? And did you feel it either within the group of artists or did you feel that being an outsider gave you more common ground with some of the other artists?
M. C: Well, unlike America, racism in England is very sophisticated. It's very sophisticated and important. You know, I used to do judo a little bit and you’d rather thrown by a black belt than an amateur! Britain is very expert in racism, divide and ruin and the colonies and all that. But there’s two or three things in England that help the racism: if you are artistic you are immune from racism and if you are eccentric you are immune from racism. So I said, OK, let’s be artistic and be eccentric! You know, in 1956, if I'd travelled to New York, I would have probably been lynched. So the first thing is England respects is aristocracy, if you have a certain elegance, a certain ‘princeliness’ if you will. So artistic content, eccentricity immunises you. Among artists of course there is no racism, because artists are in an arena where everyone is equal. So I was privileged and lived with all the artists around me, so I knew everybody and some better than others, of course, so that was an incredible, creative period.
W. P: And was there as sense that they were outsiders as well at the time?
M. C: In the 50s, absolutely everybody is an outsider, until the 60s, then it is a different story. Then, all the arts integrated, which is important, which in fact if you think about it, is reflected to the present day… What happens is you have this eclectic…all the creative forces, hairdressers as I said, before that of course it was the models that became the phenomenon, like Twiggy, and Bailey and the photographers, Mary Quant and fashion, so everything's integrating which is very important. Architecture integrated, sports integrating, celebrities beginning to integrate, movie-making beginning to integrate. And above all in England, it breaks down the class barrier. So here you have truly a cultural revolution that made us completely free and creative and we ruled the world. We were young and we ruled the world – the most exciting time. Also the communication between Los Angeles to London, in particular people like Robert Fraser: those days, Pop artists came over. I used to work at the ICA as a ticket collector and then I worked for Robert for about 3 or 4 months and had a fantastic time…The Beatles were beginning to happen. This is the foundation of what we are living on right now. That’s the beginning, starting from the art schools in the 50s: everybody went there, as I said. And they produced so many rich cultural artists from those art schools, and the 60s really matured and put the whole thing on a map and laid a foundation, mixing with the New York schools if you will. Basically, it laid the foundation of what we are enjoying today.
W. P: Sure. And how much do you think this was due to the cross-germination, to the happy inheritance in Britain of the same language as the Americans?
M. C: Yes, of course that plays a big part, that was established a long time ago. Except in America we nearly spoke German, you know that.
W. P: Well, Oscar Wilde said that we have everything in common with our American cousins except of course language.
M. C: He always gets it right. More so, I think this breaking of the cultural revolution in Britain and of this class and therefore integrating all the different arts together really laid a foundation. Plus the American artists really laid the foundation, I think.
W. P: Sure, I can see that. I haven’t seen the whole film but I watched a large part of the film Joanna which I know you were involved with, and even in that film it seems like there is such an amazing melting pot of society, with a Canadian playing a British aristocrat, then there's the club scene and the artists and the energy going through it all…
M. C: Well, I lived with Michael Sarne who is the director. I used to paint and he supported me. I used to live on £5 a week. I never had a job in my life, you know, and I used to paint. We are talking about Pop and Joanna was a very Pop film and I flew to New York with him to see Roy Lichtenstein and he did a drawing, well, a couple of drawings for the film.
W. P: Sure. He did the sunset which they used in the end and then there was also the girl in the water; at Christie’s, we sold a preparatory image that he’d done for that.
M. C:…And I remember he was painting cathedrals.
W. P: On the subject of artists, I read about your restaurant: when you opened it in 1968, it sort of immediately became a place where artists were. It seems it was very much a deliberate idea on your side, that art helps brings people. Was it like a salon atmosphere?
M. C: Well, it’s a high-low culture thing.. All artists encourage, you know. You have a cross-section, like, Federico Fellini used to come, Rudolf Nureyev... It’s a classic name dropping list which Mr. Chow enjoyed throughout! No restaurant in the history of man had so many different walks of life of celebrity. The early days of Mr. Chow London, we had everybody: Zefferelli, Fellini, all the French movies celebrities, Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau, Alain Delon and all these people, and then all the Hollywood actors like Paul Newman, everybody.
W. P: Did you have the classic system like the Impressionists, where the artists were fed in return for art?
M. C: I opened the restaurant with five artists and paid them exactly the same amount for food. They were David Hockney, Richard Smith, Patrick Caulfield, Jim Dine and Peter Blake. Mr. Chow was revolutionary in the sense that we wanted Italian waiters with classic authentic Chinese food, and to make sure the front is completely modern and contemporary and no sign of chinoiserie whatsoever. So I asked Peter to do a painting which is the antithesis of chinoiserie racism and then he decided to a portrait of me, which was his idea, and to give me an old man's body, someone’s else body, and then two people surrounding and I become a manager of the wrestling team with two wrestlers. One of them is a real prince from China… Both of them are half Chinese half Italian, because of the Chinese chefs and Italian waiters. So their names are Frisco and Lorenzo Wong and my name is Wildman Michael Chow. And then he started this portraiture. Then I asked David Hockney to help me to do a portrait, that’s the beginning of the second portrait. Of course, now I have many portraits from everybody. So that’s the beginning of the portrait collection and the beginning of swapping, instead of food for thoughts, food for paintings.
W. P: Previously, I did not know there was a Richard Smith in the restaurant. What kind of Richard Smith was it?
M. C: It’s still there, it is a two dimensional sculpture made out of metal. You can come see it-- but you’ll have to buy a drink or something! Then he also, later on, did a green painting for me upstairs, fantastic, and then later on he did, in Los Angeles, the most incredible sort of mobile painting in the ceiling, eleven discs still holding today, 40 years later, then in New York as well. So he gave me paintings for the all the restaurants. So you know, they were good friends and they were the beginning so Mr. Chow encouraged artists from classical musicians to modern musicians, Rock’n’Roll, whatever, anyone who was artistic because they can never do wrong.
W. P: One of the things I find amazing is that not only you’ve managed to retain this great loyalty, these long standing relationships with artists like Blake who has done your portrait again decades later, and also Richard Smith, but also the fact that you appear to have given them exposure which probably helped their careers as well.
M. C: Well, I do not know about that. Maybe a sort of drop in the bucket! But the spirit is there, I think with Blake in particular…You know, everybody hated his paintings, I mean really violently, so there must be something in it if someone really hates it.
W. P: Could you define the difference between these two melting pot cultures, London in the late 60s and New York in the late 70s early 80s?
M. C: I think New York of course is a different animal but it is connected. I think two things helped, one is that in New York the scale is much bigger, the landscape and the whole American way of thinking. Second is that New York had a chip on it shoulder in reaction to always being a slave to the Europe in the artistic context, meaning no one can get away from Picasso, and all the great ones are from Europe, Matisse etc. So in the long history of art, America has nothing. So this reaction became so vivid and that’s why all the [Abstract] Expressionists worked so well, because they'd really broken the sound barrier and become free. So this explosion was so fantastic and fresh and big-scale and really popular, and really dwarfed Europe. I think all this is coming back in the 21st Century: the distance between European and American, the entire globe for that matter, is getting smaller and smaller, the lines are getting very blurred, so this whole integration of all the 20th Century is beginning to merge in the beginning of the 21st Century, which is now. And that’s why it is so exciting, the time we are living in, because of this merging, articulating, just like the last century, the 20th Century. It's such a vast change and art has to be true to its time. We are very much living in a fortunate time, I think.
W. P: Was there already any sense in the late 50s and 60s of cohesion, not just a social group of painters but actually as a group where a lot of them were focusing on figurative material from the popular culture landscape around them?
M. C: In England there is this Pop movement which is late Hamilton, Hockney and everyone, which is the case in point of this exhibition you are putting on. And then you have (I don’t think there is too much communication) suddenly a reaction to the Abstract Expressionists, and there you have the American school, which is obviously today almost unthinkable to think, Lichtenstein and Warhol. They are just some individuals in New York, somewhere obscure, working, but I think maybe both sides are trying to be true to their time and this is inevitable in this consumer culture. They are thinking the same, like there's telepathy everywhere. We can argue all day long who came first, whether Peter Blake did the first Pop painting or Hamilton did it.
W. P: Or even with Warhol or Lichtenstein, who did the first comic strip.
M. C: Who did it the first is kind of important, but not really…Pollock wasn’t the first person who dripped, the first person who dripped was Hans Hoffman. Even Cubism: Picasso did the Demoiselles d’Avignon so maybe he did it or maybe Braque or maybe someone else. So these two groups… Of course, the Americans won; Lichtenstein, Warhol, taking off like crazy where Blake and the English Pop…
W. P: They are not quite household names in the same way. Why do you think that is?
M. C: Well, follow the money, to start with. And also I think that it’s because the Abstract Expressionists exploded to the globe. And don’t forget, Abstract Expressionism was also controlled by the government.
W. P: Sure, the CIA...
M. C: The CIA and all the funding against Russia, and freedom and youth and blablablah... So follow the money, follow the power… And they exploded, if that didn’t happen then maybe we'd be, 'Who's Pollock? We don’t know.' But I don't know. That became so overwhelming, so they dominated, so the next movement that follows, which is the Pop group in America, dwarfed everybody, including the English one. But I think the English one is important and I am glad that shows like this, that Christie’s is putting on, will get things right, get things at least in alignment, right?
W. P: To sort of give them some balance.
M. C: Yes, to give them some balance… and maybe we can bid up the price!
W. P: I might not print that! Healthy cynicism… There is nothing wrong with that and actually that’s kind of what underpins a lot of Pop Art anyway…
M. C: ‘Healthy cynicism’, oh that’s good!