The Zhou brothers may be the most successful Chicago artists on the international scene. In Europe they’re famous for their poetic, abstract mix of Western and Chinese influences, and they’ve been given numerous gallery and museum shows. Close to two dozen books and catalogs on their work have been published–more than half of them in Europe–and they teach every summer at the prestigious International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg. Last year they were invited to create a large painting in a 45-minute performance during the opening lunch of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, before an audience that included President Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair; never before had painters been given the honor of actively creating their work at a forum gathering. Yet though they’ve had 13 solo gallery shows in Chicago since they arrived here in 1986, a few years ago they didn’t even have a gallery representing them here. They’ve never had a museum show in Chicago. Not one of their works is owned by the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they’ve never been invited to teach at any of the city’s art schools.

Some local critics, dealers, and curators–none of whom would speak for attribution–say that since Shan Zuo and Da Huang Zhou (pronounced Joe) came to Chicago, their close collaboration on all of their paintings and sculptures and woodcuts has been regarded as a gimmick, “a bit of a stage show.” Some of these anonymous observers say they’re just repeating the buzz, but others seem to agree with the criticisms. After only five months here, the brothers had a gallery show where almost all of their paintings sold, so some

resentment is perhaps natural. The brothers are also prolific, and their work now sells for relatively steep prices–the paintings at their current show at Perimeter Gallery in River North go for $7,400 to $40,000–which probably means they earn more from their art than any other Chicago painter. Some observers call their art “commercial” and “a little bit calculated.” They also call the brothers and their representatives “pushy,” though they usually can’t cite specifics. “They don’t intersect much with my world,” said one critic, after admitting he hadn’t seen their work in many years.

Frank Paluch, Perimeter’s director, says, “There’s this myth among artists that ‘once a gallery takes me on I go back to my studio and the check comes every month.’ That’s a fantasy. You have to put yourself out there.” He suggests that the Zhous, who happen to be charming and quick to laugh, have simply mastered the basics of being professional artists, even though their English is far from perfect: they’re ready to meet with collectors, they host the occasional party, they provide transparencies when asked, they keep him advised of museum shows he might want to submit their work to. Paluch guesses that the people who complain that the brothers are self-promoters aren’t succeeding as artists or gallerists themselves.

The brothers freely admit that even as children they wanted to be successful and that they’ve let their style be affected by the societies they’ve lived in. Yet the inspiration behind their work seems genuine. No one who understands their past, which is intertwined with the chaotic history of China, or their reasons for painting together is likely to call their collaboration a gimmick or doubt the depth of their commitment to their art.

Of course having a moving life story and a commitment to art doesn’t make their work good, and some critics seem to have made an honest aesthetic judgment that they just don’t like it. William Conger, a professor of art at Northwestern University and a Zhou brothers enthusiast, says one reason art mavens may dismiss their work is that while it has a deep surrealist and figurative basis, like much of the art historically embraced in Chicago, “what is absent is the notion of the ironic distance.” Conger finds the narrowness of that judgment regrettable. “I think a serious professional scene in Chicago should embrace a lot of territory,” he says. “The issue too often is not ‘What is a fully developed expressive body of work?’ It’s ‘What is the most current and potentially interesting?’ A lot of attention is given to very young artists before they’ve had a chance to develop their ideas.”

Painter Li Lin Lee, a friend of the Zhous, agrees. “Art has become very cynical and jaded, a stylistic and philosophical pastiche,” he says. “Their work may not be fashionable for the times. Right now in American art, intellectual or conceptual content is the main thing.” Yet Lee argues that the brothers’ lack of irony is a result of their faith in painting. “I think one of the things that I find interesting about the Chinese artists who come here is their enthusiasm. It’s really refreshing to encounter people so full of energy and hope. That’s why immigrants are so important to this culture. These guys are almost swashbuckling in their attitude–like the New York school action painters who passionately believed in the ability of painting to communicate.”

Shan Zuo Zhou was born in southern China in 1952, Da Huang in 1957. Their mother’s family was wealthy and had produced scholars for five or six generations. Their mother’s mother was a painter and calligrapher, and when her husband wanted to take a second wife she went her own way. “In her whole life I don’t think she had another man,” says Shan Zuo. “Some part of her followed traditional concepts, but another part was very independent.”

This grandmother went on to found the first women’s college in southern China, in Wuming (now part of the city of Nanning), at a time when women couldn’t attend the existing universities. She also ran a bookstore. “Many young people didn’t have enough money to buy more than a few books and would read others in the bookstore,” says Da Huang. “My father was one of the young men who often stopped there, and my grandmother saw that he was very late to leave.”

Shan Zuo says that their mother, Yi Xin Wei, “was very beautiful and very educated. She had a lot of men who were interested in her. After many years my mother never knew why fate put her and my father together. He was not rich, and he had not even begun his career. They met, and I think she found something very fresh and very new in his ideas, his thinking, his big dreams.”

Their father, Meng Yuan, had been born in 1918 to a family that was not well-off. It was soon apparent that he was not only intelligent but artistically talented, and a cousin who lived in Nanning invited Meng Yuan to live with him through high school. He went on to the university to study literature, history, and philosophy, and became a professor at the University of Guanxi when he was in his mid-20s. “My father grew up as China was changing,” says Shan Zuo. “He learned a lot about traditional Chinese culture, but also he belonged to a group of young people that read a lot of Western ideas and wanted to try to open the nation to new and modern ways.”

Then Japan invaded China. “The Japanese bombed the city, and my family moved to the country for a few months,” says Shan Zuo. “In the country the things they had–the jewelry and gold, the whole family wealth–were robbed by gangsters.” Meng Yuan went into the army, leaving Wei behind. “He met a friend and asked him about my mom, and learned that she was still hoping he would return,” says Da Huang. “So he decided run away–just for love. He walked on foot for a couple of days to Wuming. My mom hid my father in the attic for a long time. There was a wanted poster for him.”

After the war, says Shan Zuo, “My grandmother opened the business again, the bookstore, and another business–a gift store or something. Even after the war, she was very well connected and got wealthier.”

Meng Yuan and Wei married. He went back to teaching at the University of Guanxi, and she started teaching Chinese literature there. He became a dean at 29, was an actor, wrote plays that were produced, and directed and sang in Carmen. “He wrote four or five books about Chinese literature and culture,” says Shan Zuo. “His books also deal a lot with Western culture. Also he translated books from English.”

After the revolution in 1949 their lives changed radically again. “The communist government took over everything,” says Shan Zuo. “My grandmother’s women’s college was closed. My grandmother still had the big house, but after the revolution, after the war, all the money was gone. My grandmother always told us that money is not important–if you really have the great spirit you are rich in your life, and then the money always comes to you.”

Meng Yuan remained a professor, but was no longer dean. “In all the universities the deans were from the communist army,” Shan Zuo says. “Maybe the dean had only finished high school. My father got into trouble because it was thought at that time that Western writers had not very healthy ideas.” Meng Yuan was now allowed to teach nothing but traditional Chinese literature.

In 1956, four years after Shan Zuo was born, Mao gave the speech in which he used the slogan “Let one hundred flowers bloom and one hundred schools of thought contend.” The speech inspired the Hundred Flowers Movement, which encouraged intellectuals to criticize the way the Communist Party was running the country. Meng Yuan was among many who spoke out, arguing, among other things, that nonprofessionals shouldn’t be supervising professionals. A massive crackdown followed, raising suspicions that the movement had been nothing more than a cynical attempt to identify critics, suspicions Mao confirmed when he said he’d persuaded “demons and hobgoblins to come out of their lairs in order to better wipe them out.” Meng Yuan was arrested and imprisoned for over a decade; it would be 21 years before he saw his sons and could teach again.

Shan Zuo remembers his mother hiding in a suitcase the books, letters, and diaries his father had written. “My father had already gotten in trouble,” he says. “That meant there was some kind of danger for us. But sometimes my mother forgot to lock it, and we would open it and tried to read some of my father’s books.”

Their mother was allowed to keep teaching, and now the entire family was living on her salary. The brothers don’t remember feeling deprived. Da Huang, who was born after his father went to prison, showed talent in music, and their grandmother made him a traditional Chinese instrument using snakeskin and two strings. “After dinner we had performances in the family, sometimes drama,” says Shan Zuo. “The food was very simple, but we were very happy in the family because of art. We think that art is the most important thing in life.”

Da Huang says, “My grandmother in evening sat outside the house often in summer on a big granite stone, always telling all kinds of stories. Wuming was a very beautiful town–the most beautiful town in the province. A lot of the architecture is from the Qing dynasty. At that time the whole town didn’t have electricity. At night there were no electric lights and a lot of smoke from every house, from people cooking, and lights from candles and oil lamps. For me it was very mysterious–the memory is so beautiful. One day, probably in about ’64, they started to put cement in the street to cover the stones and make modern streets. Then one day electricity was there–so bright.”

When the brothers learned to read they had access to their grandmother’s huge library, which included Chinese books and translated Western books. “First I read more traditional Chinese books, like history, literature, poetry,” says Shan Zuo. “When we were quite young, like four years old, I could already recite a lot of poetry from Tang dynasty, learned from my grandmother. We had memorized a lot–hundreds of poems–very early.” Later they read Chinese and Western history as well as modern Chinese and Western literature. Shan Zuo was particularly fond of Rousseau. “I felt very close to his spirit–talking about when he’s a young boy looking at beautiful women very honestly.” He remembers sensing a big difference between Rousseau and Chinese writers. “I felt it’s real–human emotions, psychology, a real person. The Chinese books are more like stories.” Da Huang says he too felt closer to the characters in Western literature. “Chinese ones are always so mysterious,” he says.

“We didn’t know our future,” says Shan Zuo, “but we learned how to make ourselves become something and do something important. A Chinese poet wrote, ‘When the geese fly through you hear the song, and when a person leaves he will leave some of his influence there.’ The meaning is that you should do something special for history.”

The two boys often visited their mother’s father, who had a collection of traditional Chinese art and had collector friends. “To learn Chinese painting you need to see very good work from old masters, because eye training is the most important thing for technique,” says Shan Zuo. “In the beginning we had the chance to see a lot from the Tang and Song dynasties–landscapes, portraits. Some were ink, some were ink with Chinese watercolor. Some were actually museum quality–some had been collected by the emperor and had the stamp. We copied from them. Most kids don’t have that chance.”

Early on the brothers knew they wanted to become artists. They had several teachers who’d trained in Russia and showed them reproductions of Western paintings. Da Huang remembers a reproduction of Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. “I liked the realism, the movement,” he says. “Western art is more about presenting what the artist sees. Chinese art presents what he feels.” He pauses. “Chinese art is so free–and it’s also very important for art to be free.”

Though the brothers were immersed in art and literature, they were constantly aware of the danger around them. Shan Zuo says that the things he read in his family’s books made him wonder about the government’s positions. “I only questioned them to myself,” he says. “There was nobody I could talk to–not my mother, not my grandmother. At that time just speaking could be very dangerous. Even if someone just had a radio he could be easily put in jail, because someone could say, ‘You listen to the Voice of America,’ even though you don’t. That is how crazy that time was.”

In 1966 the Cultural Revolution plunged China into something close to a state of civil war. Traditions came under even heavier attack, and reading Western books was prohibited. Universities were closed, and bands of young Red Guards roamed freely, destroying books and art and attacking those who studied them. The Zhous realized they had to destroy the family library. “Most of our books we burned in the backyard,” says Da Huang. “For many days the fire never stopped. I was there carrying books, but I didn’t understand too much of what was going on. We tried to hide some underground. The Red Guards didn’t find them, but I don’t know where those books are now. We also burned all the fancy clothes–silk represents styles for rich people. After that time, as I recall, we had no books. We did so many secret things. I felt so uncomfortable. One day when I was eight or nine years old, I saw some Red Guards climb to the roof of our house. There was an architectural decoration that included a yin-yang symbol to protect the house. The Red Guards knocked it down. At that moment I felt that something was changing, because that decoration was in my heart a very holy thing, something that never can get knocked down. They were attacking everything.” And there was worse. “I saw four or five people killed on the street,” says Shan Zuo. “Some doctors, some farmers who were landowners. Some were just the children of landowners.”

In 1969 Shan Zuo, now in his late teens, was sent along with millions of other educated and upper-class people to the countryside to do farm labor. At first Da Huang remained in school in Wuming, but soon he accompanied their mother to a nearby village where she was to be “reeducated.” “Life was very difficult for many years,” says Shan Zuo. “That’s part of the reason we became artists. In art, everything is possible with a lot of imagination, and Chinese philosophy teaches that for someone to become very special, he must endure great difficulties to train his body, train his spirit.”

Da Huang says that during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted until around 1976, “only two kinds of talent could have a chance. One is art, the other is sports.” He became a Ping-Pong player–he was given special training and hoped to join the national team–and Shan Zuo painted. “He did very good Chairman Mao paintings,” says Da Huang, and they both laugh. “Big murals,” says Shan Zuo, “big as the one painting of Michael Jordan outside his restaurant. I did a lot of Mao woodcuts too.” He didn’t particularly enjoy making the portraits, but he could do them easily, which meant he didn’t have to do farm labor. “It was still a little bit related to painting,” he says. “We also did paintings of our own of all kinds of subjects, but that was private. At that time you could never show them to people. You only could do Mao paintings, or paintings of workers, farmers, and soldiers.”

The brothers say that the Cultural Revolution caused them to think more about the value of their cultural traditions. “There is more to touch your heart at such times,” says Shan Zuo. “Life was not easy for us. Happiness was more difficult–everything was more difficult. That made us appreciate life much more.”

The brothers didn’t see each other for four years, until they met at their grandmother’s now-ruined house one morning in 1973. They didn’t know if they’d be separated again, and that afternoon, without a word, they went together to the large, open room on the second floor where they’d learned Western oil painting and sculpture. They found an old frame and some oil paints and put a single sheet of paper–the only piece they could find–in the frame. Then they spontaneously began to paint, starting on different sides but eventually painting over each other’s work. They painted boats and the sea. “After we did it we didn’t talk too much,” says Da Huang, “but we knew the painting represented something for the future.” The painting, The Wave, still hangs in the house, where an uncle now lives.

The brothers were allowed to stay in Wuming, where Shan Zuo illustrated children’s books and did some sculptures showing poverty before the revolution for an exhibit on Chinese history. He and Da Huang also painted alone and together. “We had our most difficult, most struggling time,” says Da Huang. “You want to create a style, but it’s very difficult.” Shan Zuo explains, “You often feel somebody has done it before, and you feel you cannot speak very loud because you’re speaking in someone else’s voice. You have to find your own voice, your own language, your own style.” Da Huang adds, “We wanted to do something that people would pay a lot of attention to. We saw a lot of things, talked a lot. Many people were talking about how art should mix East and West together.”

By 1976 a painting they’d done, The Feathers From a Hundred Birds, was in a museum show and was reproduced in magazines. But they weren’t satisfied with their work. “At that time the thinking was more than the painting,” Shan Zuo says. Da Huang adds, “Our power was not enough to reach to the high level. We were only learning, studying–not very free.”

They traveled whenever they could to see examples of ancient art–cave paintings, ceramics, Han dynasty brick carvings, folk art–and were inspired by much of what they saw. “We gave up the concept of beauty as something comfortable, we gave up the prettiness,” says Da Huang. “Our work became more focused, more direct, more incomplete.” He admits that because references to ancient Chinese art were useful in the cultural climate of the time they emphasized them more than they might have otherwise.

They also sought out contemporary folk-art pieces as they traveled. “We thought they were wonderful,” says Da Huang, “because the thinking is not complicated–very clear thinking.” Shan Zuo adds, “There was a joke that Picasso in his later years was afraid to come to China because in the countryside he would see the old women can do something he did. And that’s really true. They worked with cut paper, and it looks very modern, but they don’t know modern art.” Among the works their travels inspired is a series of four paintings, including Cradle of Life and Song of Life, long scroll-like pieces with multiple human and animal figures. They worked on them day and night for months, often covering over each other’s work.

One day they took a boat ride on the Ming River and saw the Neolithic rock paintings that are scattered along the cliffs high above. “Some are 50 meters above the river,” says Da Huang, “mostly human figures and animal figures and some symbols.” They’d seen the paintings as children, but now they saw them differently. “We felt some connection with what we wanted to do,” says Da Huang. “The language of those ancient paintings–we felt so much communication. Suddenly we were so open. Then we came back, and we got a lot of ideas. But how to represent them through our paintings? There was still another very struggling time.” Shan Zuo says the rock paintings were “very simple and direct. They have a simple language but very deep meaning–the highest, like poetry. Suddenly we felt that the golden key is there, and from that time on we felt we could do anything.” He says they’d learned from Western modern art that “the secret is to use simple language and strong images to create the power of myth,” and the rock paintings confirmed that they’d been heading in the right direction.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, the government apologized to their father, and the brothers were free to study again. After the universities reopened, they both enrolled as art students at Shanghai Drama Art College. “By that time our style always came out automatically,” Da Huang says. “We didn’t really follow what the teachers were saying.” By this point all their paintings were collaborations, says Da Huang, “because we enjoy spending time together, talking about art together, and we felt this is a way that we can make something very different.”

One evening in 1980 the two carved a calligraphic seal into the wall behind a couch, combining three symbols that had multiple connotations–snow, purity, eternity, a tower, a statue, spirit, a lion, power. Da Huang says it represented their plan for the future: “Not only for the work, but for life and for our art careers.” It expressed, says Shan Zuo, “everything and nothing at once. Everything’s there, and also it’s nothing. You feel the material life always has an influence on your life, but also it doesn’t matter. We felt, ‘We’re willing to do something now.’ After all those very, very bad years in China everybody wanted to have some fresh air, wanted the spring.”

Around this time a major traveling exhibition from the Louvre came to Beijing. “We had seen a lot of Western art in reproduction,” says Da Huang. “This was the first time we saw original work from the Louvre–the originals made a really big impact.” Shan Zuo says everything in the Barbizon-school paintings “feels very close to life. We also felt some influence from one period of literature that more described real life–French writers and Russian writers like Zola and Tolstoy.”

Later they saw Picassos and Miros and read two books by Kandinsky. “One day when we opened our studio,” says Shan Zuo, “the canvases lying there, the lighting, the sun from the window looked very abstract. That was the first time we felt, why not paint like this?”

Of course Chinese art has its own abstract tendencies, in part because traditional Chinese painting has its roots in calligraphy. But, says Da Huang, “The concept in China is a very different thing than the Western concept of abstraction. In China, paintings of landscapes, flowers, and even portraits are very abstract. They only use ink and brush–you’re limited. They don’t sit in nature and draw what they see. They go there, and then draw something from memory. That’s why it comes out very abstract.” Shan Zuo adds, “A couple of thousand years ago they knew the stone actually is abstract sculpture. They put in gardens as art. In painting, they painted a flower like a water lily with like only eight brush strokes, never from real life. But for the last hundred years they cannot accept abstraction. After the ’49 revolution they only accepted something communist.”

In 1983 the brothers were accepted for graduate study at the prestigious National Academy for Arts and Crafts in Beijing. They had museum exhibits in 1984 and ’85; their exhibit at the National Gallery in Beijing–with 180 pieces–was the first show there by contemporary artists. They were becoming stars in China.

Here in Chicago, Guang Xin Qian was in the process of opening the East West Contemporary Art Gallery on Superior, and he saw reproductions of their work in Chinese newspapers and magazines. He sent a letter asking if they would do a show at his gallery. Not knowing the street they lived on, he addressed it to Zhou Brothers, Beijing, China, but they eventually got it.

The two arrived in Chicago in December 1986 with about 30 of their paintings and $30. They say they’d already decided to stay because they weren’t sure that things wouldn’t get bad in China again and because they’d reached a career peak in China and wanted a “bigger stage.” At first they lived in Qian’s apartment, and he took care of their meals. “In China, in the whole country people knew us,” says Shan Zuo, “but when we came here we didn’t speak English–only a very few words.” They painted, but found it difficult; Qian’s apartment, says Shan Zuo, was “too clean.”

Their first solo show here opened the same month, but nothing sold. The Zhous told Qian they needed to move, and he bought ten paintings from them for $1,500. No one knew then how great that deal would turn out to be for Qian, and the brothers laugh about it today; at their second show in March 1987 one piece sold for about $1,000. The Zhous took that as a good sign.

They’d become friends with Li Lin Lee, who was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents and speaks Mandarin, and Lee found them a cheap apartment on South Parnell in Bridgeport near Chinatown. “We asked him, ‘How difficult is it to make a living in America?'” says Shan Zuo. “He said, ‘For you, it will be easy.’ We did not ask him why or how, but he gave us some kind of confidence.”

They lived on very little, spending only $50 to $70 a month for food. The apartment was small and dark, but, says Da Huang, “it’s not necessary that artists’ living conditions be good to create good work. Many paintings that today we think are important pieces were done at that time.” Dream of Chicago, a four-panel piece inspired by their hopes for the future, now in the lobby of the Mid-Continental Plaza, at 55 E. Monroe, was so large they couldn’t connect the panels in the apartment. The rooms were also too small for building large stretchers, so they made them in a school yard across the street.

That May, at their third show at East West, more than half the pieces sold, mostly to Chicago-area collectors. “We think it’s funny and interesting that in art, especially in America, you could have no money and be living in poor conditions, and one day something happens and suddenly we had enough money for one year,” Shan Zuo says. “We gave a big dinner in a Chinatown restaurant for maybe 50 people, and soon we had enough money to buy a building.”

The building was on Morgan, also in Bridgeport, and it had a large unheated garage that they could use for a studio. “We usually put the brushes in water so they wouldn’t dry out, and I remember that in the wintertime it was so cold that the water froze,” Shan Zuo says. “But we did a lot of painting there, had a lot of energy and ideas.”

They didn’t know much about the neighborhood then, except that it was cheaper than other parts of Chicago. In 1990 they bought a 20,000-square-foot building across the street, a former Polish social club they renovated into apartments for themselves, two large studios, a gallery area where they could hang their work, and a wine cellar. They also carved some of their signature shapes into the wooden front doors. Later they would buy a vacant lot down the street and turn it into a private sculpture garden.

The brothers’ first European show was at Walter Bischoff’s gallery in Stuttgart in 1992. Bischoff, who’d had a gallery in Chicago until 1989, had seen their work during a visit to their studio. The show, says Shan Zuo, sold “not too badly,” though it didn’t sell out. In 1993 they switched to Wolfhard Viertel as their main dealer in Europe, and the sculpture editions at his first show of their work in Frankfurt came close to selling out. A year later a traveling exhibition that began at the Kunsthalle Darmstadt–their first European museum show–got them a lot more attention. They and several workers built a brick wall, on which the brothers did a large painting in an hour and a half. Viertel and the Kunsthalle later sold the wall to the company that had produced the bricks, which installed it in front of one of its buildings. Viertel also arranged to donate other sculptures for public display because he understood that doing so would make the brothers better known.

By 1994 Viertel was generating a lot of interest in their work in Europe, and the Zhous were spending about half of their time there, in rented apartments or in spaces provided by dealers in various cities. Viertel and several museum directors suggested that they move to Europe because Europeans were clearly more interested in their work, and in 1996 they bought a building in Frankfurt. Asked why they kept their home here, Shan Zuo says, “Chicago is more quiet. When we’re working we don’t need the excitement. In the 1940s and 1960s, for most people New York was the art center. Then artists needed the cultural environment. But today information is everywhere. We can travel very quickly. You can live in a village, live by the ocean–it doesn’t matter at all.”

By the mid-90s the brothers were being represented by the Oskar Friedl Gallery in Chicago, but when it closed suddenly in 1996 (it has since reopened) they were without a gallery here for two years, until Friedl helped place them with Perimeter. In the U.S. they would typically have one solo exhibition per year or none, though some of those shows were in New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. In Europe they were being given four or five shows a year. In 1995 Viertel took a huge booth–200 square meters–at the Frankfurt art fair and showed only their paintings, sculptures, and woodcuts. One visitor who liked their work was Eu Nim Ro, the director of the International Academy of Art and Design in Hamburg. Viertel knew her, and they arranged to have the Zhous teach at the academy the next summer. Aware that teaching would help build the brothers’ reputation, Viertel then took a video of one of their performances to the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg in 1997, and the director agreed to hire them starting the next year. Through his contacts with a gallery in Switzerland, Viertel also helped arrange for their appearance at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. Viertel doesn’t see all this as gimmickry, merely as the kind of things any skilled gallerist would do.

Most artworks are the product of a dialogue between an artist and his materials, but the Zhou brothers’ art is the product of a three-way conversation among “me, my brother, and the canvas,” says Shan Zuo. The brothers often work quickly. The painting they created in Davos was 12 meters wide, and they finished it in 45 minutes. Sometimes they’re working on as many as 30 paintings at once, at other times only one or two. Yet some paintings sit around for years before they finish them to their satisfaction.

Arguing with each other either verbally or on canvas is an essential part of their process. “You need to express yourself, but you also have to destroy your painting in order to make it better,” says Da Huang. “Artists normally don’t have enough courage to do this. Sometimes he destroys my part, or I destroy what he did.” Shan Zuo says, “Destruction is not always necessary in every work, but it’s easier for me to criticize and destroy what my brother did than for him.” It’s a perspective that differs greatly from that of the stereotypical ego-driven Western artist, and in some paintings, places where details have been rubbed out or paint has been scraped away are clearly visible, making destruction one of their themes.

Of course their collaboration involves addition as well as subtraction. In Open My Door #57 Da Huang made a simple red line on the right, then Shan Zuo added to it, “making it more busy,” says Da Huang. “I was happy because I thought he improved it.”

Their work continues to be subtly shaped by a wide range of influences–even advertising signs and daily life. Da Huang says, “We had dinner with a museum director, and he said, ‘You know, the artist’s life is so different. They go to bars, to a party, but they’re not playing–they’re working.’ I agree with this.” He adds, “A lot of our work actually reflects our personal lives, but you cannot tell.” (The brothers will say very little about their personal lives, only that they’re both separated from their wives and that each has a child.)

The 16 works now at Perimeter Gallery include pieces from three new series, and almost all are diptychs, with painting on lead or lead and wood on one side and delicate abstractions on silk on the other. The inspiration came when Da Huang opened one of the doors to their home on a snowy morning and had an intense impression of the two rectangles of space–one side very white, the other very dark. “Snow doesn’t just mean snow,” says Shan Zuo, “but that the world is so mysterious and so dreamy.” Da Huang says this isn’t a full explanation of the work, though it’s “the easiest way to explain the idea to people.”

The choice of silk was deliberate. “In China they have a history using silk as a medium for painting,” says Da Huang. “We have seen silk paintings from as early as the Han dynasty.” Silk, he says, is “delicate, very sensitive–like the movement of air.” Lead is “very heavy and very cold.” Putting the two together “can bring a new life to each.” Many of the paintings also include rounded metal shapes. “The circle is like life,” says Shan Zuo. “You always repeat and repeat.” Some of the silk panels include free-flowing lines, and Da Huang says they learned from their study of calligraphy that “the movement of the line is movement of your emotion and spirit.” Shan Zuo adds, “Philosophy is even more important than technique.”

The influence of Chinese art and culture remains strong in their work, which may be one reason some Americans who know little about China are less than enthusiastic about it. The brothers say their heritage has given them strength, has helped them understand cultural differences, and has helped them make their art a reflection of Chinese philosophy, in that it’s a balance of matter and emptiness. They’re also quick to point out that Chinese philosophy taught them that training isn’t necessarily everything.

“In Eastern culture they talk about how art actually cannot be learned,” says Shan Zuo. “There’s a wonderful old story of a very famous musician who plays a many-stringed instrument. Because he is the number one musician in that kind of instrument, nobody can teach him anymore except for one old master. The master has a boy who serves tea, and the boy says that tomorrow at five in the morning maybe you can see him, because often in the morning he shows up in the mountains. So the musician brings his instrument, and at four he already starts waiting. Sunrise, the wind blows in the trees, the sun sets, and the master never shows up. Three months later the musician’s in the mountains every morning from sunrise to sunset, looking at the clouds, hearing the song of the wind in the trees, but he never sees the old master. After a year the musician sits on a rock and thinks of the whole year. Now the wind is blowing, the trees make like music, and then he looks at the clouds, the sky, the stars, and he suddenly realizes he already met the master.”

Some of the anonymous critics of the Zhou brothers explain their success using art-world conspiracy theories–it’s all about hype, they say. But people who admire the Zhous’ work say hype had nothing to do with what attracted them. Their first show in Chicago got a positive review in the Sun-Times from Margaret Hawkins, who called their work “an intriguing blend of old and new.” She says that, best as she can recall, she reviewed the show because it stood out among the exhibits she saw that week, not because anyone approached her. She remembers that someone did approach her about reviewing a later exhibit “and I chose not to.” The brothers’ first sale, at their second show, was to someone who simply liked the work and bought it. For 15 years they had no idea who the person was, until the buyer recognized Shan Zuo by chance in a restaurant.

The success of their third show here may have been partly because of a purchase by Richard Cooper, a top Chicago-area collector. He says, “I can’t be sold art,” and he too remembers buying his piece simply because he liked it. The Zhou brothers happened to be in the gallery when he came in, and Da Huang remembers that he “looked at the paintings and went straight to one, a five-panel painting called Wind Wisdom. He said to me, ‘Are you the artist? What do you think about this piece?’ I said, ‘It’s my favorite.’ And he said, ‘Probably every one is your favorite.’ Then he asked the gallery to use the phone and called his secretary to make the purchase. I didn’t know he was an important collector.”

Cooper, who was disappointed when I told him he wasn’t their very first purchaser–“I try to be first. That’s part of the fun”–says, “The Zhou brothers struck a chord with me. They weren’t doing the political art that usually comes out of a repressive society as it starts to mature. They seemed to soar with a spirituality that combined Eastern and Western feeling, an abstraction that seemed soothing but meaningful, that seemed to bridge both cultures.” He shared his enthusiasm for their art with other collectors, which may have helped generate more sales.

Bischoff says that when he first saw their work, “I was sure that it was good, and I wanted to make an exhibition too.” Viertel says at first he liked their work but wasn’t sure how much. Yet he decided to represent them after only two two-week visits to Chicago, during which he stayed with them. Seeing more of their work convinced him it was good, but he didn’t know if he could make it a success. He did take note that they were willing to paint together in public performance, which he thought might help dispel some of the questions that accrue around artist-collaborators–such as who does what–and attract the attention of the European press, which it did. He says he now knows of about 200 collectors of their work in Germany, including about 5 who own 15 to 25 pieces.

Asked why the Zhous’ reputation in Europe is better than in the U.S., Viertel says he can’t say for sure, but he points out that artists often attain recognition first outside their own country. He also says that some of the collectors who are enthusiastic about the Zhous’ work see a resemblance to European artists such as Antoni Tapies, whose paintings often have rough, three-dimensional surfaces, or Emil Schumacher, who mixes abstraction with suggestions of figuration. But Viertel says the brothers have European detractors who find them too commercial, apparently including the members of the selection committee at Art Cologne, a fair with a much higher reputation than Frankfurt’s. When he proposed showing their work there, the committee told him he couldn’t. He took them to court and won.

Curator Dorit Marhenke says she decided to give the Zhous their first museum show in Europe based on her own enthusiasm for their art. She adds that the notion that their success in Germany has something to do with that country’s long tradition of expressionism is simply wrong. “They are very special in their mixing of figure with abstract painting and don’t remind me of expressionists at all.”

The two-page spread the Tribune gave the brothers earlier this year–an impressive layout with color photos–no doubt inspired some disgruntled speculation about a well-oiled publicity machine. But the story’s author, Achy Obejas, says she was writing about a poet who lives in Wisconsin and visited him when he was staying with friends in Chicago. Those friends turned out to be the Zhou brothers, and she proposed a story to her editors, who hadn’t heard of them.

None of this is to say that the Zhou brothers don’t understand how the art market works. They clearly knew years ago that the complexity and delicacy of some of the work they made in China, based on traditional ideas about “air and harmony,” might not be understood by Western viewers and that Westerners were more likely to appreciate, as Da Huang says, “something like Franz Kline–clear, direct, and bold.” Living here they’ve seen more and more Western art, and their work, they acknowledge, has gradually become less cluttered and clearer. In China, Da Huang explains, the attitude is that to become a great artist you have to know music and literature, but he doesn’t think Westerners believe that. “Many Western artists do not really know about art,” he says. “But they have one advantage–they totally forget everything and develop one idea very directly. They only say, ‘I want to do something just like that,’ and become very good.” Shan Zuo adds, “We tried to teach ourselves to forget about many things we knew before, forget about everything–that’s good. We learned that from Western artists, and we like it. Also we kept something from the East–some thinking, the feeling.”

The brothers also clearly understand the value of being, as their friend Li Lin Lee describes them, “go out and get ’em types.” They host groups of collectors every year or so, and they graciously offer to pay for meals. Yet Da Huang says they also understand that “trying to promote yourself, it’s not the best way.” When they toured Europe in 1990, visiting five or six countries partly to explore the contemporary art market, they didn’t approach any galleries, because they knew that success was more likely if a gallery contacted them. “Self-promotion can make it even worse,” Shan Zuo says. “It’s like wanting a lover who doesn’t want you.”

Ultimately, the reasons one artist becomes successful while another equally talented, equally deserving artist doesn’t are a mystery. And the Zhous understand that too. “In many ways we are lucky,” says Shan Zuo. “We don’t really know what happened.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.