In many works by Peter Max, the figures are running, leaping, and especially flying, arms outstretched and reaching for the moon, the sun, and the cosmos. Stars and other heavenly bodies often adorn his creations, and it is no surprise that the legendary artist is fascinated with astronomy.
His passion for the heavens hasn’t diminished. A recent cover for the New York Times’ special summer travel edition has one of Max’s psychedelic flying figures soaring above colorful sailboats, amidst meteors, ringed Saturn and, as always, the stars.
“Do you know how many suns there are, just in our Milky Way?” Max says in a phone interview from his studio in Manhattan. “There are some 350 billion suns, billions of galaxies in the universe, and this has inspired me to paint its vastness. Meanwhile, here we are, with billions of cells in our own bodies. Whoever, however this happened, it’s so amazing.”
A diverse collection of paintings by Max are exhibit and sale now through Sunday, June 6, at the Road Show Company in MarketFair in West Windsor, with two meet-the-artist appearances Saturday and Sunday, June 5 and 6. Among other works of art, the show features Max’s famous “Flag” pieces, new portraits of President Barack Obama, Max’s iconic Statue of Liberty, and “Umbrella Man.”
“It’s a beautiful show,” Max says. “My dealer has exquisite taste and picks the nicest pieces to show. For those who buy a piece, they’ll get a photo with me and an original drawing. Or, I invite people coming as fans to bring my book, ‘The Art of Peter Max,’ and I’ll sign it and make a nice doodle.”
It’s a rare happening in the Princeton area, an opportunity to meet an icon of pop art, whose style is instantly recognizable. For a certain generation — those who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s — Max’s works conjure that time period as easily as hearing a sunny song by the Beatles or the Beach Boys. His bold, joyful, and trippy posters brightened many a dreary dorm room, or even for example, adorning a cereal box (as in the Love edition of Swiss Mixed Cereal), tickled our childhood fancies. He gave visual form to the Age of Aquarius, just as the Beatles, Janis, and Jimi expressed it musically.
However, Max says, he had no idea that his career as an artist would explode nor how embraced he would be by American pop culture. A few years after arriving with his peripatetic family in New York City in the early 1950s he studied with realist painter Frank Reilly at the Art Students League in Manhattan and became deeply immersed in the technical aspects of drawing and painting.
With aspirations to become a realist painter, Max put his usual high energy into studies of composition, anatomy, figure drawing, shadows and light, and perspective, and further tutored himself with visits to New York’s various museums, especially absorbing the genius of Rembrant, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, John Singer Sargent, and Diego Valezquez. “It gave me the gift of observation, the purity of seeing a thing clearly as it was,” Max says.
Taking all that knowledge and skill and making a living from it was daunting, however, and Max admits to his reservations. “I had no clue, in fact I was a little scared about being an artist,” he says. “People were telling me, ‘you won’t be able to make a living.’ I was studying with Frank Reilly, who, 40 years previously, had studied in the same room alongside a fellow student named Norman Rockwell. So I learned how to paint just like Rockwell but at the time, when I got out of school, no one wanted realism.
“What happened was that I had this amazing, fun, personal style, the stars and the doodles and things,” he continues, reflecting that this was what helped launch his career.
Around 1962 Max left the Art Students League in search of a gallery to show his work but it turned out that a happy accident brought him the first opportunity for commercial work. Max had left some of his paintings at a photocopy center, and an art director for a record company happened to see them and commissioned the young artist to do a painting for a record cover for blues pianist Meade Lux Lewis. That album cover won the Annual Society of Illustrators award, and Max suddenly found himself in hot demand as a graphic artist in New York City.
He didn’t rest on his success, however, and saved enough to take a hiatus from commercial work, spending a couple years in creative retreat. At the same time, the 1960s were exploding with a “youthquake,” a colorful renaissance that seemed to mesh perfectly with Max’s whimsical style.
The print industry was also undergoing a revolution with the advent of four-color web presses. Max recognized that this would allow him to transform his original art works into posters, tune into the youth of America, and turn them on with his bold hues and kaleidoscopic patterns-within-patterns.
Such astonishing appeal was recognized by the advertising industry, and soon some of America’s biggest corporations were hiring Max for his design genius. He says he never had any qualms about creating art and design for everyday things. “I always painted and drew, and then the companies came to me,” Max says. “When I did it a long time ago (design for commercial products), I was one of the first, but now everyone is doing it. Even so, I spend 99.9 percent of my time at the easel, on the canvas.”
The story of Max’s youth is just as colorful as his art, and began with his birth in Germany in 1937. His Jewish parents wisely left that country, moving to Shanghai, to a pagoda-style house where Max observed neighboring Buddhist monks practicing Chinese calligraphy on huge sheets of rice paper. His mother, who had been a fashion designer in Berlin, indulged his creativity, and his father, a successful businessman, paid for the paint brushes, inks, scissors, colored paper, and other art supplies.
“I was fortunate,” Max says. “I love Asian art and am so attached to Chinese culture; it’s an ancient country and so sophisticated. Growing up in the middle of Shanghai, I thought everyone was Chinese.”
Max got his first taste of America when he discovered comic books, and, especially, when he fell in love with Hollywood movies. “My friend’s father had a movie theater, and I must have seen hundreds of movies, all the great musicals with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire,” he says. “I was a huge fan of American culture, Hollywood and all the imagination it takes to make films.”
From China, Max’s family moved to Tibet, India, South Africa, Italy, and finally Israel, where he simultaneously studied astronomy and art. Then it was on to Paris, where he began to understand the elements of classical art and realism. Days spent at the Louvre cultivated his love for a variety of painters, particularly Bouguereau, and his parents enrolled their son in art classes at the famed museum.
But it was the family’s move to Brooklyn in 1953 that was, Max says, “mind-boggling.” “Here I was, newly arrived in New York, and my aunt had to buy me a pair of sneakers for high school, which was just about to start. I was in gym class watching some neighborhood guys just being guys, tying the laces of my sneakers, and this guy puts his foot on the bench next to me and lets out this aria. Then he looked at me and said he hoped he hadn’t scared me, and that he was studying opera. He held out his hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Paul Sorvino, where are you from?’ And I said, ‘oh, everywhere.’ So, Paul Sorvino was from the same neighborhood, and we became friends.”
Currently, Max lives in New York City with his wife and muse, Mary, and creates in “the most beautiful studio in the world,” near Lincoln Center. Max has two grown children from his first marriage: a son, Adam, and a daughter, Libra.
Max has never rested on his ’60s success. An avid environmentalist, he created the first “preserve the environment” stamp for the postal service and a series of more than 200 “Welcome to America” murals along the Canadian and Mexican borders. His famed “Statue of Liberty” series began in 1976, inspired by the Bicentennial festivities. Max continues to paint Lady Liberty, often on July 4th. His love for the statue led to his passionate involvement in its renovation.
He has gone on to do portraits of several U.S. presidents, as well as former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Large scale works include the stage for the 1999 Woodstock Music and Peace Festival and a Boeing jumbo jet to commemorate the millennium. His designs have even graced the cover of the New York City phone book (1970, 1973, and 2001). Aside from his commissioned work, Max has also delved into abstraction, producing works that vibrate with color and bold brushstrokes.
Although he has lived all over the world, he says he is still awestruck by the United States. “Now that I’ve lived here most of my life, I feel there is no place on earth that comes close to America as far as creativity. We are the most creative people, and it’s because of our diversity. We don’t all come from one place: in America, the whole planet lives here.”
Meet the Artist Peter Max, Road Show Company, MarketFair, 3535 Route 1, Saturday, June 5, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, June 6, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Appearance in conjunction with exhibit from Max’s extensive collection. Max came to the fore of the art and design world in the 1960s. Artwork is available for acquisition. Also, Sunday, June 6, 1 to 4 p.m. 888-513-8385 or www.petermax.com.