An American Icon
May 09, 2012 02:18PM ● Published by tina
Acclaimed artist Peter Max discusses painting, music and life
by Rhonda Ross
Photos courtesy of Peter Max Studios
The 60s marked a time in history when a new generation was being shaped by rapid changes in the world around them. Cultural and political revolutions took place that are still indelibly etched in our memories today, from the Cuban missile crisis to the assassination of JFK, from Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech to the passage of the Civil Rights Act a year later. The United States sent troops to Vietnam, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, The Beatles took the world by storm on the Ed Sullivan Show, and nearly 500,000 people gathered at Woodstock for a three-day music festival where they saw a 600 foot stage painted by an artist destined to become an American icon, Peter Max.
For Peter Max, the artistic revolution that began in the Age of Aquarius has never stopped, it’s only gained momentum. The New York city based artist rose to prominence in the 60s with his signature style employing shockingly bold, vibrant colors depicting the themes of the time. His unique symbolism and vibrant color palette have continued to inspire new generations throughout the decades. Peter Max has created a body of work that has brought him accolades like “America’s Painter Laureate,” and “America’s Pop Artist.” Beginning May 25 and running through June 3 the Wisby-Smith Fine Art gallery located in the heart of Dallas at The Crescent welcomes all Peter Max enthusiasts to an extraordinary exhibit of the impressive works by an art legend.
An icon in his own right, Peter Max has captured the brightest musical legends throughout the decades from Jimi Hendrix to Steven Tyler to his newest rendition of Taylor Swift. He has been an official artist of the 2006 U.S. Olympics, 5 Super Bowls, The Grammys, The World Series, the Indy 500, the NYC Marathon and many more of the country’s greatest events.
From rock stars to Presidents, being painted by Peter Max is an honor sought by many. The artist has painted six U.S. Presidents, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama and his paintings hang on display in Presidential libraries and U.S. embassies alike. Symbolically Max created 44 paintings of our current president for a museum installation (Obama is our 44th President) and even did a few extras for his most enthusiastic collectors.
A Childhood Odyssey in Art
“I was born in Germany and my family moved to Shanghai when I was young to get away from the Nazis,” he said as he recalled his nomadic childhood. “I remember boarding a ship for Shanghai and it was my home until I was about 10 or 11.” As a young boy, his mother, Salla, encouraged his artistic abilities by placing art supplies on the balconies of their pagoda house where he was free to create in various artistic mediums. “Even though there were a lot of Europeans there in Shanghai, it was still China,” said Max. As full of vibrant color and magic as his paintings would one day illustrate Shanghai nurtured the imagination of Max as he absorbed the world around him.
Peter is looking forward to an upcoming exhibit back in his adopted homeland, saying, “All of China claims me as a son, they knew I grew up there. In about two months I’m attending an exhibit there and they are calling it a “Welcome Home” exhibit.”
From Shanghai to Israel to Paris, Peter’s parents continued to encourage their son’s creative talents. While in Israel, he studied beside an Austrian expressionist and in Paris he was enrolled in art classes at the Louvre. But it was in the Big Apple that Peter began his formal study under the guidance of Frank Reilly at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Today, as an adult, New York is still the city that Peter Max calls home.
With the ease of a gifted storyteller, Max told us about his very first friend in New York, “I was 16 years old sitting in the gym at Lafayette High wearing a pair of high-top sneakers that my Aunt bought for me.” He continued the tale, “I didn’t know one human being . Then this guy to my left starts singing a huge, loud aria. That guy was Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), and we’ve been friends for years.” New York City has always been a fertile ground for would-be actors, musicians and artists who would go on to take the city by storm. Growing up in the creative atmosphere that is Manhattan, Peter was able to focus on his art while becoming the quintessential New Yorker.
Age of Aquarius
Right about the time The Beatles were taking to the stage on the Ed Sullivan Show bringing about a musical revolution Peter Max was creating his own revolution on the art scene. “You know,” Peter recalled, “I came along the same time as the Beatles. I made my TV debut on the Ed Sullivan show too. Suddenly, I sort of became to art what they were to music.” The bold, creative style of Max captured the spirit of the decade rocketing him to the top of the art world and putting his name on the lips of journalists and critics alike who often described the painter as the visual counterpoint to the music of The Beatles.
In the first year of his career, Max won 35 awards, had a full page feature in Life magazine, then a few months later, 3 additional pages in Life. Then one day in ’69 Peter got a call to come for lunch with the Chief Publisher of the magazine. “I was psyched. We were sitting there having lunch and a bell rings. All these people come in carrying stacks of magazines and there I am, on the cover with an 8 page feature story.”
A childhood fascination with astronomy led Max to study space as well as art and astronomic elements often still appear in his work today. Max’s art of the late sixties is suitably termed “The Cosmic 60s” and his iconic “Cosmic Runner” is still instantly recognizable as his work to art lovers and collectors worldwide. The world was constantly changing and with the advancements being made in the printing industry using four-color presses Peter saw a way to create his art in a new venue and share it with a wider audience. In a short nine month period several million Peter Max posters went up in college dorm rooms across the country.
Through the Years
The wide scope of variety in the work of Peter Max has kept him busy for the last fifty years. Since first creating a painting of Lady Liberty for the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in 1976 he has continued to paint the iconic figure annually. Verizon even used a collage of Max’s Statute of Liberty painting to grace the cover of more than 145 million phonebooks.
Painting outside the box has always been a trademark facet of the art of Peter Max. Since he first painted the stage for Woodstock he has continued to turn the most incongruous objects into works of art. Max’s has painted a Boeing 777 Continental jumbo jet, a giant mural for the 2002 Olympics, and even a Baldwin grand piano for Ringo Starr, The Beatles heralded drummer. Max told us the piano story with a laugh, “I’ve known Ringo and Paul McCartney, for years, we’ve been friends for a very long time. I painted this grand piano for Ringo a few years ago and he loved it. Baldwin piano actually heard about it after and they sent me another one as a gift! Ringo came by after that and joked that he liked mine better than his. He actually got a jar of paint, lifted the keyboard cover and signed it. You know those stars you learn to make as a kid, shoop, shoop, five lines and you’re done? He painted one of those and then signed it Love, Ringo.” Laughing, Max continued “Everybody who sees it thinks it’s his piano! Then, a few short months ago, Ringo Starr called Max to say that he wanted to donate the Max piano for a charity auction. I thought it was a great idea,” Max said. The brightly painted Baldwin brought more than $175,000 at the 2012 Grammy dinner honoring McCartney.
The latest achievement for Peter Max in creating something extraordinary out of an ordinary object begins soon with his painting of the new cruise ship “Breakaway” about to be launched by Norwegian Cruise Lines. The recently completed 1,062 foot long vessel that will sail with a crew of more than 1,500 people and 4,000 passengers is on its way to a berth in New York City. “This really appeals to the little ten year old in me,” Max told us. “It’s beyond belief that I’m doing this cruise ship. I’ll be painting two-thirds down each side of the hull. The Breakaway will be parked in New York City so I can go down anytime and look at my ship,” he laughed.
Kaleidoscope of Color
Known for his ardent use of energetic, dynamic colors Max employs more colors in his palette than Crayola ever dreamed of. While chatting with Peter we mentioned a quote of his, “Color is visual music,” and we inquired why color was such an integral part of his work and if there was one color he just couldn’t live without. He replied enthusiastically, “I love ALL the colors. You know, there are the three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow. And of course, you’ve got black and white. But, it’s like Baskin-Robbins only instead of 31 colors you can get a million colors. Mix yellow and red, get orange, and throw in a little white, light orange. It’s just unbelievable to me how 5 colors can make literally trillions of colors! It’s like music notes. What are there, 7? But what you can do with those notes!”
Musical notes are an integral part of the creation process for Max who listens to all genres while he is painting. Arriving at his enormous studio space near Lincoln Centre around mid-morning, Peter will often paint late into the evening, five, sometimes seven, days a week. Never far from his side is his longtime employee, Joe Deronzio, who has been choosing the tunes for over eleven years. “Joe is a photographer and a drummer and just has a tremendous taste for music. He often does photography for me, but mostly when I paint he’s playing music. I love all kinds of music, fusion jazz, regular jazz with guys like Chick Correa, rock and roll, we play it all. When I’m painting, he’s there,” the artist proclaimed.
Also with Max at the 20,000 to 25,000 square foot studio is an entire cast of players from archivists to screen printers to those who keep him prepped to continue his prolific work that fills galleries and museums worldwide. In an interview with Robin Leach (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host), Max commented that he stays creative all day long moving from room to room within the studio as his muse takes him. He has rooms to paint in, rooms he works on lithographs in, and it takes a host of archivists to keep up with the diversity of all the artwork that pours from the mind and the hands of the artist.
Meeting his Muse
It takes a muse of tremendous proportion to keep up with the dynamic artist and he shared with us the story of how he met his muse, his wife Mary. Leaving his studio for lunch one day, he noticed two women greeting one another on the sidewalk in front of the café he was headed for. He knew her instantly, he’d been doodling her profile for years. He turned to his companion and declared, “I’m going to marry her.” Rushing back to his studio he grabbed a drawing and returned offering the sketch to the stranger along with his comment that he had been drawing her for years. The artist laughed saying, “She was unimpressed. I gave her my number and waited for her to call.” Before long, she did just that and they’ve been sharing their lives for more than fifteen years.
A bit in awe at the prospect of talking with a true legend it was amazing how accessible and congenial Peter Max is. We chatted for nearly an hour like old friends catching up on life. A consummate storyteller, Peter quite obviously has the same enthusiasm and love for his work now as he did fifty years ago and he shares that feeling with gusto. Caught in the spell of the force of nature that is Peter Max it’s quite easy to see why he is America’s most popular living artist and quite difficult to wait until the opening of his exhibit.
Max’s Wisby-Smith gallery exhibit previews on May 25 and continues through June 3 and we’ll be there for what promises to be a premiere event that people will visit more than once to view, and acquire, the incomparable art with its timeless nature and universal appeal from the mind of legendary Peter Max. The Wisby-Smith is located inside the Crescent, 500 Crescent Court, Suite 156, Dallas, TX 75201