Arts & Culture

When it comes to the art world, Peter Max still takes it to the max

Peter Max, who will be at The Mahler Fine Art in Raleigh later this month for the exhibition “Peter Max – A Retrospective, 1960-2014,” still churns out new pieces on a daily basis.
Peter Max, who will be at The Mahler Fine Art in Raleigh later this month for the exhibition “Peter Max – A Retrospective, 1960-2014,” still churns out new pieces on a daily basis. PETER MAX STUDIOS

Get Peter Max on the phone, and it’s like conversing with a rainbow come to life. Austin Powers has got nothing on Max, maybe the definitive psychedelic-era pop artist – because life is beautiful and flower-powered, and everything’s groovy, baby.

“I just turned 77 years old, but I feel like a 45-year-old,” Max said in a recent phone interview, calling from Manhattan. “That’s the energy I’ve got, because being an artist and drawing and being creative keeps you young. When I wake up, I can’t wait to get to the studio, go into the paint room. I have a full-time deejay who puts music on to help, and I can go three hours, eight hours, 10 hours. It’s still a lot of fun, and it just continues.”

Max, who will be at The Mahler Fine Art in Raleigh later this month for the exhibition “Peter Max – A Retrospective, 1960-2014,” still churns out new pieces on a daily basis (including the illustration above for The News & Observer). By now, he’s pretty much been there and done that. And he didn’t just get the T-shirt – he designed, mass-produced and sold a Day-Glo version of it.

Max has done artwork for everything from TV commercials to jet airliners, plus multiple Super Bowls, the World Cup, World Series, Grammy Awards and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s done portraits of seemingly every famous saint, sinner and cultural figure of the past half-century, everyone from U.S. presidents to basketball star Dennis Rodman, Jimi Hendrix to Taylor Swift.

He calls pretty much all his subjects friends, too.

“I’m best friends with Bill Clinton and also Reagan, the Bushes, every one of them,” he said. “I’ve done 44 portraits of Obama, because he’s the 44th president. They were all great, especially Clinton, who is such a cool guy – just a wonderful, wonderful person. Reagan, too, they’re all very charismatic people.”

Planets and stars

A year after Peter Max Finkelstein was born in Germany in 1937, his family fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. The Finkelsteins spent a decade there and also time in Israel and Paris before arriving in New York in the 1950s. The teenage Finkelstein shortened his name to Peter Max and began training at New York’s Art Students League.

Early on, Max was a realist painter. But a budding interest in astronomy – filtered through the budding psychedelic ethos of the 1960s – began to manifest itself in his works.

Five decades later, heavenly bodies remain one of his recurring trademark images (along with flowers and birds), all rendered in bright pastel shades.

“My biggest love is still planets and stars,” Max said. “If I hadn’t become an artist, I’d be an astronomer because I still love it so much. I met Carl Sagan quite a few times, a fantastic and amazing person, I love him. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a good friend, too. I’m very fortunate to have gotten to know so many amazing people.”

By the time the 1960s were turning into the ’70s, Max was about the biggest thing going in the world of pop art and beyond. Raleigh artist Paul Friedrich, best-known nowadays for the “Onion Head Monster” and “Man v. Liver” series, remembers seeing a Peter Max-designed billboard for 7UP soda at the corner of Oberlin and Fairview streets when he was growing up.

“Those 7UP signs and billboards were a huge influence when I first started drawing and painting,” Friedrich said. “I didn’t know who Peter Max was at first, but the outlines, colors, movement and action in his designs definitely found their way into my style. When his representatives came through here to check out The Mahler for him, they saw some of my spaghetti-western paintings on the wall there and said he’d enjoy it. That was a huge compliment.”

Commercial success

Max’s style became so ubiquitous that he’s often credited with something he didn’t actually do: “Yellow Submarine,” the Beatles-inspired animated 1968 film. Although it certainly looks like something Max would have done, “Yellow Submarine” was the work of another German artist, Heinz Edelmann.

But if Max didn’t do “Yellow Submarine,” he’s put his signature style on just about everything else imaginable over the years. A few weeks after the Woodstock festival in 1969, Life magazine had Max on its cover with the teaser “Portrait of the Artist as a Very Rich Man.”

That commercial success hasn’t earned Max much respect from critics or academics. Asked about Max, Nasher Museum curator of modern and contemporary art Marshall Price could only manage, “The public loves him, and I can’t knock that.”

Fans all over the world

A lot of younger artists love him, too, of course.

“Peter Max was one of the first artists to turn his talent into a commercial success and become a huge celebrity, like LeRoy Neiman or (Andy) Warhol,” said Scott Nurkin, drummer for the band Birds of Avalon and a noted Triangle mural artist.

“Which, as an artist, seems like a dream or a total nightmare.”

Max himself would call it a dream and shrug off the naysayers. One of his biggest projects in recent years was a mural of a psychedelic New York City skyline that decorates the 1,063-foot-long hull of the Norwegian Cruise Liner Breakaway.

“They sent me a smaller model of the boat that was maybe 15 feet long,” Max said.

“I made a copy on paper, came up with the right idea and painted it on the little boat. The big boat was in Holland; I flew over there and they had maybe 800 people working on it, 400 per side, exactly copying my design a million times the size of the original into a gigantic masterpiece.”

If no one will be bringing a boat to Max’s appearance at The Mahler for him to sign, they’ll bring just about everything else.

“All over the world, I have fans,” Max enthused. “I go to a gallery or museum and hundreds of people show up, every one of them with Peter Max memorabilia in hand that they want signed. I’m grateful my life turned out to be so interesting.”