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Taking art to the Max

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

With candy-coated colors, imagery taken from outer space and the inner mind, and an artistic sense inspired by acid rock, Peter Max created the look of the 1960s. And perhaps Max’s creations were fueled by acid itself: His psychedelic style, featured on posters and magazine covers, in paintings and ad campaigns, was the visual equivalent of the Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow,” and Dr. Timothy Leary’s edict to “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”

It was a long way from the realist painter that Max expected to be. While a student at the Art Students League in New York, Max’s idol was John Singer Sargent, the American painter known best for his realistic portraits, and often criticized for his lack of imagination and failure to embrace any modernist movements. Max was such a fan that he once took an hours-long train ride to Boston to see a single Sargent work, “Madame X.”

“The teacher I studied with for six years, Frank Reilly, was a realist, and all I did was paint and draw models leaning on poles,” said the 65-year-old Max, who will be in attendance Thursday and Friday, Aug. 21-22, from 6-9 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 23, from 4-7 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 24, from noon to 3 p.m., for a show of his works at Aspen Grove Fine Art. “After art school, I carried around my eight paintings I thought were the coolest, that looked like John Singer Sargent.”

Max was technically proficient, but in the dark about what was happening in the art world. Much of that was by the design of his teacher, Reilly, who wouldn’t allow Max to explore the other corners of the Art Students League. “He lost too many students to other things. Half the school were abstract expressionists,” said Max. When Max emerged into the New York gallery scene, in the early ’60s, he found little interest in his realistic work.

“The gallery art scene, everybody said, was dead for realists,” said Max, who was born in Berlin and lived in Shanghai (where his father owned a department store, selling Western clothes to the Chinese), Israel and Paris before his family emigrated to Brooklyn when Peter was 16. “Because pop art was coming along, galleries would say, `We don’t carry realism, we do conceptual stuff.’

“There was a part of me that was very hurt. Nobody in art school told me I was doing something that was completely passe. I went to all the hippest art directors for interviews, and I realized that everything was cool but realism.”

After finding a minimal amount of work as a realist – mostly making portraits of aunts and uncles – Max decided to get in step with the times. The abrupt switch of gears wasn’t easy at first.

“I didn’t understand it at all. The intellectual part of modern art was over my head,” said Max. “My teacher forbade us to go there.”

Max took tentative steps at first, making collages that were a mix of realism and abstraction. Gradually, he began to tap into the astronomy he had loved as a child. He absorbed the influence of music – the jazz he had always loved, and even more so the emerging rock sounds of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the like. He drew on graphic arts and typography. And as far as colors, Max freed his mind, and his brushes followed.

“I let my own fantasy go,” said Max. “Somehow a new art style formed that was apropos with the time.”

Paint, posters and pop art

Apropos with the time is the mildest way to put it. By 1964, Max’s art was a sensation, a step behind the music of the Beatles and Dylan as an emblem of the changing times. Max was featured in countless articles and won, by his estimate, “an award a week.”

“Because I was wacky,” he said. “Because the realism held me back, and when I let go, I exploded. I went wild. Every time I got a story in the press, I was guilty. I was happy on one side, but guilty for my art school buddies.”

If the success caused guilt, Max had plenty to feel guilty about. Whatever he touched came up gold. A friend asked Max to design his new restaurant in midtown Manhattan, and Max’s design, featuring a car in the middle of the floor, won an award. But Max wasn’t finished.

“I said a restaurant is never a restaurant until it has a poster,” he recounted. “I said look at Moulin Rouge – no one would have heard of it if not for Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. I said there’s a poster revolution coming our way, the size of six locomotives, coming high-speed.”

Max himself was five of those trains. After the restaurant poster, he created several more. When told by his printer he had sold some 7 million posters in a span of nine months between 1966-67, Max was fully convinced of the merits of his work.

“It was satisfying. I was worth something,” he said. “I thought those first few awards were just beginner’s luck.

“I’m this kid from China, living here, suddenly selling 7 million posters. It was a number I couldn’t conceive. If I had sold 150 posters, I would have called my mother.”

By the late ’60s, Max had a career that he literally could not have imagined a few years earlier; it was the kind of career that hardly existed for a visual artist. General Electric approached him about designing watches; soon enough Max’s signature colors and shapes were on hundreds of thousands of timepieces, as well as dozens of other commercial products. He appeared on television talk shows. He rode around Manhattan in a self-designed Rolls Royce.

Max balanced his commercial success with a spiritual quest. One night in 1966, he made a 5-by-5-foot collage: “Galaxies, nebulas, planets and stars and reptiles. To find out what life is all about,” he said. “And it didn’t give me any enlightenment.”

But that night, Max got a call, summoning him to Paris to work on a film project. In Paris he met Swami Satchidananda, who fascinated Max. Max brought the swami to New York, which led to the founding of the Integral Yoga Institute. It also led to Max’s work taking on a distinctly feel-good vibe.

“Working with the swami brought me to all the hippies,” said Max. “And all these people had better-world ideas. I gravitated toward that. I deemed that to be a cool area to be in.”

Modern-day Max

The ’60s are long gone, both in time and spirit. But Max – unlike say, the Strawberry Alarm Clock – has not been relegated to the status of one-hit wonder.

His connection to the music scene remains strong: Max was the official artist for this year’s Grammy Awards, the sixth time he has held the position. He has painted portraits not only of Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, but of Britney Spears and Norah Jones. For his 600-foot mural for the stage of Woodstock ’99 – possibly the largest mural ever made – Max used images from his late-’60s period.

Max has painted portraits of six presidents and the Dalai Lama. He has documented Super Bowls and the World Series, the Kentucky Derby and the New York City Marathon. He painted a Boeing 777 jet that is in commercial use. And he is deeply involved in charity work, a streak that started with his fluke assignment as head of the group to restore the Statue of Liberty in 1981. Most recently, he created a series of posters in tribute to the firefighters who died in the World Trade Center attacks, with proceeds from the sales going to various funds to benefit the families of the deceased. As Max puts it, “We say yes to 1,200 charities a year,” adding that the causes nearest his heart are animal protection and environmental preservation.

Max remains in the public eye and continues to work on a grand scale. His midtown Manhattan studio, near Lincoln Center, occupies 45,000 square feet on four floors and employs 105 people. But Max swears he gets the most pleasure from, and spends the most time with, just himself and the basic painting tools.

“I’m strictly an artist, draw and paint,” said Max, who has lived in the same building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for more than 30 years. “Ninety percent of my time is in the studio, on a huge floor, filled with paints. And every once in a while I take on the larger-than-life projects. I love for some of these ideas, my paintings and fantasies, to live outside of me.”

And Max doesn’t make apologies for being a celebrity artist. For one thing, he remembers what it was like to have no one interested in his work. For another, he thinks that the idea of the great artist as someone locked away in a room with an easel and brushes is a dated one.

“Matisse, Picasso, Monet – if these guys lived today, they’d be on MTV in some way,” said Max. “They’d be on the network news.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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