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My Evening With Peter Max: A Rare Visit From Pop Art Royalty

It was a cold night in November and I made plans to go see Peter Max speak at the Jewish Book Fair at JCC, (the Jewish Community Center) in West Bloomfield, MI. I came from an intense art school background and Max came from the long instilled teachings of my background. His name synonymous with The Beatles, Andy Warhol and the 1960’s. Seeing  him up close would be a rarity so I made plans to be there early and get in line. His loud expressionistic colors splashed across pop art posters and canvases around the globe. They screamed with universal messages of love and peace with such a volume that it shattered the senses.

I was surprised that he was still active since I hadn’t heard his name spoken in my art circles in decades. I nearly fell over when I saw his name on a postcard of upcoming events in a local Caribou Coffee house in West Bloomfield, MI. That’s usually where I run into things…. You know, randomly on the street. I made doubly sure that I wasn’t going to miss out on this one and safely tucked the postcard away with my notes.

Now I was standing in line before anybody else. Oddly, I was one of the youngest people in the audience. Surely there must be other people my age that cared about this artistic genius. He created large pop colored jets with his art work painted all over the sides and made International news headlines. Max also created these amazing giant colorful beach balls that rained down during soccer games. Well, at least that’s the way I remembered it. I had seen a video of his work in a retrospective a good ten years earlier but there was never a mention of his current whereabouts. Now, behind the door in front of me I was about to get as close as I could to an artistic icon.

My ticket wasn’t as close to the stage as I had hoped. I was sitting in the second seating section of the theater. That’s okay I told myself at least I am in the same room with the guy. The lights dimmed and Peter Max was introduced and then he quietly walked onto the stage under the lights. There was no introduction music to pump up the crowd and yet the audience went wild. My first thoughts were, “He really looks a lot smaller than I thought he would be…” and my second thoughts were, “Wow, that’s actually Peter Max !!”

SHANGHAI: The Early Years Explained

I am going to do the best I can and tell you how the hour went strictly from memory. Max was born in Berlin, Germany in 1937 but his family moved to avoid the Nazi movement. They moved to Shanghai, China and things were peaceful for the next ten years.  His days as a youth were spent with a nanny who was not much older than he was. She instructed him how to draw freely and become creative. From this early tutoring he developed a very unique hand motion whenever he drew or painted which continues to this day. There is a very fluid sensibility that permeates all of his work.

There was trouble in those days and the family had to leave everything behind and jump on a ship. Mao Tse Tung was marching down to Shanghai and the family had to leave immediately. They were going to move to Haifa, Israel. The father led the family to pack up everything they wanted to take along on the trip in big suitcases. In haste, they had to leave everything they owned behind and race to the dock to board the ship. The captain wasn’t going to let them on the boat and was already packed to full capacity. Max said his father took the captain behind some cargo boxes and was gone for some time. When the two came back they were laughing and getting along nicely. The captain, in the meeting, had agreed to let the family onto the boat so that they could sail off onto safer shores. The trip lasted 48 days and along the way they stopped off in India.

 

INFLUENCES: The Definition Of A Rising Star

Peter Max mentioned that he was influenced by comic books. Max also mentioned candidly that, at one time, had the phone numbers to all four Beatles. As the conversation rolled on there was famous name dropping like Andy Warhol and Lichenstein. He talked through the hour with stories about his licensing deals which I found really impressive. At one time Max had 72 corporations license his art work.  Max had licensed out his artwork to clothing companies and accessories like purses and even shoes. There were posters, coffee mugs and he candidly asked, “How many people out there own a piece of Peter Max?” He had become an American collectible.

He talked about his famous 1969 Life magazine cover that made him an International sensation. He added how incredible it was to walk around through obscure streets across the world and see that magazine cover in people’s shops and newsstands. He had been on countless magazine covers and had been the focus of on air interviews  with, “The Tonight Show” and “Ed Sullivan”. Hearing him talk about these glory days was inspiring and very uplifting. Listening to these stories made me believe that anything was possible.

Max brought one of his studio colleagues with him to have a conversation on stage. The topics rolled from one to another at a moderate pace. I was in no hurry for it to end. I didn’t know how much he was influenced by East Indian spirituality and meditation but now it seems so obvious. There is a strong cosmic vibe that goes along with Max’s work. The posters are littered with stars, sky transitions of dusk and dawn and the figures in the pieces are very heavenly and almost angelic.

He talked about his teachings with Swami Satchidananda. There was an interesting moment when a group of people had come to listen to the Swami talk about meditation back in the 70’s. After the talk they reached into their pockets and came up with the first months rent for a studio inside a building on the lower east side of Manhattan. Today, the whole building is paid for and is the headquarters for a life changing meditation group.


INTERNATIONAL SUPERSTARDOM: A Day In The Life Of A World Class Artist

 Max talked about how his assistants would layout his poster prints for him to sign on a daily basis. He had to come out and autograph them for hours. This was all part of his daily routine. The posters would be shipped off to galleries that would showcase his art. At any given time he mentioned that he had art shows going on around the world simultaneously. These art shows numbered in the hundreds and they never came down they simply rotated around the globe.

The topic came down to new projects and he was quite proud of a music collection that he was building. These songs were being collected on iPods and he was going to do a project based off the music. An iPod can hold a ton of music and he was actually filling them up.

He took questions from the audience and then was shuttled off the stage. I could have listened to him ramble on for another three hours. But sadly, we only got one hour out of him at this occasion. I don’t know where he was off to next but I look forward to hearing him talk again.

 

INTERESTING FACTS:

Contrary to popular belief Peter Max had nothing to do with the Beatles film Yellow Submarine. His artistic style is felt throughout the film but he had nothing to do with the production. The Beatles had little involvement with the project either and in fact it has been noted that the actors who played John, Paul, George, and Ringo sounded absolutely nothing like them!

Peter Max had an active role in the famous 7-UP commercial in the 60’s.

Max stated that if he couldn’t be an artist he would have been an astronomer.

The editors of Art News magazine consider Max an illustrator but not a serious contemporary artist.

Max perfected a two color blend in his poster paintings that made him iconic.

   
 
   
   
   
   
   
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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