Peter Max still living the colorful pop-art vibe he created
LOS ANGELES (AP) — If you haven’t seen one of Peter Max’s paintings or drawings today, chances are you haven’t opened your eyes yet.
Since he charged onto the pop-art stage a half-century ago, the progenitor of psychedelic art has stamped his creative presence on practically everything from the sides of an airliner and the hull of a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship to commemorative U.S. postage stamps and, most lately, an endless string of art galleries.
He shows up at the latter about every weekend to sign paintings for which people pay anywhere from five to six figures. He’ll even throw in a little bonus drawing on the back for someone who takes the time to come up and say hi.
When he’s not doing that, this exuberant, seemingly tireless 77-year-old child of the ’60s keeps busy in his New York studio, cranking out more wildly colorful paintings in a style merging the realism of Norman Rockwell with the pop-art sensibilities of Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.
He says he paints and draws every day, sometimes cranking out his most recognizable works over and over again.
“When I come to work, whether I walk to work or I’m in a car, when I’m about five, six blocks away, the adrenaline starts to kick in, and I say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait. In five minutes, I’ll be at the easel,’” he related during a phone interview from his New York studio.
This weekend, he’ll be in Los Angeles for a combination career retrospective and sale at Gallery 319. Then it’s on to Florida for more shows, then North Carolina, then Pennsylvania.
His constant flooding of the art market with his work and the fact it seems to be ubiquitous — he’s been the official artist for such events as the Super Bowl, World Series, Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500 — has led some high-brow critics to dismiss him as mainly a brand, not an artist.
That’s unfair, says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of “The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City.”
“I think his accessibility and appeal to the general public probably has taken away from his position amongst the art world cognoscenti, but that quality, in and of itself, shouldn’t be the detractor from his position as a serious artist,” Currid-Halkett said. “His art is accessible and can be understood without a PhD in art history, and that is a good thing.”
Very good for someone who never set out to be an artist.
“I always wanted to be an engineer,” Max recalls, chuckling.
Born in Berlin as Peter Max Finkelstein, he was a year old when his family fled Germany ahead of the Holocaust. They settled in Shanghai, where his mother, noting her son’s love of doodling, found him an art teacher.
Ten years later the family began a peripatetic, globe-trotting existence that took them to Tibet, Israel, Paris and finally New York City, where the artist found his second love — celebrity.
He was sitting outside art school one day when Marilyn Monroe happened by, pausing momentarily to compliment his colorful, paint-splattered pants.
“She talked to me! Can you imagine? Marilyn Monroe,” he says, still sounding awed by the encounter.
He would eventually cross paths with about every pop-culture icon of the 1960s and ’70s and represent many in his paintings.
“Ringo Starr still comes to see me every few weeks,” he says. “Paul McCartney’s my buddy. He calls me.”
He met Jimi Hendrix when the two were neighbors in Upstate New York before the latter was famous.
“He said to me, ‘I love to make music.’ I said, ‘Really. What do you do?’ He said, ‘Well, I play a little guitar, and I sing.’”
For a time it looked like Max — who still believes what the world needs more of is love, sweet love — might have locked himself in the ’60s.
Then a few years ago, he began doing wildly colorful paintings of Taylor Swift. Asked what was up with that by The New York Times, the musician explained she’s admired Max’s art since she was a child.