By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
Iconic artist Peter Max will appear at Baywalk in St. Petersburg this weekend.
He talks about being free, successful, and an Average Joe with a full-time DJ.
Peter Max lives in your brain. That isn’t necessarily his choice; he prefers Manhattan. He lives in your brain because, for virtually every living soul in this nation blessed with sight, he has given color to memories. Memories from the 60s and beyond that may otherwise be fading, or even monochromatic, are filled with color because Peter Max put his brush to canvas.
If the Beatles provided the soundtrack for a generation, Peter Max provided the Technicolor. The dawning of the Age of Aquarius would have been much less bright without his cosmic interpretation of the spirit of the culture in the late 60s. He is so entwined with that era that it is impossible to know if he painted the fashions of the day or if the fashions merely imitated his paintings.
Born in Germany and a child of the world, he is unabashedly American. In conversation, he is open and honest. He does not feign an unrealistic depth that the public often expects of artists. He is both a dreamer and a realist, easily switching gears from talking about the infinities of space to giving instructions to his staff on a letter of intent for an upcoming project. He is not arrogant but he knows that he has reached a pinnacle of success that few people can imagine. He is not embarrassed by it.
In some respects, Peter Max can only come from New York. Like him, the city is famous and infinitely prolific. And, like him, it is all about accomplishment and execution.
New York is a city that can be anything to anyone. It is a place where the homeless sleep undisturbed among the arbitrage traders, where 80-year-old ladies with canes hail cabs on Central Park West, where a person can come from nothing to be something but only if they really had something such as talent to begin with. It is the city of Lady Gaga and J.D. Salinger. For Peter Max, New York City must appear as a canvas of substance.
His art sales over the years have rivaled the GDP of Belize. His success and iconic status have placed him above concern over the words of an art critic — or a newspaper feature writer. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. He does care. He likes to talk about his art, or about space and time. He likes to talk about his childhood and his parents and his years growing up in Berlin, China, Tibet, Israel, and France before finally landing in New York. He talks about his passion for saving animals from abuse and for human rights and his lifelong fascination with astronomy. He is among the most open and accessible celebrities in America, yet it is the art and the 60s and the Boeing 777 jet that he painted a few years ago that has garnered attention rather than intimate secrets of his private life. Even there, he is open, having been quoted in an Illinois blog describing his wife Mary as his muse. According to the article, his voice changed from that of a septuagenarian to that of a teenager when speaking of when they first met.
He describes himself as just “an average Joe.” He has captured the spirit of an entire generation and has redefined the world of art. He has painted six presidents, from Ford to Obama, and has designed a U.S. postage stamp. He has been the official artist for events from the Grammy Awards to the Super Bowl and has made millions of dollars in the process. Despite, or, perhaps because of, all of that, it turns out that he really is an average Joe in the most important respects.
“I’m not wowed by it or thinking about it every day,” Max said of his success. “I’m just the average Joe. When a couple of my buddies go out and we get some Chinese or vegan food — I’m a vegetarian — we’re just going out together. It’s not like I’ve got a pad under my arm and I’m going to draw on a piece of paper on the table while all my friends watch, I’m just a regular guy with my buddies. But when it’s time to paint, two things happen: The paints get uncovered, the brushes are there — and I have a full-time DJ that plays music for me.”
OK, so most average Joes don’t have a full-time DJ. But then most average Joes aren’t called America’s Painter Laureate and most aren’t known as cultural icons.
“I don’t own that domain,” he said in reference to being an icon. “I did it, it happened to me. I was surprised. I had no experience in that kind of position ever before. When it came upon me it came slowly and I accepted it; but I tried not to make a big deal out of it egotistically. I study yoga, I want to be a yogi. I want to be free of that. I don’t walk around wearing it on my shoulders.”
On the street or on the phone, he is Peter Max: the man who once saved a determined and spirited cow from the slaughterhouse, the man with a calming voice and an easy, warm and friendly manner. But in the studio, he becomes Peter Max: the artist. There is a distinct difference between the two sides of this man. For him becoming the artist doesn’t mean he becomes an elitist or one of the beau monde lording over the Average Joe. It is simply as if the man walks from one universe into the next. It is extraordinary.
“When I look at my paintings, and where I’m sitting right now I’m looking at 15 or 20 canvases, and each one is completely different,” he said. “I hardly know when I did them. I hardly remember doing them. But I remember really well the brush strokes and I know the shapes. I am living in my artistic world. I am living in a world in which everything is possible creatively and the paint, canvas, brushes, subject matter, shapes, colors, compositions, directions, atmospheres, feelings…”
And then he walks into the next universe, just another one of millions of universes.
Max has the unique ability to transcend scale in a manner almost beyond comprehension. In addition to painting a Continental Airlines 777 jet, he created the stage for the Woodstock 99 concert — it was nearly 700 feet across. To create the stage, he worked from a canvas that was only eight feet wide. An object painted on that canvas as small as his little finger would be zoomed to more than 12 feet tall in the final product.
“So I played around with a hundred drawings and then I walked away and looked at them from a distance and then I started visualizing how would this thing look if it were two city blocks long,” he said.
And then he enters yet another universe.
“For me, it’s a wonderful time when I paint. It is timeless. I don’t know if I’m in the 21st century or the 19th century or the 23rd century when I’m painting. I’m in the middle of this atmospheric thing with color, canvas, paints, backgrounds, foregrounds, subjects — and I love them. And when I’m in love with it, then I know it is time to stop. It’s just the right amount of paint, the right amount of color and brushstrokes — let it be.”
Talking with Peter Max is like talking with the Beatles. And yet it isn’t. On the phone, in person, he is an average Joe, a guy you are happy to talk to, a person who, when he stops mid-sentence, inspires you to say, “What happened next?” When he goes into the studio he enters another universe — a happy and free man painting to the sound of music, speaking his words of wisdom through his art. Let it be.
“Here’s the thing, when I just paint for the sake of painting, like on a white canvas, and I approach it with an empty mind, that’s when I’m at my most creative. Stuff comes out that surprises me. I can change it. But when I’m painting Obama, I have to have a certain amount of discipline saying, ‘Look, I’m painting Obama or I’m painting McCartney.’ I take certain liberties with that but just enough so that it doesn’t make it crazy. I once did 65 Mona Lisas. Of course Mona Lisa stayed Mona Lisa, but how I underpainted and overpainted, and what came around her were of my own inventions. Otherwise, they would just be 65 identical paintings. Each one was completely unique and different but yet each one was the Mona Lisa.”
Success has given him freedom, a valuable commodity that he does not squander. He continues to be highly prolific; now producing what comes from his soul. He doesn’t have to make art, he chooses to. He is following the path of his heart, he doesn’t need the path of convenience.
“I allow myself to just be who I want to be at that moment,” he said. “With every single painting that I do, I allow myself to just be totally free and let what wants to happen, happen. If I suddenly feel some color that needs to be in a corner, I pick up a brush and put it there. I’m being completely free, I paint what I want to paint. I’ve seen people who are writers and they sit down at a computer to write. I say, ‘What are you doing?’ They say, ‘I just feel like writing, I don’t even know what I’m going to write.’
“It is this way with my paintings,” he continued. “I have a canvas, it’s white, I have a brush in my hand, I look at my colors and I reach over and whatever color I feel like having at that second, I dip my brush into it and then I feel where should that paint go? I just feel it. I do the brush strokes and I answer it with more brush strokes. Sometimes I answer it with a shape, sometimes with a stroke, sometimes with a color blend, sometimes I see a whole theme behind it, and I pull it together by making it something very specific. The beauty is I am constantly, completely free. I am as free in the middle of the painting,[and] at the end of the painting, as I was when I started.”
Peter Max gained fame in the Age of Aquarius, but he has managed to transcend time in ways that contemporaries such as Warhol and others could not. He started out thinking he was reinventing himself, but the truth is he simply became what he really wanted to be. The result is passion, commitment, feeling and a little doubt along with talent, heart and a splash of patriotism shared with whoever wants to take a moment to look at it or to talk about it.
“I came out of that realistic lineage,” he said speaking of his seven years of art school. “I can paint like Rockwell. I have paintings in my studio that people see and they ask, ‘You do that?’ Yes, I do that. But there was something in me and maybe it had to do with growing up in the Orient and around the world and, of course, there was this whole hippie movement.
“It was the atmosphere,” he continued. “I started drawing my own style, my own characters, my own worlds and it had a little bit of astronomy with stars and planets and characters flying through space and one day some art director was looking at my work, saw them and said, ‘Why haven’t you shown me that?’ I was a serious artist, I was a serious realist, I didn’t think you would show that type of art. I was so classically trained. It’s like a violinist, and then people find out he plays great bongos.”
Peter Max — America’s Painter Laureate, an Average Joe, the Virtual Violinist with bongos — is coming to the Tampa Bay area next week for an exhibit with the Michael Murphy Gallery at 153 2nd Avenue North in Baywalk in St. Petersburg. The exhibit is Saturday, September 25 and Sunday, September 26. The public is invited to meet him.
“I would say my exhibition has a nice broad perspective of things I’ve done over the years and there are a lot of new things that no one has seen and some iconic images that are loved by people,” he said. “If people have the book, The Art of Peter Max [by Charles A. Riley II], bring it to the gallery and I’ll sign it with a little doodle for everybody who brings it in.”
He is a veteran of dozens of one-man shows and, invariably, he draws record crowds. His autograph has become nearly as iconic as his artwork, yet he signs and draws and happily poses with those who come to meet him.
“I love it,” he said with sincerity. “I love making people happy. They enjoy my work and I make a drawing for them, I sign it, I personalize it. And then, of course, the people who acquire a piece of art, they not only get a drawing on the back — I make a big beautiful drawing — but they get a book personalized with a drawing, too.”
Peter Max is a frequent visitor to the Sunshine State. Through his visits, and the autographs and doodles, he leaves a little bit of himself behind.
“I enjoy Florida. I love it, it’s a beautiful location,” Max said. It is one of the prime locations in America. It’s known for many beautiful things. You know Florida is a gorgeous place and if I wasn’t as busy as I was, I’d probably get myself a studio there.”
Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon; Peter Max is effectively New York’s artist-in-residence. Besides, he is already here, in your mind and in your memories. He painted them. Let it be.