At 77, famed artist Peter Max is still creating cosmic characters and making colors pop.
Peter Max is in his New York City studio painting.
It’s exactly what he did yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. Really, it’s been his routine since he can remember and for the 77-year-old, world- renowned artist, the opportunity never gets old. Brush in hand, paints organized just so, he sets out to create another piece of iconic imagery to add to his massive portfolio that dates back to the ’60s. His work has appeared in thousands of museums around the world, in television commercials, on postage stamps, in celebrity homes, on the side of a cruise ship—and most recently on the cover of this month’s magazine.
His art is instantly recognizable. Some might say you could spot a Peter Max work a mile away. He laughs at this notion, but his cosmic themes and ability to conceptualize and maximize color schemes brand his work in a way few artists are able to achieve.
Born in Germany, Max spent the early part of his childhood growing up in Shanghai, China. It was there he would begin the infancy stages of his art career, learning to draw under the tutelage of his babysitter, a young girl who happened to only be six years older and whom he thought of like a sister. A decade later his family would move to France and he began taking afternoon art classes at the Louvre. By the time his family arrived in America in the ’50s, he found himself training at the Art Students League of New York. A decade later he would begin a storied professional career that places him in the pantheon of modern artistry.
Over the July Fourth weekend, Max will exhibit some of his highly sought-after work at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor with the show Peter Max: A Tribute to America. Max has become somewhat of a regular in Stone Harbor over the years, appearing summer after summer at the gallery. His work even wrapped around the town’s water tower one year, and it was his powerful images that piqued the interest of a young Taylor Swift who would walk by the gallery often when her family would vacation there. (Max recently heard of this and painted several portraits of Swift as a gift to her.)
Max travels frequently, doing a minimum of one art show a week, but found time in his hectic schedule to speak with us about the upcoming show, his creative process, hanging with The Beatles and why he is responsible for bringing yoga to the United States.
SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: This isn’t the first time you’ve showcased your work at the Jersey Shore. What do you like about the area?
PETER MAX: What I like about it a lot is it’s close to home. I travel so much all the time—two, three times a week, it’s insane. But South Jersey is really very nice.
SJM: So what can you tell me about the upcoming exhibit?
PM: It’s basically a broad range of my work, from small pieces to very large pieces; a beautiful exhibition. It’s a wonderful collection of work and I’m so grateful [Ocean Galleries] did such a great job.
SJM: Do you know about how many art shows you do each year?
PM: At least one a week, sometimes more … maybe 75-100 shows a year. It keeps me young, busy and excited.
SJM: How is it getting the chance to interact with your fans and see them interact with the pieces? In a way it’s like performing in front of a live audience.
PM: Yeah, it’s very nice; people see the artwork and they have a reaction and I react to their reaction. It’s so great to see how people enjoy the work.
SJM: As an artist that’s reached your level of success and acclaim, what inspires you these days to continue to create?
PM: I’m always inspired, I don’t even know where it comes from and why. I got the paint in front of me, I got the brushes, I know how to use them, how to handle them and I put a few brushstrokes on something. Most of the time, I never know what I’m doing and something comes out.
SJM: It sounds like a free-flowing creative process.
PM: I just grab colors that I love and put them where I think they need to be. It’s instinctive and I’m so used to doing it that I don’t even think about it much. It’s a little a bit of everything, like humming a tune. It’s easy, it’s nice and it wants to get done.
SJM: Authors get writers block; do you ever run into a creative wall when the ideas just aren’t coming the way you like? Have you ever finished a work and not liked it?
PM: Maybe here and there, I don’t remember all those things. I put a color down, I do this and I do that. Whether I’m painting privately or publicly, it’s enjoyable to me.
SJM: Why do you think your work has been able to stand the test of time?
PM: I don’t really know, I can’t really tell you why. There’s so many artists out there, everyone has their own pull.
SJM: Does the fact that you spent time in so many different countries, with different cultures, add to how you conceptualize art?
PM: Yeah, it probably adds a lot to what I do.
SJM: You were close to The Beatles and there’s been some confusion with regard to Yellow Submarine and if you were or were not involved in helping conceptualize the look and feel of the characters before it was ultimately handled by another artist. Can you clear it up a little?
PM: I gave them ideas. … I didn’t tell them exactly what to do, it just happened.
SJM: Aside from The Beatles, you’ve kept some pretty notable company over the years.
PM: I’m very lucky. … they are musicians and I’m an artist, we go hand in hand. They love me and I love them. It’s a nice thing to work with musicians and I love their music. The whole thing is an amazing paradox.
SJM: Your art has appeared everywhere from galleries to on the side of an airplane. Are you pretty much open to ideas for that type of collaboration or do you try and be selective?
PM: It depends, sometimes I’m selective, [but] everything is possible. All these wonderful things; big cruise ships, gigantic platforms, there’s so much beautiful stuff.
SJM: You helped bring yoga to America. How did that come about and are you surprised to see that it’s reached the level of popularity that it has in today’s society?
PM: It’s amazing, I love it. I so much wanted to bring it to the U.S. People loved it and they wanted it, it was just unbelievable.
SJM: Do you still practice regularly at 77?
PM: Oh yeah, constantly. It’s something I enjoy so much and it’s good for the mind, the body, for health.
SJM: You’re very humble and don’t seem interested in what your legacy may or may not be. Do you leave that kind of stuff for other people to decide and you just worry about making more art?
PM: I just like drawing and painting really, everything falls into its own place, it always does.
SJM: But do you ever have moments where you look at your career and you’re taken a back?
PM: I tell you every day I have one of those; it happens constantly. I’m so pleased and delighted and it blows me away that this has happened.
SJM: Have we seen your best work yet?
PM: You’ve seen it, you’ll see more. Right now I’m in my studio; the paint is in my hands all the time.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 4 (July, 2015).
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