If you went to college in the 1970s, chances are his posters lined your dormitory walls. If you owned the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, you absorbed his rendering of the flared bell bottoms of the Fab Four, the blue and red stripes of Ringo’s jacket, the Blue Meanies’ hand.
Peter Max was one of the great psychedelic artists, and he’ll be making a live appearance at an exhibit of his work at MarketFair June 6.
With hundreds of museums and gallery exhibits worldwide, “Peter Max and his vibrant colors have become part of the fabric of contemporary culture,” according to his publicity materials. “Max has been successively called a Pop Icon, Neo Fauvist, Abstract Expressionist and the United State’s ‘Painter Laureate.’” On view will be his American flag series, Obama portraits, a polka dotted Statue of Liberty, “Umbrella Man” and the 10 cent stamp, “Preserve the Environment.”
Max was born in Berlin in 1938, but when he was 3 months old his family fled. “My father was able to get two tickets to China, and I didn’t need a ticket,” he says from his multi-floor studio opposite New York’s Lincoln Center. The family lived in Shanghai for 10 years, where Max was given a watercolor set by his 12-year-old nanny. “I thought the whole world was Chinese,” he recollects. He observed calligraphers, and learned to paint with his wrist. “If I could find my nanny – she’d be in her 80s today – I’d buy her a house in New Jersey. She was so sweet and she inspired me.”
After Shanghai, the family traveled through India, Africa, Italy, Israel and Paris before settling in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. On his second day in America, at Lafayette High School, Max recounts, he was sitting on a bench, putting on sneakers, when another student next to him belted out a song. “He scared me,” says Max, “and then he shook me to say he was sorry.” The classmate was the actor Paul Sorvino, who remains his friend to this day. “In fact when I get off the phone with you I’m going to call him,” says Max.
Since his childhood, and a visit to the Mt. Carmel Observatory, he has been interested in astronomy, and studied astronomy alongside art. Suns and moons and other celestial bodies appear in his work that came to be known as “Cosmic Art.”
He has been exhibited in Japan, Germany and Russia. He painted “Forty Gorbies” – 40 likenesses of former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev – “because it rhymed,” says Max. Subsquently, Gorbachev invited Max to have a solo exhibit at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
“I was standing there thinking, ‘What if no one shows up? They don’t know me in Russia.’” He looked out the window and saw 300 people lined up and thought OK, good enough. “What I didn’t know was, there were 14,500 people lined up for 39 blocks,” he says. “It was the biggest opening in the Soviet Union. The Russian kids wore flowers in their hair, like hippies. The only two words in English they knew were ‘peace’ and ‘Beatles.’ It was so loving and wonderful to be greeted like that.”
All you need is love indeed: The word “love” appears often in his art, and he claims to have known all the Beatles as individuals. “George and I hung around together and talked 95 percent about yoga and 5 percent about music. Yoga was the greatest sport India gave the world.”
He does yoga every day. “I’m staying in the breath. With Hatha yoga, you become aware of the breath. Meditation calms.”
Max says he loves the fans, he loves his popularity and he loves to work – he works every day. He’s a vegan, supports animal rights and the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and calls himself an environmentalist, although he owns 36 Chevrolet Corvettes. He designed and painted – with help from 50 assistants – a Boeing 777 for Continental Airlines that flew for 10 years, a virtual love machine.
In his studio, he is surrounded by all the friends who inspired him: Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Chagall – these are paintings he’s created of them all. “I painted realism in art school – I was really good at it,” says Max. “But the art directors could get photographs of reality, so they wanted something different.
“I loved stars and planets and invented a vista of what the world would look like through my eyes,” he says. “I gave it great colors and got carried away, and when the art directors discovered it they gave me so many assignments. It was the cosmic look everyone wanted. It was to art what the Beatles were to music.”