Front Row Q&A: Peter Max
This week, Peter Max exhibits works both new and old, and greets his Connecticut fans at Geary Gallery in Darien.
PETER MAX, 74, is perhaps the most astoundingly successful visual artist of the 20th (and now 21st) century. Since bursting onto the New York City arts scene in the 1960s—initially as one-half of a graphic design studio partnership called Daly & Max—his reputation has grown to the point that, he says, he’s represented in “99.9 percent of the close to 2,000 galleries in America, with a couple of images in some, 100 pieces in others. I just learned that and I couldn’t believe it.” Though he’s perhaps most widely known for the psychedelic, counterculture imagery of his “Cosmic ’60s” period, over the past 45 years Max has worked in almost every medium you can think of—from watercolor and finger paints to sculpture and video—proving himself to be game for anything. September 5-9, Darien’s Geary Gallery will host an exhibition and sale of Max’s work, featuring paintings from his “Masters” series, reinterpretations of classic paintings by van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Renoir, among others. Other works on display will include selections from his famed “Flag” and “Statue of Liberty” series, as well as a sampling of the countless celebrity portraits he’s done, which includes the last seven U.S. presidents. Max himself will be at the Geary for meet-and-greets with the public on Sept. 8 & 9. For more info, call (203) 655-6633 or visit gearygallery.com.
You did a painting of the West Cornwall Covered Bridge for the September cover of our magazine. What struck you about that particular Connecticut landmark?
It was a nice image to paint, and I just enjoyed painting it—that's all I remember. I love color.You know how some people love music? I love music beyond belief. I love color beyond belief. I love movies . . . there's so many things that I love, I'm sure you do, too.
You've done projects like this for other regional magazines . . .
From time to time. I've done many television shows—I've appeared on Larry King three times, "Good Morning America" . . . I've been on all the biggest shows ever. I know that the first few times I was on TV, which were many years ago, I was nervous and scared. Now I walk on like it was my own show, almost. I'm totally comfortable.
Come to think of it, you were on "The Ed Sullivan Show" way back . . .
I appeared three times with Ed Sullivan—one was an hour-long special. And I was on the "Tonight" show with Johnny Carson. I was nervous for 10 minutes before I got on. But once I got on, they made me feel so comfortable, their personalities were so nice. I thought Ed was very gracious; he came into the green room and said, "Hi, I can't wait to have you on." So it was really wonderful.
You're going to have an exhibit at the Geary Gallery in Darien. I understand it will feature your "New Masters" series.
I started painting the great masters like van Gogh, Reubens, Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Matisse—all of them, really. It became a beautiful series, so there's probably going to be quite a few of those there. It's my homage to them, because when I was in art school, all I did was look at those guys. I had no idea I would become famous. Painting those guys that I so admired when I was in art school was unbelievable.
I spent seven years in art school with an amazing teacher, Frank Riley. When he was in the same art class studying before he became a teacher, guess who sat right next to him every day for seven years? Norman Rockwell. Rockwell was a realist, painting Saturday Evening Post covers and everything. But I didn't join Riley's class until he had already been teaching for more than 10 years. When I was a student, I learned that Rockwell still visited Riley in his classroom every month.
Did the paintings you chose for the "New Masters" series have a special appeal for you?
I was always a big fan of the masters, whoever they may be—from Rembrandt to Picasso. And I always had certain favorite images of theirs, especially the self-portraits. There were very few photographs of them, because back then there wasn't much photography. I used to collect them as a young student. One day, I found them and started painting one. Everybody shouted, "Wow! He painted a Picasso!" Then I painted a Rembrandt, then a van Gogh, then a Matisse. It's not like I painted them all together. It was weeks, months—even a couple of years—apart. But over the past 10 years, I've painted quite a few. It's a lot of fun for me.
You've been talking recently about creating an animated feature set to music.
I'm already knee-deep into the project. In the last 10 or 11 months, I've listened to 17,700 songs, which I got from maybe 20 different people. One guy came by with 7,000 songs, stored on an item that's the size of the first two knuckles of my pinkie. That just shows you how fast the technology moves. I'm on top of technology, but I couldn't believe that! I was amazed because I plugged it into this thing you plug into your computer. I thought that the sound wouldn't be as detailed as normal music, because it was compressed into this tiny space, but it was full down to the last beautiful detail.
Have you chosen the songs you'll use?
I've already selected my songs; they're collected on 23 iPods and all rated on a five-star system. Some I'm just using for the sound effects; I have hundreds of those I could use. I've been talking to some real giants of the film business, and now I'm breaking the songs down into seven films. I have story lines for all seven. They'll be full-length features, shown in every theater.
Speaking of music, you also did a recent 70th birthday portrait for Paul McCartney. How'd he like it?
He loved it!. I did seven portrait images on a big canvas, arranged four over three—in the fourth box on the bottom I did a beautiful red heart and wrote on it with a brush, "Happy Birthday Paul, much love, Peter Max."
You often do portraits in terms of numbers—I know you did 100 Bill Clintons and 44 Obamas.
I did 44 Obamas because he's our 44th president. Clinton I just love so much I had to do 100 images. I've done so many beautiful things for people in my life who I know and admire, so I do little things out of response to that, I quess. I've done leaders of countries, great movie stars—you just name them; I've done them all. There have been four or five books over the last 20 years, featuring 600 portraits. I've done 108 Dalai Lamas, because he has 108 beads that he counts as prayers.
Do people ever sit for you to do a portrait?
I only work with photos, no sittings. Sitting went out before photography.
When did your love of art start?
When I lived in Shanghai as a little boy, my mother hired a nanny to play with me. She was the daughter of a local artist. I was 3 years old, my nanny was 9—but at that age, I thought she was 20. She would just bring stacks of paper every single day for seven years till I left Shanghai, and we just drew and drew and drew all the time. I began with circles and squares; eventually she let metry other things. I became very skillful.
You explored so many mediums of expression over the years. Do you have a favorite to work in?
Whatever I'm working in at the time. When I'm drawing, I love the process; when I'm painting, I'm swimming in paint. One of my great inspirartions is my wife Mary; she's just such a tasty lady. We've been married 15 years today.
Several years ago you acquired 36 Corvettes that you were going to paint—have you made any progress on that project?
I'm still contemplating what to do about the Corvettes—there's now someone out there that wants to help me get the project going. They're still stored and in nice shape.
You were also given a piece of the Berlin Wall to work with after it was torn down.
I carved a dove out of the upper right-hand corner, the idea being that the wall was torn down and there's peace now. That's been sitting atop the Intrepid for 20 years already.
And you painted a Boeing plane.
I painted a Boeing plane, a project that cost $196 million. The plane flew for 10 years, 6 months. In a few months, a $1.1 billion cruise ship, among the 10 biggest ships in the world, will be unveiled. It's 16 stories. A beautiful, beautiful ship; the little kid in me can't wait to see it. It's a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, which will be docked every week in New York City off 44th Street. I can just imagine going there for coffee on weekends and seeing that. It took me about two weeks to conceptualize, and them a year to finalize. I gave them a mock up of what they have to blow up 1,000 times, which was maybe 7 feet long.
In your early career, you did a lot of merchandising of your designs.
There was a time when I used to license my work. I'm really an artist and a painter, and I didn't want to do that so much. So I gave it up. And I miss it, in a way, but I'm so busy painting and with these gallery museum shows—I've already had around 60 one-man shows. I've just found out that of the close to 2,000 museums in this country, I'm represented in 99.9 percent of them. I couldn't believe it. In some places I have 2 pieces, in others 100.
One 1960s project people associate you with—and maybe they shouldn't—is the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine.
I actually helped design Yellow Submarine in the beginning; John Lennon wanted me to do it. Then, when I found out they wanted me to come to Europe for 17 months, I couldn't. So there was an artist in Europe [Heinz Edelmann], who unfortunately passed away about four years ago, who copied my work. I used to be upset about it, but I needed him. I went out to the set a few times to see how it was coming along.
You are very involved in animal rights.
My wife is my goddess when it comes to animal rights. She does it full time and is involved in every animal rights issue that comes her way. We raise money, send art, try to save every kind of animal there is to be saved. It's the future of what mankind has to do. We can't keep treating them as something different from us. They're all godly little creatures, you know?
And you adhere to a vegan diet.
I, my wife and my daughter Libra are all vegan. We have a vegan chef, who creates dishes of tofu, stringbeans, spinach and corn. All the right foods.
One famous story about you is your rescue of Cindy Woo.
We found out that she escaped the slaughterhouse, and they were looking to bring her back. I found out about it from friends who were animal-rights people who called me. I just stopped what I was doing, got the driver and we zipped upstate and found her on some New York farm. I immediately bought her. The price wasn't too high; $2,000. I put her in the shelter Farm Sanctuary. She lived out her life there naturally; I went to visit her many times. But to her, I was just another person standing there.
What is your work schedule like these days?
I'm always involved, from the time I wake up in the morning—whether that's 7 or 10 a.m.—I work for 10 or 12 hours. I love every moment; it's like playing hide and seek with my friends. I have a full-time DJ who programs music for me in my studio. So I just paint all day with music playing.
What's next for you?
The $1.1 billion ship is an exciting thing, especially for the little boy in me. Making animated films is going to be very, very exciting. There's a book coming out from HarperCollins, with artwork and a whole bunch of stories.Front Row Q&A: Peter Max