It is impossible to walk into the Sirani Gallery on Forbes Avenue this week and not smile.
The boldly painted, uplifting works of world-renowned artist Peter Max have taken over the gallery through Sunday, June 7. And the artist, as upbeat and joyful as his paintings, will appear along with his work both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
More than 180, mostly one-of-a-kind pieces, including Steelers and Penguins helmets decorated by Max, as well as his recent portraits of President Obama, fill the gallery space, providing a veritable banquet for the eyes.
Included in the exhibit are both the familiar works sporting Max’s iconic images of his “cosmic runner” and his “umbrella man,” as well as the unexpected, such as a mixed media portrayal of worshippers at the Western Wall.
Max, who has been the official painter of everything from the Kentucky Derby to the Grammy Awards, spent his formative years in Shanghai after his parents fled Germany in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. It was in Shanghai under the tutelage of a 12-year-old nanny that Max first cultivated his love of art.
“I’m very lucky as an artist,” said Max, speaking by telephone from New York. “I lived in Shanghai for 10 years. We left Germany at the right time. We lived in a pagoda house in a Jewish neighborhood, with other people who had come to Shanghai to avoid the war. My nanny was a little bit of an artist, and she brought me art supplies. I got good at it, but I never knew that art was something I could do for a living. I thought I was playing when I was drawing.”
Max said that in those days, his mother would place different art supplies at the different balconies in their pagoda, and encourage him to create.
“She would say, ‘Pick the balcony you want, and you do whatever you want. Make a big mess, and we’ll clean it up after.’ I did this for six or seven years every day with my nanny.”
In 1949, Max and his parents moved to Haifa, in the newly founded Jewish state. There, he was able to further develop his art.
“I painted in Israel and I was very lucky,” Max said. “A school teacher saw some drawings I had made in my notebook, and called my mother, telling her I should study with the Austrian artist, Professor Hünik. I studied painting with him. He was an expressionist. But I still didn’t think it was something I would do. I always thought I’d be a scientist, involved in space exploration.”
Max still maintains a keen interest in all things astronomical, and frequently features colorful planets and stars in his skyscapes. He says he thinks about the vastness of the universe “all the time” and would prefer to meet with the head of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil Tyson, than any number of movie stars.
“Do you know how many suns are in our galaxy?” Max asked. “Three hundred fifty billion. And they all have planets. It’s unfathomable. And that’s just our galaxy. There are 350 billion galaxies. It can almost drive you insane. It’s mind-boggling. I am just blown away. I can never relax, I am in such a state of wow.”
Max said there are two sides of him: the scientist and the artist.
“There’s the cerebral side, where I am thinking about the hugeness of the universe. But I also like painting for the sake of the color and composition.”
Max immigrated to the United States when he was 16, and following high school, continued his art studies at The Art Student’s League, a renowned, traditional academy across from Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. The Art Student’s League produced many successful artists, including Norman Rockwell.
“When I came out of the art school, I painted like Rockwell,” Max recalled. “But nobody wanted realism in those days because of photography. I was heartbroken, and I didn’t know what to do with my life.”
Shortly thereafter, as fate would have it, Max was sitting by the window in a café in Manhattan “drawing little astronomical images: planets, stars and galaxies. “An art director from an ad agency saw his drawings, and “I walked out with 14 projects,” Max said. “It was a good day’s work.”
“I started making a good living, and by the end of the year, I had won 32 gold medals in art shows. Over the next two years, I won 16 more gold medals. Because of all the awards I won, suddenly all kinds of unbelievable people called me up. I designed a restaurant. I was on the Carson show, and the Ed Sullivan Show. It never ended. I worked hard, and I’m good at my craft.”
Max is extremely prolific, and credits his vast energy to his yoga practice — introduced to him in 1966 by a swami (“like a head rebbe”) — and his vegan diet.
“I feel like I’m 22 years old,” Max said. “I have 100 people who work for me. I’m involved in animal rights. My wife and I are involved helping hundreds of organizations.
“Because of my love of astronomy, I’m very focused on what planet Earth is all about,” Max continued. “And because of yoga, I’m focused on making this world a better place.”
Max will personally dedicate any work of art purchased from the Sirani exhibit during his appearances this weekend, and will take a photograph with all purchasers, said Barbara Krause, owner of the gallery. He also will sign any copies of his book, “The Art of Peter Max,” brought to the exhibit.
Other Max exhibits, along with an online store, can be found at petermax.com.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)