Peter Max has been an icon of the American art scene for more than five decades, but like the powerful and boldly colored images he creates, he is infused with an exuberant vitality that seems to transcend time.
This is a man who is head over heels in love with life and employs a paint brush as his megaphone to announce that to the world.
He himself admits he has the energy of a much younger man, noting that he is “75 going on 48.” That perpetual youthfulness is the foundation for a body of work that began in the 1960s and remains relevant into the 21st century.
“I live on the 15th floor,” Max said during a phone call from his studio in New York City. “I just walked down all 15 flights, then walked 17 blocks to my studio. I just did two drawings and worked on a painting. I have more energy now then when I was younger.”
Admirers of the artist, who is widely recognized by critics as having helped define the pop culture of the psychedelic ’60s, can meet Max in person on Friday, Oct. 10 and Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Christine Fréchard Gallery on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. A retrospective exhibit covering his work from 1960 to 2014 opened with a preview at that gallery on Oct. 4.
Max was born in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. His family moved to Shanghai in 1938, joining about 10,000 other Jews who had already fled Europe for China and had established a Jewish community there.
“My father’s father was very Chasidic,” Max recalled. “He wore a streimel hat. And my father was also religious. My mother was Jewish, but not as religious. My parents met in Berlin and had me there. When I was 9 months old, my mother knew of a friend who went to China and told my father that we should go there. So the three of us got on a big Italian liner, and 30 days later, we were in Shanghai.”
Max’s father ran a successful clothing import business while in China, and after the war, the family moved to Israel, where they lived for several years before coming to the United States. Max is still fluent in Hebrew, he said.
In 1956, Max began his formal art training at the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan. Before long, he became known for his unique pop art style incorporating unusual shapes and attention-grabbing color palettes, and his designs were soon seen just about everywhere, from televised 7UP commercials to a line of art clocks produced by General Electric to a 600-foot stage for the Woodstock Music Festival.
Max came of age artistically as a
contemporary of Andy Warhol, and he and the Pittsburgh-born artist were
good friends, he said. He was inspired
by Warhol, along with post impressionists Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec.
He considers himself fortunate that the “media exploded” when he hit the scene, which he says provided him with benefits his artistic forebears did not have.
Throughout his career, Max often has used Jewish themes as inspiration, including the Western Wall and the Israeli flag, in addition to his more fabled and pervasive images such as “cosmic runner” and “umbrella man” and thousands of other subjects as well.
Max has come a long way from his humble start as a Holocaust-era refugee. His work is exhibited in museums all over the world, and he has graced the covers of several thousand magazines.
“It’s mind-boggling to me,” he said. “Here I was, out of art school, and I became the best known artist in the world.”
He attributes his physical endurance to a vegetarian diet and yoga, which provides the vigor for him to create about 50 new works a year and to travel all over the world for appearances at his shows.
He enjoys meeting people and usually remembers fans he has met on previous visits. He said these trips provide him with a “beautiful energy,” which is enhanced by a constant stream of the music he loves.
“I’m so grateful,” he said. “All day long, I’m surrounded by colors, art, music and meeting people. I’m just in love all day long.”
He loves all kinds of music, he added but has a particular fondness for bebop and jazz. He frequently asks musicians to practice in his studio while he works.
“It inspires me,” he said. “Music is such an amazing aspect. Whatever art is for the eyes, music is for the ears and the heart.”
Max, it seems, is in a constant state of wonder and joy.
“It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “I love the universe. I love the world. I love what surrounds me. I’m just happy.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.