Peter Max Reflects on His Colorful, Creative Life in Art

Classic shot of Peter Max on Reagan's White House lawn in 1981 and the July 5, 2019 Dan's Papers cover art
Classic shot of Peter Max on Reagan’s White House lawn in 1981, Photo: © 2019 ALP INC

There’s a common joke in the Dan’s Papers offices that the word “iconic” gets used too often, but there are few words that better describe this week’s cover artist, Peter Max. The legendary Max is known for his colorful, bright work and has graced the cover of Dan’s Papers‘ July 4 issue every year since 2003.

But Max has made an indelible mark on the art world since the 1960s, with a career that has a story unlike any other. Max and his Peter Max Studio Creative Director Victor Zurbel, who co-wrote The Universe of Peter Max, reflect on his many accomplishments.

Dan's Papers cover artist Peter Max
Peter Max

How did your parents encourage you to pursue your art?

Victor Zurbel: Peter Max’s mother, Salla, encouraged her son’s interest in art from an early age. She was a fashion designer and would leave art supplies around their pagoda-style house in Shanghai, China when Peter was growing up for him to experiment with.

Peter Max: My mother would leave art supplies all over and tell me to draw and paint and make a big mess and that she would clean up after me. When I was a teenager, we moved to Israel. She sent me to take art lessons with a fauvist painter. He taught me to paint with exaggerated and bold colors.

You’ve been all around the world. How have those travels informed your art?

Zurbel: Peter Max’s early childhood odyssey—leaving Germany and growing up in Shanghai and Israel, with stops in Paris and Tibet, influenced his art greatly and his worldview. Shanghai was a magical place for a young Peter Max. He would watch Buddhist monks paint giant calligraphy characters with large bamboo-handled brushes, moving their entire bodies in a way similar to tai chi. He took in the colorful weekly parades there, gliding junket boats and listened to Sikh chanting prayers at dawn and dusk. He was also influenced by imported American pop culture and media—super hero comic books, Swing Jazz on a weekly Shanghai radio show, and Hollywood movies screened at the local theaters.

Later, as a teenager, his mother sent him to take painting lessons with a Viennese Fauve painter when they lived in Haifa, Israel. He took sketching classes at the Louvre in Paris before his family settled in Brooklyn, when he was 15. He studied realism painting after high school at The Art Students League in Manhattan and then gravitated toward more Avant Garde work at the School of Visual Arts.

Max: Professor Hünick in Haifa introduced me to the saturated colors of Matisse and taught me how to see colors in a new way. American superhero comic books showed me how to simplify expressions and how to foreshorten. American jazz inspired me with its rhythm. And the Buddhist monks inspired me to not just paint with my wrist, but to paint standing and moving, using the rhythm of my body while I listened to jazz and rock.

Peter Max on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1968
Peter Max on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1968, © 2019 ALP INC

What was it like appearing on Johnny Carson and catapulting to major success in the 1960s?

Zurbel: While The Beatles and other bands gave the ’60s youth culture its signature sound, when it came to its visual mindscape, that domain belonged to Peter Max. Like the Beatles, Max made his television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS, where he drew live on the show using both hands creating a mirrored image drawing ambidextrously.  He also made the cover of Life magazine with an eight-page feature article and numerous other magazine covers. His art and designs appeared on dozens of brands—General Electric art clocks, mini-dresses, stockings, ties, tableware, bed sheets, curtains and high top sneakers, among many others throughout the late ’60s and into the ’70s. Max was a pioneer in licensing his work to bring his art to the people in all kinds of ways. When he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in August of 1968 his cosmic and popular art products were displayed throughout The Tonight Show set.

Max: It was unbelievable being on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was honored and humbled that my art and art products were so popular with people and that he wanted to have me on. If you had told me when I was a kid growing up in China that I would be on the cover of Life magazine and on the most popular American talk shows, I wouldn’t have believed it.

When I studied realism painting at the Art Student’s League, I studied under Frank Reilly, who was a student himself at there. He had studied alongside Norman Rockwell. Norman Rockwell showed me how artists can move beyond gallery walls to show their artwork to millions of Americans.

How did you feel when you were approached by the U.S. government to work on postage stamps and border murals?

Zurbel: As a child growing up in Shanghai and Israel, Peter’s parents received letters from friends and family from all over Europe and America. He used to collect the stamps; they were miniature works of art to him.

He was honored and thrilled to design the first U.S. 10-cent stamp in 1974, which was also the first U.S. environmental stamp, with the theme “Preserve the Environment,” which he illustrated with his iconic “Cosmic Runner” image touring on foot through land, sea and sky.

For America’s Bicentennial in 1976, Peter Max was commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration to create works of art to welcome people entering the U.S at 235 entry points. More than 260 million people a year saw Max’s vibrant, colorful “Welcome to America” murals as they entered the U.S. President Jimmy Carter held simultaneous mural art celebrations in each of the entry point towns and invited the artist and his family to celebrate at the White House with the president and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Max also brought his friend and guru Swami Satchidananda to the White House visit. Max had previously brought the Swami, known as “The Woodstock Guru” to the U.S. in 1966 and together they cofounded the Integral Yoga Institute together in New York City. Today IYI has over 30 centers on six continents.

Max: I started my art career painting with oils on canvas. I was thrilled to have had the opportunity through the years to share my art with so many more people on other media—stamps, murals, concert stages, clothing and housewares, airplanes, buses and cars. They told me that when my border murals were first put up, people would stop and get out of their cars to take pictures with them. I loved hearing that.

You said that in the ’70s, you were in seclusion. What brought this on?

Zurbel: After the huge popularity of Max’s work in the late ’60s and early ’70s with his poster art, art products and museum and gallery shows, and appearing on the cover of Life magazine and The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Max felt like he had started something and had gone big. He was grateful that there was such a broad appreciation for his work, but he hadn’t taken a vacation in years and felt that fame and an abundance of projects were overwhelming his life. He had been so busy managing a large studio, and he decided that he needed more time to just paint and draw for himself, exploring new subjects and mediums. So he wound it all down in the ’70s and retreated to his home studio and concentrated on just printmaking and painting with acrylics.

Max: I felt like I was on a roller coaster that couldn’t stop and one day I knew that I had to stop. So I took a vacation with my family to Acapulco. While we were there, I started to do some new drawings and became inspired to move in a new direction of expressionism. I wound down my company, closed my townhouse studio, and retreated to my home studio on Riverside Drive to just draw and paint.

Peter Max in his studio in the 1960s
Peter Max in his studio in the 1960s, ©2019 ALP INC

What moved you to work on the Liberty Renovation Project?

Zurbel: For July 4, 1981, Max was invited to the White House by President and Mrs. Reagan to paint. He set up a painting area on the White House lawn, and painted six eight-foot tall canvases of the Statue of Liberty for the Reagans and their guests.

When he got back to New York, a photographer who had seen him on the news painting at The White House, called Max about photos he had taken of the rusted and deteriorating Statute of Liberty. Max invited the photographer to his studio, and the photographer showed him the sad and shocking photos he had taken of the deteriorating interior and exterior of the Statue of Liberty. The photographer asked Max if he could bring Lady Liberty’s condition to the attention of the President and First Lady. Max said of course he would.

Max: When Nancy Reagan called to thank me for my painting at the White House, I told her about the photos I had seen of the horrible condition of the Statue of Liberty. She suggested that we find private funding to restore her. So I called a friend of mine who was the head of an advertising agency. I asked him if he knew of a corporation that I could approach for Lady Liberty repair funding. He said right away that his client Iacocca, the Chairman of Chrysler, might be interested. The next day, my friend called me back and said that Mr. Iacocca would be thrilled to take the project on. President Reagan later appointed Mr. Iacocca to head the fund raising effort to restore the Statue ahead of her 100th anniversary. After years of fundraising and restoration, the renovated Statue of Liberty was unveiled on July 4, 1986. It was an amazing weekend celebration that was on television for everyone to see.

Peter Max poses with the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship.
Peter Max poses with the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship.

What was it like painting portraits of Presidents Clinton and Obama?

Zurbel: In honor of President Clinton’s Inauguration, Max painted portraits of him and presented the installation on the Larry King CNN Presidential Special. Afterwards, the paintings were displayed at the Presidential Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C.  For President Obama’s inauguration he painted 44 Obama portraits honoring the 44th president that were unveiled on CBS’s The Early Show.

Max: President Clinton and I have been friends through the years and he invited me to mount a one-man exhibition at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2007. I haven’t gotten to know President Obama personally but was proud to paint 44 Obama portraits, to honor him as our 44th President and our country’s first African-American President.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Zurbel: Peter Max has much to be proud of—successful one-man museum exhibitions and gallery shows around the world and throughout America, his creative use of the media as a medium to share his art, his innovative and pioneering art products, and his signature portraits of so many extraordinary icons in music, sports, politics, and the arts, his larger-than-life canvases of airplanes, sports cars and music festival stages. He is probably America’s best-known and popular living artist. Throughout his six-decades-long career, his bold and vibrant colors have become part of the fabric of contemporary culture. Max and his work have been called the ’60s visual counterpart to the music of the Beatles, a pop icon, Neo Fauvist, Abstract Expressionist and the United States “Painter Laureate.”

Max: I am most proud of my creativity and the range of projects and mediums I’ve been able to work in through the years. The universe itself is the greatest expression of creativity and diversity and always inspires me. If there’s one motto that’s always been with me, it’s “Be Creative.”

As you look back on your iconic career, what era do you feel was your most successful?

Max: It’s hard for me to really pick an era.Each has had its own successes and experiences. Of course, I really loved the ’60s and ’70s as people really became aware of my art and I was working on so many projects. Each decade has had wonderful projects and I’ve evolved my style of work through the decades.

You’ve always been an activist. How can art heal the world?

Max: It should promote peace, promote happiness. That’s what I’ve tried to do with my art. Creativity can heal the world. Our planet itself is God and the universe’s great masterpiece. We can be inspired by it, and treat it and others kindly, working for a healing world.

The first Peter Max Dan's Papers cover, from July 4, 2003
The first Peter Max Dan’s Papers cover, from July 4, 2003

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