Peter Max's pop life

The artist on fame, Andy Warhol, and the 'complete freedom' of his expression
By GREG COOK  |  August 18, 2010

ARTIST AT WORK Max painting Statues of Liberty at OpSail in New York City in 2000.

Peter Max rocketed to fame as one of the iconic psychedelic artists of the late '60s. His ubiquitous posters of kaleidoscoping flowers, stars, dreamy ladies, and love won him a spot on the cover of Life magazine in 1969. The publication's "portrait of the artist as a very rich man" reported that he was raking in more than $2 million annually. "I keep negative elements out of my designs," Max told Life. "I try to give warmth to machine-made objects."

He was born Peter Max Finkelstein in Nazi Berlin in 1937. The following year his Jewish family moved to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. In 1948, the year before Chinese Communist Revolution swallowed the city, the family sailed for the brand-new state of Israel. They finally settled in Brooklyn when he was 16.

In the '70s, Max shifted to easel paintings, and receded from the limelight, though he continued to get major commissions — a US postage stamp in 1974, posters for the Super Bowl, World Cup, and Kentucky Derby — and helped raise funds to restore the Statue of Liberty in the '80s.

Now Max's work is being exhibited in Rhode Island for the first time, at Gallery 17 Peck, 303 Atwells Avenue, Providence, through August 29. Max is scheduled to meet with visitors on August 28 from 6 to 9 pm and on August 29 from 1 to 4 pm. I reached him at his Manhattan studio, where he's busy churning out expressionist paintings.

ELEMENTAL "Umbrella Man On Purple."

[CHILDHOOD] WAS LIKE a big adventure. Maybe for my parents it was a little bit hard, getting up and leaving. But for a child my age, I was 10 years old when I got to Israel. We spent time in Africa, on our way to Israel. I was in India. I was in Italy. Seeing Indian people in robes and everything. Then we were in Tibet for a while. For me, it was an unbelievable, unbelievable childhood.

I WAS GOING to go to astronomy school after high school. Then a friend of mine in high school said, "Peter, you're such a good artist, why don't you just come with me for the summer to the Art Students League" on 57th Street in Manhattan, diagonally across from Carnegie Hall. So I asked my mom. She said, "Sure, sweetie pie. Do it, and then you go to astronomy school." So I went there for a summer and I got the bug. Then I went home one day and shyishly asked my mom, "Do you mind if I spend the winter in art school and then I'll got to astronomy?" She said, "Whatever you want, sweetie. If you enjoy it, stay in art school for a year." And, of course, that led to two years, three years, four years. I spent seven years in art school and I became really good.

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