“I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to meet people when I do a show like this,” he says. “I do twenty to thirty shows a year, and it always is a big thrill for me.”
Peter Max took a break from his work in his New York studio to grant us an exclusive interview, and he showed the same type of enthusiasm that has made his work so popular over more than five decades. Asked how he can keep his work so fresh and young even after such a long and prolific career, Peter said, “You get better as you get older.” He credits his experience and the will to work with keeping him going.
Peter Max has been called a Pop Icon, Neo Fauvist, Abstract Expressionist and the United States’ “Painter Laureate.” Each year he creates a new image of Lady Liberty to show his love for his adopted country.
He has met most of the other people he has painted, including popular singer Taylor Swift (COVER). He wanted to paint her after they met since he found her beautiful both inside and out. Destination was proud to feature Peter Max’s newest works of feature portraits and album covers he designed for Taylor, who was crowned one of the hottest “Entertainers of the Year” at the Country Music Awards in Nashville. And has been named one of America’s Most Influential People recently by Times Magazine.
Works on Several Paintings at Once
He does most of his work in what he called “my beautiful studio,” measuring 40 x 50 feet, with canvases and other materials in various stages of completion. He works in several different mediums concurrently and says “I love them all.” When a painting is finished, he has some “great assistants” who photograph each piece both on slides and in Chrome 3” x 4” photographs to be filed according to subject matter.
To keep his work environment upbeat, Peter Max has a full-time disc jockey, often playing the music he loves by some of his “good buddies” from the Rock and Roll world—The Beatles, Arrowsmith, Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi—all of whom he has known personally and has painted numerous times.
“I used to have a cup of coffee every morning at Woodstock with Jimi Hendrix,” he recalls. Another “name” on his friendship list is former President Bill Clinton, who occasionally will visit the Peter Max Studio.
Peter has painted portraits of seven presidents, most recently 44 portraits of number 44, Barack Hussein Obama. “He’s the only one I’ve never met,” Peter says. “Our timetables never fit, but we do plan to get together in the next few weeks.”
Portraiture of Today Based on Photographs
Portraiture today no longer requires the subject to sit while the artist paints, Peter says. “I work from a great photo that the artist chooses,” he explains. Knowing the person helps his or her personality to shine through. Usually when he does a portrait of someone, he makes a set of four different paintings in which the color and treatment of the background changes. The four are placed together to form a grouping.
The largest number of portraits he ever did for one person was for the Dali Lama, with a total of 108. “I asked him what his favorite number was, and he told me 108,” Peter explains. “Why 108? Well, he told me that that was the number of beads on the Mullah beads he uses when he prays.” While the image of his subject may seem identical to the others in a grouping, actually each individual portrait is completely original and contains different brush strokes. They look so much alike as a result of experience and training that takes years to develop.
Commissioned Work vs. Creative Challenges
Through the years, Peter Max has done a variety of commissioned work, including packaging for dozens of products and posters for hundreds of events along with such unusual items as the Dallas Cowboys helmet and the Flag of Texas. He was the official artist of the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and has been the Official Artist of five Super Bowls, World Cup USA, the World Series, the U.S. Open, the Indy 500, the NYC Marathon and The Kentucky Derby.
He even painted a Boeing 777 airplane for Continental Airlines and the 600-ft. stage for the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. He also created 10-foot guitars for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. One of his images became the first 10-cent stamp, bearing the title “Preserve the Environment.”
Although Peter Max has been commissioned to do large pieces of work, including current plans to paint the new Norwegian Cruise Line ship, The Breakaway, currently under construction in Germany, he says he enjoys simply being able to start painting “with a blank mind and no un-preconceived ideas.” He explains that it is sort of like a musician who will sit down and create a melody or humming a tune any which way you want. The results often are as exciting to him as to others.
Known for his abstract art from the 60’s period, much of Peter’s work uses the training he received at the Art Students League in New York City, where he studied realism and learned portraiture. His more recent work combines abstract art and cosmic influences with realism in his own unique style.
Interest in Art Had Early Beginnings
Peter Max Finkelstein’s life story began in Germany. Born October 19, 1937, his parents look him from his birthplace in 1938 to escape the Holocaust. They settled in Shanghai, China, where they stayed for the next ten years and where the young son’s interest in art began to blossom. He was able to look out each morning on Buddhist monks painting on sheets of rice paper with fluid brush strokes, while every evening he could hear the beautifully sung prayers of the Sikhs in a temple on the other side of his home.
His mother, who had been a fashion designer in Germany, must have know that a life in art was in young Peter’s future because she gave him plenty of opportunity to draw and paint by leaving all sorts of materials on each of the home’s four verandahs and telling him to do whatever he liked with them and that they would clean up after him.
“I knew I loved it,” he says and credits both his parents for encouraging that love. Although his father had no involvement in art, he was “a great storyteller” and owned several retail stores in Shanghai. The family left for a 48-day cruise to Haifa, Israel, where they lived for some time. They also spent time in Paris before finally having an opportunity to move to the United States.
Raised as an only child, young Peter Max was thrilled when he went down the steps from the airplane to see two of his younger cousins waiting at the bottom of the stairs, each holding a pair of blue jeans in his size.
“I wore those jeans for weeks,” he recalls.
As a result of those early travels, Peter Max now speaks four languages fluently—Chinese, German, Hebrew and English—and understands bits and pieces of a number of others.
Plans a China Visit Soon
He will return to China in the near future for “a Big Show” of his works to be presented in Shanghai. The works of Peter Max are on display in hundreds of museums throughout the United States as well as in “30 or 40” museums throughout the world.
“I had the biggest show ever in the Hermitage in Russia,” he says. His works are also on display in the Moscow Museum, and he had another “biggest ever” show at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.
As for the future of art in America, Peter Max has been so busy doing his own painting that he hasn’t had much time to see many young artists, but he feels that the art world is being changed by the arrival of the computer as a graphic arts tool as compared with the hands-on approach that artists trained in his era use. He credits modern printing techniques for making his work available at a variety of price levels ranging from prints to lithographs to actual original paintings.
By Jackie McCallum
Article written for Destination Tampa Bay magazine
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