by Daniel Tidwell
Rainbows, stars, moons, spaceships, flowers, and hearts are all part of the vibrant visual world of Peter Max. For over forty years Max has been one of the most instantly recognizable artists in the world. His trademark graphic style belies the era of flower power when he honed his style and gained notoriety with his signature graphics, which helped define the style of ’60s pop culture.
Max will bring his bold graphics to the Rymer Gallery in November for a special show of recent paintings and works from throughout his career. The show will feature his paintings inspired by Taylor Swift’s album covers as well as the debut of a new rendition of the Nashville skyline. Max has been named the “official artist of the Grammys” on five separate occasions, so a show in downtown Music City, just a few blocks from the Ryman, is a natural fit.
It’s not the first time that Max has shown in Nashville—the Tennessee State Museum held exhibitions of his work in 1993 and 2007. According to Max, the audiences for his previous shows in Nashville were “three or four times what it would normally be for a show”—a testament to the artist’s popularity in Music City.
Born into a Jewish family that fled Nazi Germany in 1938 when he was one year old, Max’s visual talent was honed at a young age during an eclectic, globe-trekking childhood that included periods of living in Shanghai, Tibet, Israel, Paris, and Brooklyn. According to Max, it was in Shanghai that his artistry first took flight. “My father was a very good draftsman, and he taught me to draw,” says Max.
When I was three my mother hired a nanny whose father was an artist. She came over every day with a stack of paper, and every day for years we would draw. By the time I was six or seven, I could draw anything.
Max’s formative training began when he enrolled in a summer art class at the Art Students League in New York where he studied with Frank J. Reilly, a realist painter, illustrator, and muralist. “Reilly was a great technician,” says Max. “He was a scientist of light and shadow. He would have his students paint the same face forty times in as many types of light or angles as could be imagined.”
Max recalls the experience of seeing other well-known artists at the school, including Norman Rockwell, who was a good friend of Frank Reilly. Max says, “When the summer was over, I decided that I would stay and study art. I fell in love with drawing and painting and realized that what got me going is when I learned composition. A lot of good composition is graphics and how to fill the space of a canvas.” His strong sense of composition served him well as a budding artist, lending his work a “good sense of abstraction” that could inform his realist work.
“When I got out of the Art Students League, I opened a small art studio with my friend Tom Daley,” says Max. The graphic work that Max created during this period in the early ’60s used collage photographic elements to produce a kaleidoscopic effect. Since childhood Max was fascinated by astronomy—so interested in fact that by the time he was 16 he was certain that he would be an astronomer. Max’s long-standing interest in the subject gave rise to his “Cosmic ’60s” period, his classic work that became associated with the counter culture of the era.
His fame and success as a designer exploded in the ’60s through posters, TV commercials, magazine covers, and licensing for merchandise. The role that Max’s ubiquitous posters played in the ’60s has been likened to MTV’s impact on pop culture during the ’80s.
Throughout his career Max has continued to capitalize on the commercial opportunities that his work presents, painting pianos, guitars, cars, airplanes and, most recently, designing the artwork for the hull of a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. Max has even ventured into the digital realm, offering two smartphone apps that generate birthday greetings and e-cards.
As Max describes it, his creative process is surprisingly intuitive for such a commercially oriented artist. “I get ten to twenty jars of paint and just go at it,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I just paint and don’t know what I’m going to paint. It may start as flowers and turn into a landscape.” Max takes a hands-on approach to his work, only using assistants to paint the backgrounds of his images.
I do the actual brush strokes, he says. I invent all the images.
Peter Max’s imagery is an indelible part of the zeitgeist of the ’60s and an instantly recognizable touchstone for the Baby Boom generation. He’s everyman’s Andy Warhol, turning appropriated images into colorful confections that are more at home at the local mall than at MOMA.
His profitable and prolific career continues today with shows across the nation and, as the artist notes, “over 1,000 museums with my work in their collections.” In talking with the artist one can still sense his enthusiasm for visual expression and glean a feeling for what once must have been a true wonder at the possibilities of communication through design. Much of his recent work, however, seems overly calculated, catering to his own market—like a pop version of Thomas Kinkade. There is no doubt that having a lifelong career as an artist is a difficult endeavor, and Max’s enduring success and popularity are a tribute to his ability to reinvent himself over the decades.
Peter Max’s work will be on view at the Rymer Gallery from Friday, November 9, through Sunday, November 18, 2012. Take the opportunity to meet the artist at The Rymer Gallery on November 17, 6-9 pm and on November 18, 1-4.
Are you planning to meet Peter Max when he comes to Nashville?