Peter Max Biography
One of the most famous of all living artist's, Peter Max is also a pop culture icon. His bold colors, uplifting images and an uncommon artistic diversity have touched almost every phase of American culture and has inspired many generations.
Peter Max has painted for six U.S. Presidents and his art is on display in Presidential Libraries and in U.S. Embassies. Max has painted our Lady Liberty annually since America's Bicentennial and in 2000 a collage of his Liberties adorned over 145 million Verizon phone books.
Max has been named an official artist of the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He has also been Official Artist of 5 Super Bowls, World Cup USA, The World Series, The U.S. Open, The Indy 500, The NYC Marathon and The Kentucky Derby.
In 2002 Abrams Books published what would become one of the best-selling art books ever, "The Art Of Peter Max". His art has flown the skies on a Continental Airlines Boeing 777 Jet. His art installations include an amazing 600-ft stage for the Woodstock Music Festival, a giant mural for the Winter Olympics and 10-ft guitars for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
A Magical Childhood Adventure
The childhood of Peter Max is the material from which a sweeping James Michener novel or a Steven Spielberg movie is made: exotic locations, a cast of fascinating international characters, and the creative freedom to experiment and discover oneself.
His life’s adventure began in Germany where he was born in 1937. He and his family fled the Nazis in 1938 and moved to Shanghai, China, where they lived for the next ten years. His adventures from then on can be mapped across China, Tibet, Israel and France, before he reached his ultimate destination - America. With a pan-cultural background such as this for a budding artist, it was inevitable that his work would become so rich and diverse.
Max’s rise to prominence as an American icon actually began in his childhood home in Shanghai— a pagoda house, where on one side there was a Buddhist monastery, and on the other, a Sikh temple. In the morning he would watch the Buddhist monks painting Chinese characters on vast sheets of rice paper with large bamboo brushes and at night, he would listen to the beautifully sung prayers of the Sikhs. Shanghai was a colorful, magical place; there were always parades going by with dragons floating in the sky, chimes ringing and gongs echoing. Max was incredibly artistic from the moment he was born, enamored by color and constantly searching for ways to draw on everything. For Peter, color was paired with sound – an intense synesthesia. The ripple of crayons on a steamer trunk was the first memorable experience for the artist where he truly realized his love for sound and color. Today, there are few works by Max created in silence.
Early in his life, Max fell in love with three things: comic books, movies, and jazz – all uniquely American. Young Peter’s imagination raced as he was carried away to fantasies of other worlds and into the future through Comic books. Max’s early love for comic books hugely affected his style. The foreshortening of lines, bold colors, and the heavy black outline of the characters stayed with him. Peter also listened to American jazz on Shanghai radio and watched first run Hollywood movies over and over again at his friend’s father’s movie theater. There, in the ancient land of China, Peter Max became more immersed in contemporary American iconography than most children living in the U.S.A. at the time.
Early Art Influences
Peter’s mother, Salla, was a fashion designer in Berlin before the family moved to Shanghai. She cultivated her son’s innate talent by leaving various art supplies on all four balconies of their pagoda house— water colors, ink, brushes, pencils, crayons, colored papers, scissors, etc. She told him, “Choose any balcony and medium, make a big mess and we’ll clean up after you.”
He and his family traveled through Tibet, southern Africa, India, Italy, and Israel, exposing the young Peter to more cultures and languages than many see in a lifetime. While in Tibet, Max was struck by the monks in meditation. They were carrying their walking sticks and chanting by the waterfall at sunset—an image that Max wouldn’t forget and one that often appears in his art.. Before he left China, the pillars of Max’s style had been constructed. His love for color, spirituality, graphic lines, and music formed the foundation on which he would create his future artwork. Peter’s artistic encouragement continued when the family traveled to Haifa, Israel in 1948. Peter learned fluent Hebrew and began delving more seriously into his art. There, he studied with Austrian expressionist, Professor Hunik, who introduced his student to the colorful world of Fauvism and the paintings and drawings of Henri Matisse, Maurice Vlaminck, Max Beckmann and Alexi Jawlensky. Professor Hünik enlightened Peter, changing the way he thought about color. He became the professor’s protégé for the next two years and began defining himself as a colorist. When he needed more assistance with his drafting, he turned to comic books, following their foreshortened lines and vivid style.
A Cosmic Awakening
While Peter studied painting, his creativity became stimulated by another source. One day, he visited the Mt. Carmel Observatory and his earlier childhood fascination with astronomy got reawakened. He was so eager to learn about space that his parents enrolled him, at once, in an evening astronomy class at the Technion Institute. Learning about the vastness and wonders of the universe was a revelation to Peter. He became so absorbed by the subject, that he began to study art and astonomy simultaneously. His immense passion for space continues to this day, and celestial elements often appear in his works, especially his art of the late 1960s— a period appropriately coined, “The Cosmic ‘60s.”
The next destination of wonder was Paris, where the Max family spent nine months in 1953 before settling in America. Peter became captivated with the grand scale and painstaking perfection of Classical art and Realism, particularly the paintings of French artist, Bouguereau. Once again, his quest for creative self-expression was so strong that his parents enrolled him into art classes at the Louvre. But ultimately, it was New York City, with its growing pop art culture of fashions, automobiles, movie theaters, and towering over them all, the Empire State Building, that had taken a young man who had grown up in ancient lands and suddenly catapulted him into the future.
The Realism Period (1958-1962)
The Max family settled in Brooklyn. Max began his formal art studies at the Art Students League in Manhattan under the tutelage of Frank Reilly, a realistic painter. Reilly was trained by George Bridgeman, who was considered to be one of the great anatomists of the twentieth century. Reilly’s classmate, who studied alongside him, turned out to be one of America’s favorite artists— Norman Rockwell.
“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’s desire to master realism was intense. From the early morning sketch classes at 8 A.M. until the last class in the evening at 8 P.M., he worked constantly, studying anatomy, figure drawing, perspective, light and shadow, fabrics and textures, and composition. He worked with oil paint, watercolors, pastels, and charcoal. After classes and on weekends, Max spent all his spare time at museums studying the techniques of the masters. From Rembrandt, he learned light and composition; from Valesquez, the meticulous representation of form; from Bouguereau, photographic exactitude; and from Sargent, confident and stylistic brushstrokes. Of this rigorous discipline, Max says, “It gave me the gift of observation— the purity of seeing a thing clearly as it was.”
Max discovered, however, that by painting so photo-realistically, he was closing off his imagination, limiting his options. Pushing toward abstraction, color fielding, and many of the styles in vogue, Max eventually found a place as a “neo-fauvist” and a “neo-expressionist,” allowing his creative spirit to blossom.
The Graphic Arts Period (1962-1964)
After leaving the Art Student’s League, Max began looking for a gallery to exhibit his work. By chance, an Art Director for a record company, saw Max’s paintings at a photo copy service, where he had left them to make prints. He immediately contacted Max and commissioned him to do a painting for a record album cover for Meade Lux Lewis, the blues piano player. The album cover won the annual Society of Illustrators award and many other commissions and awards followed.
Max started a graphic design studio with friends, finding almost overnight success in the design industry. Throughout the sixties, Max developed his signature “psychedelic” style (his ongoing fusion of eastern yogi philosophy, astronomy, comic books, studies in color, and music) expressed through posters, advertising, and his graphic works. The look he achieved was sought-after by companies across the country and agencies, magazines, and national publications placed Max at the center of the youth movement.
The Collage Period (1964-1967)
Excited by the mid-’60s counterculture explosion, Max turned to the medium of collage to capture the zeitgeist of the era and create a mind-expanding psychedelic vision. The art of collage has a distinguished history in Modern art, extending back to the cubist work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. But Max’s collages had more in common with the Dadaists— Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp— as well as the surrealists— René Magritte and Salvador Dali. Although collage was already established as a great technique of Modernism, the use of photographic images in kaleidoscopic patterns was pioneered by Max.
The Peter Max Poster Revolution
Just as Max felt the oncoming impact of the ‘60s underground Cultural Revolution, he also saw the print industry expanding with four-color web presses. To Peter, this print media explosion meant one thing— he could turn his original art works into posters and share them with the youth of America.
A new world of possibilities opened for Max. He created color combinations right on the printing press, utilizing a “split fountain” technique that enabled him to blend colors as they were going through the ink rollers. He lyrically described the process as playing a printing press like an electric piano.
“In the sphere of printmaking, the many technical and artistic breakthroughs of this magnitude are the doorways to originality,” says Charles Reilly.
Soon, Max’s posters were hanging in college dorms all across America with several million sold in nine months. His posters were to the ‘60s what MTV was to the early ‘80s – radical, revolutionary and in demand. “Peter Max’s posters show him to be a visionary fascinated by time, space and evolution,” wrote reporter Don McNeil - Village Voice, Aug. 31, 1967. The story behind his poster for the Central Park “Be In” on Easter of 1967 was even adapted for the Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman’s film, “Hair.” Max was at the center of a cultural revolution, magnified by his unique graphic style. He was featured on The Tonight Show and on the cover of LIFE Magazine. His posters were on the walls of every college dorm-room, and he had become an iconic artist and designer.
Peter Max’s Cosmic 60’s
To the youth of America, the “sixties” was more than just another decade; it was the great American renaissance. The Beatles sang about it; the musical, Hair, brought it to the Broadway stage. One artist, above all - Peter Max - visually captured its creative spirit and its promise of the dawning of “The Age of Aquarius.”
Max’s signature style of cosmic characters, meticulously painted against bold, vibrant colors, were among the most influential graphic sources of the 1960s. Capturing the zeitgeist of the era, Max’s art was often cited by journalists and art critics as the visual counterpart to the music of The Beatles.
Like the Beatles, Max also made his TV debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. He also appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and made the cover of Life Magazine with an eight-page feature cover story.
Max’s art was so much in synch with the times that it was licensed by 72 corporations, from General Electric clocks to Burlington Mills socks. Within a three-year period, the line of products had generated more than $1 billion in retail sales.
In 1968, while working on a film in Paris, Max met Swami Satchidananda. That moment was life-changing for the artist. Introducing him to yoga and a deeper understanding of Eastern spirituality, Max invited the swami to stay with him in the United States, helping him establish the Integral Yoga Institute, spreading the teachings of yoga throughout America’s youth. With more than 70 branches in each state today, plus 21 other nations, Max helped introduce yoga to a greater portion of the world, enlightening young and creative minds.
For most of the 1970s, Max shut down his graphic workshop. Intensely focused on his getting back to the paint, he took himself off the radar for almost 18 years, only spending time painting. Throughout the ‘70s, even while retreating somewhat from the spotlight, Max stayed busy, the subject of an exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco called “The World of Peter Max.” He was also commissioned by the U.S. Post Office to make the first ever environmental 10 cent stamp, commemorating the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington. In 1976, he worked with Lee Iacocca of Chrysler to save the Statue of Liberty, creating a series that generated enough funding to restore the desperately worn landmark.
His style changed during this 18-year retreat, adapting his technique to the paint rather than a graphic medium. His palette became softer and more diverse and his strokes became broader and more textured. Thematically, he began to develop new imagery, like The Dega Man, Zero Megalopolis, and The Umbrella Man. American icons, especially the Statue of Liberty, appeared over and over in his works and, by the time he returned to the public scene in the ‘80s, Max’s style has transformed into something dramatic and almost politically charged. He re-opened his studio, creating a 40,000 square foot space for administration, painting, production, and gallery tours, just across the street from Lincoln Center in Manhattan. From that point on, Peter Max has stayed in the public eye, using his art to express his creativity while raising awareness on environmental and humanitarian issues.
In his global causes, Max is a passionate environmentalist and defender of human and animal rights. He has done paintings and projects for Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. In 1994, Max created a “Peace Accord” painting for the White House to commemorate the historic signing.
Max has completed his fourth Grammy Award poster, redesigned NBC’s symbolic peacock, was appointed as the official artist for five Super Bowls, the World Cup USA, Woodstock, the U.S. Tennis Open, and the NHL all-star game. Recently, he created six poster images in response to the September 11th attacks. Proceeds from the sale of these works were donated to the September 11th, Twin Towers, and Survivors Relief Funds. In October 2002, Max created 356 portrait paintings of the firefighters who perished in the September 11th terrorist attacks. Each painting was presented to the surviving families of the firefighters at a ceremony at Madison Square Garden. Also in 2002, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. published a new hardcover book, “The Art of Peter Max,” written by Charles Riley III, Ph. D.
Today, Max has evolved from a visionary pop artist of the 1960s to a master of neo-expressionism. His vibrant and colorful works have become a lasting part of contemporary American culture.
Peter Max One-Man Museum Exhibitions:
- Moscow Academy of Fine Art
- Berlin Kunsthalle Museum
- Modern Art museum, Munich
- Parco Museum, Japan
- Tennessee State Museum
- Corcoran Gallery, DC
- Smithsonian Institute, DC
- El Paso Museum of Arts, TX
- Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- Phoenix Museum of Art, AZ
- Fort Wayne Museum of Art
- Jacksonville Art Museum, FL
- Denver Art Museum, CO
- Colorado Springs Art Centre
- Wichita Art Museum, KS
- Newport Harbor Art Museum
- St Petersburg Museum, FL