Quintessential Max: the colorful, dreamlike Cosmic Runner
Max’s homage to Paul McCartney, which he gave to the Beatle for his 70th birthday this past June
The 74-year-old (he’ll be 75 in October) father of four lives and works in New York City (his studio on West 65th Street, across the street from Lincoln Center) with his wife, Mary. We caught up with Max—who will exhibit his Masters Series, featuring interpretations of works by van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, Degas, and other artists, this month at the Geary Gallery in Darien, Connecticut—and he was happy to chat about the new series, as well as old memories.
Tell us about the new Masters Series. Was this something that you planned? It just evolved. A few years ago, I had a beautiful reproduction of a van Gogh self-portrait that I loved pinned on the side of my easel. One day I painted it from afar. Then I did another painting, then I ‘over-painted’ it and did all kinds of configurations. Then somebody gave me a self-portrait of Rembrandt, then I got a Chagall, a Picasso, and a Matisse. Some were renderings or self-portraits; some of the later ones were photographs. Some I would look at and then do my own versions; others, I’d paint over—there were all kinds of variations. And it just became a series.
Let’s talk about some of your iconic paintings. Lady Liberty comes to mind. I painted the Statue of Liberty in fifty different ways—holding the torch, profile, front view, collage. I also painted The Beatles in ten different ways, because I was friends with The Beatles. I did Mick Jagger, too.
Your name is almost synonymous with the sixties. How does someone who is so indelibly linked to an era stay fresh and relevant—is it a challenge? No, it’s completely natural. I identify myself with the era I’m in and don’t drag that period into the future. The sixties kind of hovered over me, but there are people who are just discovering me today who say, ‘Wow, you were huge in the sixties.’ Some people think it’s the sixties, some think it’s the seventies, but, as far as I know, I’ve been vital every decade from the sixties to this very minute.
Max’s rendering of van Gogh’s self-portrait, part of his Masters Series
Your art seems also to be very connected to music. With the possible exception of Andy Warhol, you’ve been more connected to rock music than any other artist in the past fifty years. I’m a music fanatic. I love all the musicians, from the hard-rock guys to The Beatles to fusion. Do you know that, in my studio, I have about fifty people working for me, and I have one guy who’s my full-time DJ?
Not just music, but musicians—you have always had a ‘connection’ with musicians. I’m so lucky to have met so many beautiful, beautiful, imaginative rock stars, from Bob Dylan to Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix. I used to have breakfast with Jimi three or four times a week because, when I lived in Woodstock, he lived maybe fifteen blocks away, and there was a café called the Bearsville Café that we used to go to. It would be breakfast, lunch, or dinner with Hendrix, Janis, and Bob Dylan all the time. We would rotate.
Many people assume that you did the work for The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine… Well, I actually did. I was very, very close friends with The Beatles, and they were going to make a movie. I remember getting a call from John, saying they wanted me to do it. So I designed it. And then I flew to Europe and found out that they wanted me to stay in Europe for seventeen months and make the whole film. I said, ‘I can’t.’ I had a fifteen-month-old boy and my wife was going to give birth to another kid in four or five months, and I was not going to stay away for a whole year. There was an artist in Europe, in Düsseldorf, Germany, named Heinz Edelmann, who called himself ‘the German Peter Max.’ I called him and gave him the opportunity to do the film. When I met him and he gave me his card that said ‘Heinz Edelmann: The German Peter Max,’ I said, ‘Heinz, I don’t mind if you copy my work, but please don’t copy it exactly and please take my name off of your card.’
His supporters and people involved with him and the film have denied that he copied you and say it’s the reverse… Oh, I was doing this kind of stuff since you were born , and the Yellow Submarine stuff didn’t happen until the late sixties. I am still very good friends with Ringo and Paul; Ringo and I speak every few weeks on the phone, and when he’s in New York, he comes and visits. Paul, the same thing. I miss John and George. George and I had one thing very much in common—we both loved yoga. He had the Maharishi and I had Swami Satchidananda.
Do you have a favorite artist or painter? I like all the painters who’ve come before me.
The Masters Series and other work by Peter Max will be on exhibition (free to the public) at the Geary Gallery in Darien, Connecticut, and there will be special receptions with the artist on 9/8 (6 – 9 pm) and 9/9 (1 – 4 pm). For more info: (203) 655-6633 or firstname.lastname@example.org.