Q&A with Pop Art Icon Peter Max

Pop art icon Peter Max talks about the Yellow Submarine controversy, breakfasting with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, and his new Masters Series.

Few artists are as inextricably linked to American pop culture as Peter Max. And no artist is more synonymous with the spirit of the Swinging Sixties—or, in Max’s world, the “Cosmic Sixties.” Not only is his art—full of floating, puffy, swirly psychedelic images; celestial objects; rich, vibrant colors; and often featuring famous musicians, politicians, and iconic American figures (like the Statue of Liberty)—instantly recognizable, it is also among the most commercially successful in the world—ever.

The German-born Jewish American painter, whose given name is Peter Max Finkelstein, was raised in Shanghai, in the shadow of a Buddhist monastery, before his family moved to Haifa, Israel, when he was 10. The family spent some time in Paris, and young Max, an only child whose artistic leanings  were encouraged by his parents, even attended art classes at the Louvre. In 1953, his family moved to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and Max attended Lafayette High School.

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His work has been licensed by scores (at least 72) of corporations all over the world (starting in 1968 when General Electric put out a line of Peter Max clocks); he’s created works for six US presidents; and he’s been the official artist of five Super Bowls, the World Cup, the World Series, the US Open, the Grammys, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and more. His art has adorned tiny things (a US postage stamp) and gigantic things (a Continental Airlines Boeing 777) and has been featured in more than 100 museums and galleries worldwide. While some scoff at Max’s commercial appeal and success, and others dismiss him as a self-promoting hippie icon, the charitable vegan (he supports dozens of charities, including the Miracle League of Westchester) has been known as America’s “painter laureate” for the past 30+ years.

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.

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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.

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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 [1962], 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 anne@gearygallery.com.

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