Awkward, Man

Robert Urquhart heads in search of a self-styled American art legend and discovers that, somewhere on the trip, the 'peace and love' hippy became a living brand with his work splashed across Boeing jets and luxury liners.

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Life magazine cover, September 1969, featuring Peter Max

Sometimes when you do a job you walk away, and for whatever reason, you end up feeling empty inside. I'd been looking forward to interviewing Peter Max. Having previously interviewed Victor Moscoso, another hippy from the same era as Max — an interview I found frustrating and entertaining in equal measure — I thought I knew what to expect: a cagey, cantankerous fat cat, bogarting peace and love. What I found was all that and yet, unlike with Moscoso, I was left adrift.

Max has been the darling of his New York circle since the late sixties. Starting out as a graphic artist before gravitating to the art world, Max, like Moscoso in San Francisco, traded off the burgeoning music scene of the time. However, whilst Moscosco was into the grittier Grateful Dead, Fillmore Ballroom scene, Max was into the fluffier Beatles, pop-yoga and spirituality vibe. Meeting yogi-master Swami Satchidananda is often cited in interviews as a defining point in his personal and spiritual development. 

By the end of the 1960s, Max was an art A-lister, appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show. By the 1970s he was licensing his artwork to corporations and making signature clocks for General Electric, having shows titled The World of Peter Max and helping the CEO of Chrysler restore the Statue of Liberty in New York.

It is his association with The Beatles, however, that's become the notable career highlight. To many, he's thought of as the artist behind the artwork for Yellow Submarine. It's often wrongly assumed that Peter Max created all the artwork for the film, but the task fell to Heinz Edelmann who did the leg work after Max decided not to travel to Europe for the job.

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Love, 1967 © Peter Max

I'd arranged to meet him at his studio in West Central Park in New York. Fixing a date had been tricky — Max’s PR, the formidable Elizabeth Derringer, ex rock journalist and former wife of guitarist Rick Derringer, now PR to Donald Trump, amongst others, appears to have miscommunicated my arrival. Now I’m here and no one knows I’m coming.  

I love swimming in creativity and if people make money off it, let it be.

After negotiating the front door buzzer (there are several Peter Max businesses listed) I'm left in the lobby of the seventh-floor studio.  Willy Wonkaesque,  Peter Max pops out, looking not unlike Ron Mael from Sparks. He's friendly and gracious and, more importantly, he agrees to the interview.

Max uses the words “love”, “shape”, “music” and “colours” alongside the phrase “I am an artist” a lot. Peter Max is an artist. Is Peter Max also a brand? “I would guess so. To some people [Peter Max] is [a brand], to me it's just my name, but to other people it’s a brand,” he reasons.

In Europe, I conjecture, some unscrupulous people, let's call them 'blue meanies' might take cheap shots at overly-branded commercial art, in that it is tacky, naff and all about ‘the sale’. Has similar criticism ever been levelled against him? “No, and it’s never that way for me, my thing is all about creativity, colours, sound... I love swimming in creativity and if people make money off it, let it be. It’s okay. And if it goes into the media let it be. You know, it’s an expression of the artist, so you know, I'm a real artist, I love colour, I love painting, I love music…".

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Donovan, 1967 © Peter Max

Time and again, Max references his buddies Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and the mention of “let it be” triggers a McCartney-based Pavlovian response. Max has worked with all the greats.  Max is best buddies with all the greats. Were there people around that he's never got to meet I ask, anyone that he'd loved to have worked with? “Well, thank god I met most of them," says Max, " I was good friends with The Beatles, good friends with Jimi Hendrix, good friends with everybody from then, to Bon Jovi now.  So I'm really grateful for all this”. 

I think he means Jon Bon Jovi, lead singer, not the entire band. Wow, how did he get to meet Bon Jovi? "Just in New Jersey, he lives in New York and somehow we got together”. So, does Max seek out these pop upstarts or do they find him?  “I never ask, it just happens, you know. You run into somebody and one day we had an event up here and Bon Jovi came by, so we became buddies. Bruce Springsteen came by…”. 

I'm not sure if he's trying to impress, after all, Max is part of our cultural aristocracy, but I think he may be trying to show his relevance — pop culture has been his currency, and it's served him well. 

When Warhol was alive we were always basically the same price points, when I sold something for $20,000, he sold it for $20,000...

With the Yellow Submarine story in mind, treading lightly, I ask what the biggest misconception about his work has been. “I don't think there has ever been one,” Max responds, “ I think people enjoy my work and I enjoy people. I love many other artists, I was good friends with Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, all those guys, and they all did great work and I was part of them, you know?” 

Andy Warhol. Does Max identify himself with Warhol, at least in terms of having a studio that's rather like a factory producing work?  “He called it a factory, every studio is a little bit of a factory; you are making stuff, you're making prints, you're making posters but my main thing is drawing and painting, that's what I love to do. Andy Warhol and I were the best of friends. When Warhol was alive we were always basically the same price points, when I sold something for $20,000, he sold it for $20,000, $30,000, $50,000… but now, unfortunately, he's gone, the stuff has gone up to millions and millions, like all artists”. 

Now, jazzed up art tourists eager to make an investment in art in galleries across the country from Connecticut to Hawaii are staple income for Max, whilst at sea, cruise ship auctions rake in big money for Max's main representative, Park West Gallery, in Michigan. Max has got it covered, but he's had to whether a few storms in the past few years. 

Fox News, in a handy online guide to buying a cruise ship auctioned artwork, makes a cautious note in saying that Max's work is “unique but not rare” — they are originals but not hard to come by, due to the sheer volume floating about.  

And back in 1996 Max was charged, and pleaded guilty to, concealing more than $1.1 million of income from the Internal Revenue Service. Very un-groovy. These credibility blips are, perhaps, to be expected of such a flamboyant and prolific personality.  

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Norwegian Cruise Line's vessel, hull designed by Peter max, 2013 © Peter Max

Max is positioned as an ‘artist of the people’ alongside Walt Disney and Bob Dylan (a quote on his website asserts this), but it's hard, nigh impossible, to find a serious independent art critique of his work. The closest I get in an article in the L.A. Times from 1990 that quotes the late and legendary art critic Hilton Kramer saying of Max "he's the producer of a product that many people confuse for art. What he does has nothing to do with art." Mind, though, that Kramer was no fan of pop art or postmodernism and hardly likely to have a good word to say about any of Max's associates. 

I love being creative. Paul McCartney loves melodies and there're some other friends who like making business deals, everything is creativity.

The art business and business of art is murky territory for the interview, so I try to lift the mood and get on the level by asking if Max believes in an aura of creativity in celebrity. I'd once met George Harrison at a party when I was a teenager, and I tell Max this, explaining that I physically felt the presence of a legend in the room, it was as if the air had been vacuum sucked; I wasn't star struck; I was an arrogant teen.  Had I felt 'the spirit’? Is excellence in creativity a spirit of sorts? “We all have creative spirits, and the spirit is recognised by melodies or by stories or by putting something together, that's all creativity,” says Max, "creativity is what this universe is about, that's why they call it ‘creation’”. 

What advice would Max give a young artist starting out? “Just paint. No rules, no regulations, if you like humming songs, hum songs, if you play the piano, play the piano, if you are a story teller, tell stories”  

Is Max a hippy? "I think the hippy period was great, I never got fed up with it, I loved it, but I love every period, all nice, and you know, I'm a creative guy and there's always creativity and creativity – it’s a will to do something that is pleasant, that gives me pleasure and colour and melody, in line work, in just, creativity. I just enjoy it and I love it so much”. 

We talk about Woodstock, the festival and the place (Max has a house there) and I ask him if he has a particularly inspirational place to go to in order to work? “I think the work comes from me whether I'm in Woodstock, whether I'm in Manhattan or St John in The [Virgin] Islands,” he says. “I love being creative. Paul McCartney loves melodies and there're some other friends who like making business deals, everything is creativity”. 

At some point in the interview I lose hope of getting beyond the mantra of love, shapes, colours and being an artist. I feel like I'm being led around an empty vessel in shallow waters, possibly one with an art auction onboard somewhere. 

Things draw to a close with a heartwarming story about how Max met his wife-to-be across the street from his studio. He radiates warmth and love and it’s hard to feel any ill will towards the man. He's stood for some great philanthropic causes, he's a vegan, he promoted yoga to New York (and the rest of America) long before the Sex in the City crowd moved in. He's as colourful as his artwork, and you can't help but admire the man despite a nagging feeling that something isn't as it should be.  

On the way out, I stop at the door and a strange compulsion to pull the full Ringo Starr act overwhelms me: I self-consciously mumble "peace and love" at Max.  "Peace and Love,” comes the echo, "Peace and Love".

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Peter Max artwork featured on Continental Airlines Boeing 777 Jet © Peter Max

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Peter Max paint scheme for NASCAR race driver Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 2000 © Peter Max

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Instant Nutriment, 1969 © Peter Max

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Wizard Santa, 1998 © Peter Max