Peter 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 and is synonymous with the spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
During his long career, the artist has painted for six U.S. presidents, was the official artist for the 2006 Winter Olympics U.S. team, and has created art for Woodstock, World Cups, U.S. Opens, and Super Bowls.
Peter Max was born in Germany in 1937. He and his family fled the Nazis in 1938 and moved to Shanghai, China, where they lived for the next 10 years. Max was incredibly artistic from the moment he was born, enamored by color and constantly searching for ways to draw on everything (to the detriment of his mother). For Max, 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. In China, Max’s lessons were taught in English, so when he saw his first American movie at the cinema and picked up his first comic book, he was thrilled to understand them.
In 1948, Max and his family traveled through Tibet, which had a profound effect on Max’s artistic development and spiritual growth. A German scientist and astronomer staying in the same hotel as Max’s family also had a lasting impact on Max, introducing him to cosmology.
That same year Max and his family moved to Haifa, Israel. Max became fluent in Hebrew and began delving more seriously into his art. His parents tried to structure his creativity by enrolling him in art lessons with a Viennese Expressionist after school. Professor Hünik enlightened Max, 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—an artist skilled in using and manipulating color. When he needed more assistance with his drafting, he turned to comic books, following their foreshortened lines and vivid style.
Peter Max’s fascination with cosmology expanded when he began reading the encyclopedia, beginning with the letter ‘A.’ He got no further than astronomy. He was so enamored by the subject that he began to take evening classes at Technion, a scientific university in Haifa. Later in life, this quest for cosmic knowledge would become spiritual as much as scientific.
Before immigrating to the United States, the Max family traveled to Paris for six months in 1953 where Max spent time studying at the Louvre. At the Louvre, Max became intrigued by the photorealistic works of 19th-century artist Adolphe-William Bouguereau, inspiring him to take up the style.
His family eventually settled in Brooklyn, where Max graduated high school and studied under the realist Frank J. Reilly at the Art Students League in 1956. He learned drafting and anatomy from Reilly, finely honing the photorealism he admired of Bouguereau. Max spent nearly all his time at the Art Students League, taking every class possible for the next five years. Max discovered, however, that photorealism limited his imagination. He created his last realistic painting in 1959.
In 1961, fresh out of school, Max established a graphic design studio with friends. They found almost overnight success in the design industry. Around this time Max began experimenting with a more abstract and colorful style. He expressed this new, psychedelic style through posters, advertising, and graphic works. The look he achieved was sought-after by companies across the country. Agencies, magazines, and national publications sought out Max’s style for a wide variety of projects and commissions.
The story behind his poster for the Central Park “Be In” on Easter of 1967 was adapted for the Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman’s film, “Hair.” Max found himself at the center of a cultural revolution, magnified by his unique graphic style. As an iconic artist and designer, his posters could be found on the walls of college dorm rooms around the country.
In 1968, while working on a film in Paris, Max met Swami Satchidananda, who introduced him to yoga and a deeper understanding of Eastern spirituality. Inspired, 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. With more than 70 branches throughout the United States 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. He took himself off the radar for almost 18 years to spend time with his family and concentrate on his new passion—painting. He enjoyed the freedom that came from working with canvases and brushes instead of printing presses.
Park West Gallery has enjoyed a relationship with Max since the 1970s and is the artist’s largest and longest-running dealer in the world. Although Max retreated from the spotlight during this time, he continued to evolve his artistic style, and was the subject of the exhibition “The World of Peter Max” at the de Young Museum in 1971.
Max re-opened his studio in Manhattan, creating a 40,000-square-foot space for administration, painting, production, and gallery tours. From that point on, Max has stayed in the public eye, using his art to express his creativity while raising awareness on environmental and humanitarian issues.
Showing patriotism and a love for his adopted country, Max created six poster images in response to the September 11th attacks. Proceeds from the series were donated to the September 11 and Twin Towers Relief Funds. In October 2002, Max created 356 portrait paintings of the firefighters and first responders who perished that day. Each painting was presented to the surviving families of the firefighters during a ceremony at Madison Square Garden.
Alongside his patriotism, Max is a passionate environmentalist and defender of human and animal rights, using his talents to support these causes.
Max’s signature style is characterized by uplifting cosmic and patriotic themes carefully painted with brilliant hues and loose brushstrokes. Max adapted his techniques from graphic works to painting, with his palette becoming softer and more diverse and his strokes broader and more textured.
The influence of comic books, with their foreshortening of lines, bold colors, and heavy black outlines, stayed with Max throughout his career. This formed the foundation of Max’s style alongside his love for color, spirituality, and music.
While studying at the Louvre, Max found inspiration in the nearly photo-realistic paintings of Adolphe-William Bouguereau, motivating Max to focus on draftsmanship. Despite mastering photorealism, Max felt stifled by the style and pursued a different direction which embraced abstraction, broad color fields, and other styles in vogue during the 1960s. In doing so, Max allowed his creative spirit to blossom. This was his initial step toward Neo-Fauvism and Neo-Expressionism.
Throughout the ‘60s, Max developed his signature cosmic style. He blended his fascinations with Eastern philosophy, astronomy, studies in color, and music with vivid bursts of color to create a truly unique style.
Max’s artistic talents span multiple mediums, including painting, drawing, etching, lithography, serigraphy, collage, and sculpture.
While in Tibet, Max was struck by the image of monks in meditation. They carried their walking sticks and chanted by the waterfall at sunset—an image that Max wouldn’t forget and now includes in his art as sages.
As his artwork evolved, Max developed other imagery like the Dega Man, Zero Megalopolis, and The Umbrella Man. Other iconic imagery appearing throughout Max’s oeuvre includes his profiles of women, such as Blushing Beauty. These portraits are inspired by the women in his life.
American icons, especially the Statue of Liberty, appear over and over in his works. By the time he returned to the public art scene in the ‘80s, Max’s American imagery became dramatic, expressing his appreciation of America’s freedoms and creative spirit.