An Interview with Legendary Artist Peter Max
How does New York, the home of your studio, influence your work?
Max: It probably does indirectly. Like living in any big city, with everything a minute away and access to everything. I have a beautiful studio right by Lincoln Center. Every morning, I can’t wait to get there, and at night I don’t want to leave. I have a gigantic painting room, there’s 18 TV monitors, a meeting room… it’s a very pleasant place, inductive to creativity. I go every day. I call up my buddies sometimes to open the studio on a Saturday. It’s like my playground. We have events there at least once a month. I’m very involved with animal protection and the Humane Society.
Most artists would kill to be able to make a living if only for a few years as a fine artist or commercial artist. You’ve been at it for 50 years. To what do you attribute your longevity in this business?
Max: I got out of art school in the late 60s and, like most kids, I was nervous and a little scared. Will I ever succeed, will I sell my paintings? Then it just suddenly exploded. My style and look was gravitated to. I never realized that my drawings had such an impact on the country. Suddenly I was on the Ed Sullivan Show, Johnny Carson… I was so young. Of course now, I am very comfortable with it. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.
What role did art play in successfully getting President Obama into office?
Max: It definitely had an impact. I painted 44 Obamas for the museum installation (since he’s the 44th president). For me, it was beyond my dreams when he won the election. I have done a few extras for some people who wanted one. It’s a very interesting time in our history for an African American man to become president.
In your mind, who are the most inspiring artists alive and working today?
Max: All the pop artists, they are all good friends of mine… Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein…. Every few decades there are always a few artists who make the scene, and museums pick them up. Artists get into galleries, and then collectors pick them up, then museums and auction houses. More and more artists are getting recognized in the media.
You love and thrive off painting to music. What’s your favorite music to paint to?
Max: I love all music. Led Zeppelin, Chris Cornell, jazz, rock, I like it all. There’s not a genre of music that I don’t love. Music is one of the greatest things on this Earth.
Do you ever tire of the Peter Max color palette and splashy style that has been prevalent in your work from the beginning? As an artist, do you ever want to work with a somber palette or do something tight and intricate?
Max: I’ll sometimes move in that direction. I can go somber, I can go colorful, loud or minimal… extreme in different directions. I love doing drawings in black and white. I like all of these things.
Once you hit on a successful technique do you ever want to try something else to see if it can become popular as well?
Max: The techniques and styles evolve on their own. I kind of inherit them. Something new will come about and I will gravitate toward it. I’ll stay with it until something else happens.
You say every painting is your favorite while you’re actually painting it. If all of your works were on a sinking ship and you could only save one, which would it be and why?
Max: (Laughs) I don’t know. It would be hard to say. I look at each and I can recognize the moment. If a father had 12 children, which one would he save, right? It’s hard. I have an emotional relationship to all of them. I’d want to save the ship itself!