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.READ MORE +
Max: Personal History
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.
Max: Revolutionizing Graphic Design
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.
Max: Painting New Frontiers
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: Style and Influences
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.
Max: Recurring Themes
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.
Peter Max: Accomplishments
- Peter Max has been featured in more than 46 museums and 50 galleries worldwide.
- Max was featured on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1968 and on the cover of LIFE Magazine in 1969.
- He has completed paintings and projects of President Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama.
- Peter Max designed four posters for the Grammy Awards, was one of the artists chosen to redesign NBC’s peacock logo between 1993 and 2002, was appointed as the official artist for five Super Bowls, the World Cup USA in 1994, the NHL all-star game in 1996.
- Max created the official artwork for the U.S. Tennis Open in 1997. In 2017, Max was again asked to create the official U.S. Open artwork to celebrate its 20th anniversary at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City.
- Max was commissioned by the U.S. Post Office to make the first ever environmental 10-cent stamp, commemorating the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington.
- In 1981, Max was invited by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan to paint portraits of the Statue of Liberty at the White House. Thanks to this project, Max was able to work with Lee Iacocca of Chrysler to initiate a project that would save the deteriorating Statue of Liberty. Due to Max’s involvement, the restoration project raised enough funds to restore the worn landmark and reopen it to the public in July 1986.
- In May 1991, a Peter Max retrospective featuring more than 300 works of art opened at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Almost 15,000 people were in attendance, highlighting his international stature as an artist.
- In 1993, Max created a painting for the White House to commemorate the historic signing of the Israeli-Palestine peace accords.
- Peter Max designed the stage for the 1999 Woodstock Festival, celebrating the music festival’s 30-year anniversary.
- In 2000, Max was commissioned to paint a Continental Airlines Boeing 777 super jet.
- Max has been the subject of numerous books throughout his career. Max published “Peter Max Paints America” in 1976, which was presented by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden to President Gerald Ford and incoming president Jimmy Carter at the White House. In 2002, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. published “The Art of Peter Max,” written by Charles Riley III, Ph. D. In 2013, Max published “The Universe of Peter Max,” a biographical book featuring a foreword by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
- In 2006, Max was selected to be the official artist for the U.S. Olympic Team at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
- Peter Max was commissioned by Norwegian Cruise Line in 2011 to paint the hull of the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship.
- In 2015, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame commissioned Max to create posters and program cover art for its 30th annual induction ceremony.
- Max was vetted by NBC to create portraits of the four coaches of The Voice (Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani adn Pharrell Williams), America’s highly-viewed singing competition, which have been featured in print, transit ads, billboards, and on social media.
- In 2016, the Tampa Museum of Art held an exhibition, “Peter Max: 50 Years of Cosmic Dreaming,” featuring 90 works by Max that span five decades.