Sunday, October 19, 2014

Peter Max—Psychedelic Poster Boy and Art Mogul

If you are a certain age and you put on some vintage vinyl and close your eyes to try an visualize the Sixties it is highly likely that the image that will pop into your head like an acid flashback is a Peter Max poster with all of its vivid colors, bold lines, celestial imagery, and general  wistfulness.  Even if you know better, you can help yourself.  No artist of the era—not even the relentlessly self-promoting Andy Warhol—was more ubiquitous and iconic.
Yet despite enormous technical mastery and inventiveness, Max is an artist many love to hate—even when they can’t get his images out of their heads.  Likely because he became a brand and an empire, supposedly whoring himself to capitalism and advertising while also merchandising his images in posters, books, coffee mugs, clothing and textiles, wallpaper, and almost every conceivable consumer product.  In the process, which continues to this day, Max may have become the richest artist who ever lived—a single-handed Wal-Mart colossus of art.
That is so far in conflict with the peace/love/joy message of his Sixties art work that it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that we can hardly deal with.
Peter Max Finkelstein was born on October 19, 1937 to an artistic and secular Jewish family in Berlin, Germany.  It was a notably inconvenient time to be Jewish in Germany.  When Peter was less than a year old the family managed to flee the country, somehow finding themselves in Shanghai, China where they lived for the next ten years through the Japanese occupation and World War II. 
The family seemed to live a charmed life in a pagoda style house sandwiched in between Buddhist monastery and a Sikh temple.  On the streets outside he could watch colorful Chinese New Year and other parades with their dancing dragons and lions.  His mother, a former fashion designer, littered the house with art supplies of all types and encouraged her son to create whatever inspired him promising to clean up any mess he made.  Or so the story goes.
By the time the war ended and Peter was old enough, he haunted the markets of the town for American comic books, listened to jazz on the radio, and took in the latest Hollywood movies at a cinema operated by a family friend.   
In 1948 the family immigrated to Israel where they settled in Haifa just in time for another war.  A war from which the family, once again emerged unscathed.  There he took his first art lessons from an Austrian expressionist, Professor Honik who introduced the boy to Fauvism and the paintings and drawings of Henri Matisse, Maurice Vlaminck, Max Beckmann, and Alexi Jawlensky.  After visiting the observatory on Mt. Carmel, Peter also took an interest in astronomy and even enrolled in night classes to study the stars at Technion Institute
In the early Fifties the family moved again to Paris where they lived for nearly a year.  He the teenager was exposed to and fell under the thrall of Classical and realist art he discovered at the Louvre.  He even enrolled in classes at the museum school.
But before he could settle down in France, the family migrated for a final time to the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York in 1953.  The-re he enrolled  at Lafayette High School.  The bustling City of New York itself with its teeming streets, towering art deco skyscrapers, chic fashion, sleek automobiles, movie palaces, and art everywhere was an even more important education.
After high school Peter began his formal art education at the Art Students League in Manhattan under the tutelage of noted realist Frank Reilly.  He was exceptionally diligent in mastering all of the techniques of representational drawing and painting.  In addition to his lessons he spent hour every weekend in museums carefully studying the work and technique of the masters.
Upon graduation Peter Finkelstein was using the name Peter Max as he attempted to start a career as a fine artist.  His devotion to realism and representational art, however, made it difficult to make headway in the city that was replacing Paris as the center of the art world on the strength of the abstract expressionist and other non-representational forms of modern art.  He was struggling to find a gallery that would even show his work until he had a chance encounter with an art director for a record company who commissioned him to create a cover for an album by bluesman Meade Lux Lewis.  The moody and evocative cover painting ended up winning the annual Society of Illustrators award. 
Max had stumbled from the world fine art to commercial art.  He was soon very successful in his new endeavor.  In 1962, Max and Tom Daly started The Daly & Max Studio, a small commercial arts studio known and were later joined by friend and mentor Don Rubbo.  The trio  collaborated on book design and advertising.  They specialized in a form of collage that blended vintage photographic images with painted elements.  Awards and commissions began to roll in as the three worked as a group on books and advertising for which they received industry recognition.  Much of their work incorporated antique photographic images as elements of collage.

Psychedelic poster art.

By the mid-sixties in response to the psychedelic movement, Max was using kaleidoscopic techniques with his collages and was adding bolder color.  He also returned to his old interest in astronomy and began to incorporate stars, moons, and planets in his designs to lend them an other-worldly quality.  This celestial period is what Max is still best known for and which he continued to mine well into the ‘70’s
Advertisers loved it illustrations for 7Up’s Un-cola campaign were a huge hit and caused sales of the soft drink to jump dramatically.  Many others scrambled to commission Max to work on their own campaigns.  Max soon became aware that his commercial images were being pinned to the walls of college dormitories and hippy crash pads.  That led Max to designing decorative posters for just that market.
Previously artists made fine art lithographic prints in limited editions which were signed and numbered and sold at galleries for hefty prices.  Max did some of that.  But he was really intrigued by the high quality that could be achieved on the new high speed four color web offset presses.  He borrowed and a technique of using a split fountain that enabled him to blend colors as they were going through the ink rollers that had been pioneered in San Francisco Oracle and in West Coast concert posters.  He described the process of playing a printing press to playing electric piano.
Max’s posters registered with the zeitgeist.  In 9 months of 1968 several million of his posters were sold, mostly for less than $5 each.  He became not only a celebrity, but a household name.  That with his long black hair, drooping mustache, and colorful hippy togs—shirts made from fabric he designed he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, chatted with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and was featured in a cover story in Life magazine. 
The counter culture was going mainstream fast.  The success of the Peter Max brand led to more and more advertising and merchandising deals.  By 1970 Max licensed images to 72 corporations from General Electric clocks to Burlington Mills socks. Within a three year period, the line of products had generated more than $1 billion in retail sales.  And Max got a cut off the top of each sale.  No artist in history had ever made money this fast or easily. 
Max was so influential that he often got credit for work he didn’t do.  Most people think he designed the images for The Beatles’s Yellow Submarine animated film.  Although the work was obviously inspired by Max, the producers always denied he was involved.  In recent years however, Max has told interviewers that he was close friend with the Beatles and they solicited him for ideas for the movie that were used.  But they wanted him to personally do the animation, which would have required seventeen months of continuous labor in Europe.  Instead Heinz Edelmann, who advertised himself as the German Peter Max, was officially commissioned to do the design work.  

Dale Earnhardt race car

The Sixties may have been the acme of Max’s fame, but he has been consistently busy with original work and commissions ever since.  He has done a US Postage Stamp honoring Expo ‘74 World,s Fair in Spokane, Washington; a Statue of Liberty Series to raise money for the monument’s restoration; a Bi-Centennial book, Peter Max Paints America commissioned by a Swedish electrical conglomerate; done posters, programs, and other art for major events including  the World Cup, the Grammy Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Super Bowl, and World Series;  painted Dale Earnhardt’s Winston All-Atar Race car; a Continental Air Line plane; and a Norwegian Cruise Line ship.
He began painting portraits of American Presidents Gerald Ford, moving to multiple images beginning with 100 Clintons.  He most recently exhibited 44 Obamas.
In 2007 Abrams Books published The World of Peter Max one of the bestselling coffee table art books of all time and in 2013 Harper Collins issued Max’s memoirs, The Universe of Peter Max.
At age 78 Max remains an active artist now considers his social media presence as a work of art.  He lives in New York with his longtime wife Mary Max.  And he is rich.  Very, very rich.

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