WASHINGTON — Washington
Peter Max, where have you been?
Where have you been since the Summer of Love, since we plastered our rooms with your psychedelic posters, covered our loose-leafs with your flower-power petals, slept on your sheets, sported your clothes, told time by your clocks?
Peter Max, where have you been since we've all grown up?
"I joined the human race," says the legendary pop artist of the '60s who virtually defined the decade with his vivid, new-age style and ubiquitous mod Max products. "I went into retreat."
This retreat, during which he left his celebrity and commercial endeavors to spend more time in front of his old wooden easel, was supposed to last a few months.
It lasted 17 years.
And now, at age 52, the European-born pop art guru -- whose work and soul, he says, have always had one foot on planet Earth and one in the stars -- is making a comeback. Sort of.
"It's a comeback as much as I want," jokes Mr. Max, who's just returned from the Soviet Union where his first major exhibition in more than two decades, a 25-year retrospective, has just opened at Leningrad's Hermitage Museum to record-breaking crowds and wild acclaim.
"People were really knocked out, flipped out," says the artist, during a stop in Washington before heading back to his New York studio. "People said, 'Oh, my God, Oh, my God. It's beautiful. It's so happy. We love the colors.' It was surprising to me. I expected people to be tied to the old type of art, or maybe not call it art."
Certainly, in the United States, critics haven't always called his work "art" -- not the T-shirts, not the stamps, not the cool album covers.
But Mr. Max makes no apologies for his vast commercial success -- his numerous off-canvas ventures that turned into a billion-dollar industry -- and says he's never taken the criticism to heart.
"I think I was pushing the envelope back then," says the mustachioed painter whose speech still echoes with traces of a childhood spent in Shanghai, Tibet, Israel and France. "I wanted to do more than previous people had done . . . I would do it all over again. It was a tremendous thrill for me. It added to my confidence, my enthusiasm. In general, it just energized who I was."
But in the end, the hoopla sent him into seclusion for nearly two decades.
"It was overdone," says Mr. Max, a follower of the Dalai Lama who practices yoga regularly and is still steeped in the spiritual mysticism of the '60s. "It was like staying up and partying for a few years. And I wasn't a party person. It was celebrity everywhere -- celebrations, limousines, airplanes, hotel rooms."
He did his drawing in the back of limousines, his painting in hotel rooms using a coffee table as a palette. He missed his easel.
"That's what made me quit. The painting led me to all the success and fame. So I thought I'd better go back and paint and just get better."
So in 1970, he closed his large studio with its animation department and its staff of 55, let go of all but five employees and became a full-time painter. He set up his paints and brushes in Barbados for a while, and then in the Catskills, where he still keeps a studio. He painted, took walks, traveled.
"I had a sketch pad under my arm for the whole 17 years. I studied. I became good."
And for the first four years, the artist and environmentalist was content to have nothing to do with the commercial world. "It was a nice, peaceful life I led," says the divorced father of two, son Adam Cosmo, 26, and daughter Libra Astro, 24.
But in 1974, he designed a "Preserve the Environment" postage stamp commemorating the World's Fair in Spokane -- and the old adrenalin started rushing again.
Still, he stayed in semi-seclusion, he says, only "coming back out" to do occasional projects. These forays began to whet his appetite for a more public persona and more public display of his work, and by the early-'80s, he says, "I started missing it, I started thinking about coming out."
In the mid-'80s, he was knocking on Lee Iacocca's door, discussing the renovation of the Statue of Liberty, and by 1989 he was designing a huge seven-story rock and roll stage for the Moscow Music and Peace Festival.
The new feeling of freedom and "perestroika" he found in Moscow inspired an Andy Warhol-like "Forty Gorbys" installation a New York gallery which, when visited by Soviet diplomats and promoters, led to the current retrospective at the Hermitage. The exhibit of posters, paintings, graphics and sculpture is to travel through Europe for the next two years before making its way to the United States.
Although he considers himself thoroughly out of retreat these days, he says he's spending 99 percent of his time painting, and is "much more careful" about his exposure and projects. Although he designed some watches several years ago "just for fun," it's doubtful we'll see another burst of Maxabilia on the market again, he says.