Maximizing the colors

April 24, 2008|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun art critic

Celebrated New York graphic designer Peter Max obviously had great fun creating the cover for this week's issue of LIVE.

But then, everything seems to be fun for the ebullient artist who, in the 1970s, became famous for inventing the eye-popping, cosmic psychedelic imagery that revolutionized American advertising.

On the phone last week, Max, 70, still sounded like just about the happiest guy on Earth.

"I have a studio in New York City right by Lincoln Center, a very nice, large space," he says. "I have 105 people working for me, I do silk-screening, etchings, I have assistants who mix my paints, I have art directors who work with me on magazine covers and books. ... I even have a full-time DJ who plays music for me while I paint; he knows what I like and plays things I've already picked out, as well as new stuff."

Max's irrepressible spirit arrives in Baltimore's Inner Harbor tomorrow, when Colors of a Better World, a weeklong exhibition of more than 100 of his colorful paintings and posters, goes on display at the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace. The artist will make personal appearances there May 3 and May 4, when the exhibition closes.

Max says he never expected the success that has come his way and made him a modern-day equivalent of the beloved Saturday Evening Post illustrator Norman Rockwell, whom he greatly admired.

"The first five months after I left art school, I was the most miserable artist on earth," Max recalls. "I couldn't find work because I was a realist painter and nobody wanted realism. They said, `If we want realism, we'll get a photographer.'"

Utterly dejected, the artist consoled himself with playful doodles of stars and planets - he'd briefly considered a career as an astronomer before deciding to go to art school.

"One day I was sitting in a cafe, feeling blue and drawing stars and planets, because astronomy had always been this enormous passion for me," Max says.

On a lark, he showed some of the drawings to the art directors who had rejected his realist portfolio. "Little did I know they were just the right style the universe wanted," he says. "Suddenly, everybody wanted it. My life exploded with success."

Max was still in art school when the Pop artists of the 1960s, including Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, hit the scene. But he knew them all, and he considered Warhol, in particular, a mentor.

After his own career began to blossom, Max asked Warhol to accompany him to a star-studded party thrown at the Life magazine office in New York.

"They had 50 tables with an important person at each one," Max recalls. "At my table, I was sitting with the editor in chief and with Andy. Suddenly, 20 guys came in with carts, and on each cart there were 30 magazines with me on the cover. I couldn't believe it. There was a photo of me on the cover, and inside there was an eight-page story. I remember Andy turned to me and said, `By God, Peter, you're a household name!'"

Today, Max credits his parents with creating an environment that enabled his talents to flourish. Born in Berlin shortly after Hitler's rise to power, he left Germany with his family for Shanghai, China, where his father opened a small department store. Though Japanese troops had occupied the area in 1937, the family managed to survive until American troops liberated the city at the end of the war.

"It was the first time I ever saw American soldiers, and it was unbelievable; I just loved them," Max recalls. "They played Benny Goodman on the radio, and somehow I just knew what I was hearing was very, very cool."

After the war, the family moved around, living briefly in Africa, India, Israel and France - where Max attended art classes for seven months at the Louvre Museum in Paris - before finally settling in New York.

But of all his formative experiences, Max recalls most fondly the pagoda house in Shanghai where he and his family lived through the war.

"It had balconies on all four sides, and when my mother hired a 12-year-old girl to be my nanny, she brought art supplies - crayons, paints, clay, etc. - and put them on each balcony," he says. "Then she told me: `You just go out there and use those and make a big mess. Don't worry about putting anything away. We'll clean up after you.'

"And that's still how I conduct my life today. That's the way to raise a creative child."

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

"Colors of a Better World" runs tomorrow-May 4 at the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace. Peter Max will be at the exhibit 6 p.m.-9 p.m. May 3 and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. May 4. There will be an "uncrating party" 6 p.m.-8 p.m. tomorrow. All activities are free, but reservations are recommended. Call 888-513-8385.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.