The Trippy, Artistic Life of Peter Max
Even if you’ve never heard of Peter Max, you know his work. He’s the painter who pioneered the psychedelic visual lexicon that we now associate with the era of great cultural and social foment, the 1960s. By the end of the decade, his full-spectra patterns were licensed by 72 corporations, and his art was on consumer products as wide-ranging as clocks, socks, bed sheets and pantyhose. He’s even sometimes credited with launching the college student’s obsession with dorm room posters – Max’s designs sold literally millions of copies within months of their issue. All told, Max’s licensing agreements and pop fame added up to approximately $4 million in earnings (an enormous sum in the 1960s) and a 1969 appearance on the cover of Life magazine.
If this ascendance sounds fantastical, Max’s childhood was no less so: He was born in Berlin in 1937. A year later, he and his family fled the metastasizing Nazi regime and moved to Shanghai. In China, Max first learned to paint: As he tells it, his family’s pagoda had four balconies. His mother gave him art supplies and told him to paint on whichever balcony he chose, and not to worry about the mess: She’d clean it up. It was this spirit of exploration and artistic freedom that Max took with him to Haifa, Israel, when the family moved there in 1948. The family, which was still finding its place in the postwar years, slowly moved westward across Europe, including a stop in Paris, where Max took art classes at the Louvre.
The family eventually settled in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1953. In New York, Max enrolled in the Art Students League and studied under realist Frank J. Reilly. After his graduation in 1962, he got his big break at a copy shop where he’d left his work to be turned into prints. A record executive happened to see it and offered Max a commission to design the album cover for pianist Meade Lux Lewis’ new record. The cover won the Society of Illustrators annual award, giving Max a minor reputation, which he would ultimately turn into international fame.
These days, he’s known for painting the Statue of Liberty annually and for his portraiture of six U.S. presidents, including the “100 Clintons” series he made for the 1993 Inauguration. Max recently renewed his interest in musicians by painting several portraits (based on her album covers) of country music star Taylor Swift, who’s rumored to have one such image hanging in her Nashville home. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Max occasionally works on a grand scale: His paintings have appeared on the fuselage of a Continental Airlines Boeing 777, as well as on the hull of the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Breakaway. So, the next time you take a cruise or fly on an airline, you may just find yourself riding in a world of Peter Max’s creation.