How Pop Art Icon Peter Max Became the Quintessential American Artist

Kristin Sancken


Is there any artist more American than Peter Max? Credited with the invention of psychedelic art, there are few people in this country who have not come in contact with his work.  In fact, through his mass media licensing he has become somewhat of a household name.


Max’s studio is a massive 10,000 square foot loft on the Upper West Side of Manhattan filled with  photographs of the artist with every president from Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush and, of course, Barack Obama. The rest of the space is filled with paintings of patriotic icons and pop culture subjects: athletes, the New York City skyline, sporting events, even Taylor Swift have somehow come to find refuge in Max’s work. After contemplating the artist’s past and strategic rise to success, one might conclude that Max was one of the first immigrant artists to completely fulfill the American dream.


Born in Berlin in 1937, Max and his family fled Nazi-Germany to Shanghai where he would spend the first 10 years of his life. It was here where Max’s father, a reputable businessman, and mother first began to notice his artistic talents. The pair hired the daughter of a street vendor to conduct art lessons and serve as a nanny. Max began his formal art training at the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan where he studied realism under Frank Reilly. Upon graduation, he realized that, because of photography, realism had been deemed obsolete and began exploring his own illustrative and graphic techniques that would eventually lead to the broad spectra of shapes and colors that would come to define his work. Coincidentally, his time in Shanghai would prove invaluable.


As Max puts it, “I learned how to draw in China and I drew my whole life, but I always thought I would become an astronomer.  It wasn’t until I was right out of high school that I decided to go to art school for one summer and I stayed there for seven-and-a-half years. I never became an astronomer even though it is still my single most curious subject in the world. What is out there in the universe?  That is why you see a lot of stars and planets in my art….“The influence from China and my youth came out in these drawings and I, as you know, I became very famous for that.


Max further elaborates: “It was always my own way and my own road, and I never looked at anybody else. I always loved to draw but I didn’t think it was ever something I could let people see. But when Realism calmed down, at that point, people loved my drawings.”


At first, Max’s art, characterized by dark line work, cosmic innuendos, and intense bursts of colors, served as an integral part of the counterculture and psychedelic movement of the 1960s until new printing techniques allowed for his work to be reproduced on product merchandise. As a result, Max’s art was eventually licensed to 72 corporations and his reputation was escalated to celebrity status, landing the artist spots on Johnny Carson, the Ed Sullivan Show, and the cover of Life Magazine with the heading "Peter Max: Portrait of the artist as a very rich man.” Seeing the magazine, Max recalls, was the first time he ever recognized his fame.



“I was walking down the street with my son who pointed at a magazine and said, ‘Daddy, its you!’ And I looked down and saw myself on a magazine. I was about 30, I guess. And that was the first time I ever realized who I was.” Since then, Max has done approximately 1,100 magazine covers, countless museum retrospectives, published an array of books, and has even designed one of Continental Airlines' Boeing 777-200ER aircrafts.


Fame, fortune, and a half-decade-long career have caused no effect on the sprightly artist. Even though he surrounds himself with awards, pictures, magazine covers, and other mementos from the past (like a piano signed by Ringo Starr),  Max’s eyes stay on the future.  



“As I’m about a block away (from my studio), I have this momentum in my heart,” he explains. “My heart is beating like when you’re about to see someone that you love. It is beating because I know I’m going to be painting any minute now. When I get here, the music is playing. I pick up a brush. The canvas is on the easel. I dip the brush into a color. I paint a few brushstrokes and I answer it was another brush stroke and then another. Before you know it, an image comes out. I let it come to me. It’s here and it’s now.”


Like many other critics, I have always respected the cultural significance of Peter Max yet classified his work as nothing more than Pop Art. Yet after an afternoon spent discussing his work, I learned that in truth, Max’s work is undefinable. While his initial work did challenge the traditions of fine art through commercial endeavors, it lacked the conceptual congruence and irony that defined the movement. Instead, there is a purity in Max’s intent that transcends over-intellectualized elitism.



Whereas Warhol and his counterparts sought to distance themselves from commercial material through parody, Max saw mainstream media as an opportunity for financial and professional gain, an ethos commonly associated with capitalist ideologies. In addition, from a hindsight post-postmodern perspective, one may more accurately view Max as a precursor to Simulationism, the artistic movement created around the relationship between man and object often associated with Jeff Koons and Murakami, through his blending of tradition and society. Nonetheless, Max’s work is deeply iconographic and lacks the banality exploited in these high art, low art fusions.


Instead, Max’s art is symbolic of his cultural upbringing. As a Holocaust refugee raised in Shanghai, he gained an Eastern understanding that art and commerce could be blended. As an American immigrant during post-war economic expansion, he was not yet jaded by politics and saw the Golden Age of Capitalism as an opportunity for growth. As a result, Max’s art is less of an appropriation of imagery and more a celebration of the ideal of prosperity and success through hard work. With globalization and economic turmoil, it is rare that one gets to meet an artist as stimulated as Max is by freedom. Yet much like his innate fascination with the Statue of Liberty, he stands as a symbol that life can be richer and fuller despite social class or circumstances. Max himself remains both an admired and celebrated and long-standing artistic anomaly.



Author Bio:

Kristin Sancken is an art critic at Highbrow Magazine.

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