| June 20, 2014 | People
Artist Peter Max has captured everyone and everything from the Dalai Lama to the Beatles in his psychedelic cosmic style. Here, the hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Joe Scarborugh and Mika Brzenzinski, discover the colorful stories—and the man—behind the masterpieces.
Peter Max puts the finishing touches on his cover for Philadelphia Style.
One of the most prolific artists working today, Peter Max is widely known for his “cosmic style,” with creations that have been seen everywhere from the hull of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Breakaway and a Continental Airlines Boeing 777 fuselage to the massive stages of the 1999 Woodstock music festival. His mixed-media works can be found in the collections of six past US presidents, while his art—recognizable for its energetic brushstrokes of primary colors and psychedelic panoramas of stars, planets, profiles, and icons from Lady Liberty to the Beatles—has been used to represent five Super Bowls, the World Cup, the World Series, the US Open, the Grammys, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I’m just very happy to be in the middle of all this,” says Max of his many accomplishments. “I’m happy to do all the painting and have all the museum shows.”
Born in Berlin and raised in Shanghai, Max and his family moved around the globe, from Tibet to Israel to Paris, with each destination influencing his art. Eventually, Max settled in New York, where, at age 76, he continues to produce a dizzying array of works, including this Philadelphia Style cover, one of a collection of 10 covers created exclusively for Niche Media publications that also includes LA Confidential, Gotham, Hamptons, Ocean Drive, and Michigan Avenue. The original painting will be auctioned on Charitybuzz starting this month to benefit The Humane Society of the US. “I paint and draw every day, and I loved creating this cover art for Philadelphia Style,” says Max. “I went through files of my drawings to choose the right inspiration for this cover. I love nature and creating landscapes that are natural and yet fantasy, with colorful skies, clouds, and cosmic characters. I featured South Beach’s iconic lifeguard stands, palm trees, Art Deco hotels, beach and sea, and the nature all around, and gave them all my colors in this cosmic landscape.”
In his studio—two full-floor lofts near New York’s Lincoln Center—Max has galleries’ worth of his work: a towering portrait of the Statue of Liberty he painted on the White House lawn for President Ronald Reagan in 1981; a multicolored Baldwin piano signed by his pal Ringo Starr; rows of Lucite sculptures taken from his “Angel” series; a painted guitar originally made for Jon Bon Jovi; and portraits of everyone from Marilyn Monroe to John F. Kennedy, all done in Max’s distinctive style. “When you’re a singer and you have a really great voice, it’s not like you create a voice—it’s just there. My art is just there,” says Max. “I just put the brush on paper and I don’t even know what I’m doing, but I know it’s going to come out great. Twenty-four seven, creativity, creativity, creativity—it’s all I do. I draw on airplanes, I draw in limousines, I draw when I wake up in the morning, and in taxicabs.”
Beyond the studio, Max is a longtime vegetarian and practices yoga and meditation daily. He also gives freely of his time, money, and art to benefit animal charities such as The Humane Society of the US and the equine rescue organization Wild for Life Foundation. By his side in all of it is his wife of 17 years, Mary Max, whom the artist calls one of his greatest inspirations. “When I met her, it fueled me, and she still fuels me today,” he says of his wife, whom he spotted one day while out for coffee and declared he would marry. “We donate money, we host events, and we have six rescue animals of our own at the house.”
At the present, Max also has seven feature film and animation projects in the works, including one yet to be announced for the estate of Frank Sinatra. Here, in celebration of Max’s 50 years of commercial success and his collection of city renderings exclusively for Niche Media, the artist opens up to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski about his unparalleled career, his spirituality, philanthropy, and the famous friends who have helped influence his work.
Max, circa 1969, on a custom motor cycle with his clock art for General Electric.
JOE AND MIKA: Many artists will agree that it’s a struggle to gain recognition, but to keep it and have it last 50 years is staggering. What do you think is the key to your success?
PETER MAX: It’s just being present, letting creativity come through. I’m also really lucky because we live in an age of media. It used to be, when I was on the cover of Life magazine 45 years ago, there were only three magazines—Time, Life, and Fortune. My art got to be on two of those covers. Today there are thousands of magazines out there, and my work has been on 2,000 to 3,000 covers.
Early in your career, you studied a lot of the masters, from Rembrandt to Sargent. So how did you develop your cosmic style?
I always used to draw never even thinking that drawing is something you could do [as a career] once you became an adult. In China, I studied with the 6-year-old daughter of a street artist. Then in Israel, my mother hooked me up with a famous art professor from Austria. After we left Israel and moved to Paris, my mother signed me up for the classes for kids at the Louvre. And when we came to America, I found a private teacher, Frank Reilly [at the Art Students League of New York]; after high school, I used to go into the city and I studied with him. Frank Reilly went to that school 30 years earlier, and the kid who used to sit beside him was Norman Rockwell. So Norman Rockwell and Frank Reilly studied together and Rockwell became Rockwell; Reilly became Peter Max’s teacher. Then I hooked up with some people with certain art schools who were very design oriented.
Peter Max created artwork as covers for 10 Niche publications, and the original paintings will be auctioned on Charitybuzz to benefit The Humane Society of the US.
For someone who studied realism, your painting style is not necessarily realist.…
No, I’m kind of impressionistic. Realism gave me the skill to paint, but my eye was more into design-ery art.
The Art Students League has produced some famous alumni, including Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly. Ever have any celebrity encounters?
I once met Marilyn Monroe. The steps to the street were very narrow, and some of the students used to sit on the steps. I sat there one day with a friend of mine and I see this girl walking by, and I did a double take. I said to my friend, “It’s Marilyn Monroe,” and as she’s walking by, she turns to me and says, “I like your pants”—I had a lot of paint on my pants—and then she kept on walking. She was so stunning; all her features were just perfect.
Many people will recognize your paintings of the Statue of Liberty or the “Love” series, but what do you think your most defining piece is?
There are so many defining pieces. Painting the Statue of Liberty was a big thing because it’s an emblem; it’s the symbol for the United States of America, so it got so much [attention]. Then I’ve painted so many unbelievable people, like the Dalai Lama, John F. Kennedy—close to 800 portraits.
You’ve also painted portraits of all of the Beatles, who also just celebrated 50 years in America. Tell us more about your relationship with the band.
I met John [Lennon] way, way back, and I was best friends with Yoko Ono. One day I read in the paper that my little friend Yoko was going out with John. I knew John, I knew Yoko; I could have introduced them in a second. I used to go pick both of them up at the Dakota where she lives, and we used to go to Central Park. We used to walk around and bullshit and talk and sing songs.
Here in your studio, you have a colorful piano that’s signed “To Peter, Love Ringo….”
I did a Baldwin piano for Ringo Starr, and he loved it. Then Baldwin called me up and said, “We love it so much, we’re going to send you a piano.” Two days later, they deliver it, the guys assemble it, and I roll out my paints and start painting the piano beautiful colors. Just as I’m finishing, my girl comes from the front desk and says, “Your buddy Ringo is here.” Ringo had been uptown and wanted to say thanks; instead he said, “I like yours better!” and I said, “No, Ringo, yours is the first; it’s the nicest.” He asked if I had paints and I said, “Do I have paints?” We roll out a cart of paints, and he writes, “To Peter, love Ringo,” followed by a star.
Was it another famous Beatle, Paul McCartney, who turned you on to vegetarianism?
Paul and I became vegetarian at the same time. I’ve been a vegetarian now for over 40 years. I’ve had everybody up here in the studio—from Mick Jagger a couple of times to Ringo Starr to Paul McCartney—they’ve all been up here, they’re all my friends. We hang out; I’ve been very lucky.
Is it true that you also have a DJ who works here in your studio?
Yes—Joe. I have two or three radio stations I like, and he has certain CDs he’s made for me. He plays for me all good contemporary music—jazz, bebop, fusion jazz, certain rock ’n’ roll. When I start painting, the music is on and I’m just in the groove. Music inspires my whole will to paint, the will to be creative—it fuels the creativity.
You worked with George Harrison on the Integral Yoga Institute, a yoga center and ashram in New York’s Greenwich Village based on the teachings of Sri Swami Satchidananda, whom you brought to America in 1966. Was it George who introduced you to the Swami?
No, George was involved with the Maharaji out of England. George and I talked about my Satchidananda and his Maharaji, and we introduced each other to the other guys. The institute teaches how to go into meditation, get your mind focused, do stretching, become a vegan—a lot of health, behavioral, and mental benefits that have changed my whole life.
Over your career, you’ve accomplished so much. Is there something—a goal—you have yet to achieve?
I’ve been listening to music very intensely my whole life, but especially in the last 36 months because I’ve been collecting music for seven feature films and animation. Characters and stories—I have so many; the only thing I hadn’t collected was music, so I called my friends—Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bon Jovi—everyone I knew. Out of 200,000 pieces of music, I selected about 3,000 or 4,000 that I adore.
Have you ever thought about retiring?
I’ve been retired since I was 20. [Laughs] Retiring is getting to do completely what you love, right? It’s not like sitting in a chair somewhere. This is a nice life—it’s creative, colors, music, and people. I love it.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEFF GALE (COVER); COURTESY OF PETER MAX (THE TONIGHT SHOW); TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES (STARR); ERIC RYAN ANDERSON (MAX)