Peter Max became one of the most famous artists in the world by bridging the youth culture of the 1960s and the realm of fine art couture and seeing his outsized works mark some of the biggest-ticket cultural and sporting events of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Born to Jewish parents in Nazi Germany, Max fled with them to spend his early years in Shanghai, China, exposing himself to multivariate aesthetic influences even before the family settled in New York City. In the early 1960s he began coalescing his so-called "cosmic" art signature - bold, nature-influenced iconography of the East combined with the vibrant colors and pop-art of the emerging youth culture of the '60s to create the so-called "cosmic" style. Rendered in millions of posters printed by Max's own cottage-industry company, his style would be copied voluminously, eventually becoming the graphic common denominator of the Age of Aquarius. In the 1970s, inspired by the American bicentennial, he began an annual rite of painting the Statue of Liberty and adding portraiture of U.S. presidents, other world leaders and celebrities to his high-profile work. Now a celebrity artist, Max would increasingly be tapped by sports and special event organizers to provide official designs, original art and graphic themes. A 2002 collection of his works, The Art of Peter Max, became a bestseller. The creator of a truly American aesthetic, Max would see his art mentioned with the music of the Beatles as one of the definitive cultural cues of the age.
He was born Peter Max Finkelstein on Oct. 19, 1937, to Jacob and Salla Finkelstein, Polish and German Jews, respectively. Due to Nazi oppression, the family fled the country the next year, resettling in the great cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, China, which exposed the boy to widely disparate aesthetics from an early age. As he grew up, he became as fascinated with the ornate festive trappings of Chinese parades and the paintings of nearby Buddhist monks as with imported American comic books, movies and music. His mother, a fashion designer by trade, encouraged his burgeoning artistic talents, giving him voluminous art supplies, and he began studying the expressionist movement upon the family's move to Haifa in the newly created state of Israel in 1948. After a brief stop in France, which afforded Peter a chance to take classes at the Louvre, the Finkelsteins made the jump across the Atlantic, resettling in Brooklyn, NY in 1953. Peter attended Lafayette High School and, after graduation, was accepted by the venerable Art Students League of New York. He studied under Frank Reilly, Peter's previous influences now supplemented with the Reilly's realist style, not to mention the shaping of American post-war consumer culture then happening in New York. Chance would lead him into that realm.
In 1962, an art director for Riverside Records happened to spot Peter's work and commissioned him to do an original painting for its forthcoming album The Blues Piano Artistry of Meade Lux Lewis. Other record companies took note of his work and album covers became a regular revenue stream for Max. As the '60s counterculture developed, Max began working in the medium of collage. He helped define the psychedelic imagery of the period using bold iconographic images, often celestial bodies and flowers, and cool colors in kaleidoscopic patterns, mixing them with photographic images. With his bold, clean-lined, often simple "cosmic" designs easily reproduced with the advancement of printing technology, he made posters of his works and they became bestsellers, adorning kids' rooms and college campuses across the country as if flags of youth culture. He founded an eponymous company to keep up with demand - by 1969 employing 55 people, increasingly entertaining entreaties from Corporate America. He designed products for Wrangler Jeans and General Electric. Advertising agencies came calling to utilize Max's work, most notably J. Walter Thompson, which by the late 1960s had begun a psychedelic-tinged campaign for 7Up, recasting it as the UnCola.
Variations on his style cropped up across popular culture, including the famous cover of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine album and the accompanying animated film, often wrongly attributed to Max. His various revenue streams made Max wealthy enough that by 1969, a LIFE magazine cover story profiled him under the headline "Portrait of the artist as a very rich man." Max eventually faded from the public eye and licensed work in the 1970s as he devoted himself to painting, stylistically hearkening back to the short-lived early 20th century Fauvist school. In 1974, the U.S. Postal Service commissioned Max to do one of the first public artworks recognizing the burgeoning environmental movement, the "Preserve the Environment" stamp pegged to the World's Fair in Spokane, WA. He increasingly picked up institutional contracts, with a particularly busy 1976. The American Bicentennial saw Max commissioned to create murals for 235 welcome facades between the U.S. and neighbors Canada and Mexico; painted stylized renderings of each of the 50 states, compiled in the book Peter Max Paints America; and on July 4, 1976, did a celebrated rendering of the Statue of Liberty. It began an annual ritual. He did two paintings of Miss Liberty the next year and increased the number by one each year thereafter.
He would also take on portraiture of a raft of famous personalities including Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Luther King Jr., Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama. Max increasingly was sought out by organizing bodies of major sports hoping to merge unique designs of major events at venue-level with posters, programs and collateral materials. Max would go on to create original art for five National Football League Super Bowls, the U.S.-hosted World Cup in 1994, and sundry other big-ticket sporting events, including the Rose Bowl, the Indy 500, the U.S. Open, the Kentucky Derby and the New York Marathon. He also supplied collateral art for the U.S. Olympic Teams. His stamp would also be prolific on cultural and civic events, including Earth Day events, the Clinton inaugural, the Grammy Awards and the centennial of the Philadelphia City Hall. He even designed two polychromatic 10-foot guitars greeting visitors to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH. Max also periodically did special-commission designs for corporate promotional gimmicks, as with a Continental Airlines plane sporting a visual celebration of New York in 2000 and, in 2011, the hull of the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship Norwegian Breakaway.
By Matthew Grimm