Pop-art icon Peter Max

Taylor Swift portrait

by Liza Roberts

For five decades, Peter Max has been painting America.
In the ’60s, his cosmic Pop Art canvases were vivid totems of the age. In the ’70s, his portraits of the Statue of Liberty became indelible images and helped raise funds for her preservation. Since then, Max has served as an official artist of five Super Bowls, the New York City Marathon, the World Series, the Kentucky Derby, the World Cup USA, the U.S. Open, the Indy 500, and the 2006 U.S. Olympic team. He has painted for six U.S. presidents and covered a Boeing 777, a 144,000 ton cruise ship, and a Woodstock stage with his work.
Walter is delighted to say that his latest canvas is our cover.
Max offered to paint Walter’s magazine cover to coincide with a retrospective exhibit of his art at Raleigh’s Mahler Fine Art gallery Nov. 15-23. Max’s show will fill the gallery with dozens of works, which include early canvases like his famous “cosmic jumper,” first created for a U.S. postage stamp to commemorate the 1974 Expo world’s fair, and currently in flight above the Raleigh skyline on our cover. Emblematic American images of the flag and Lady Liberty will also be on exhibit and for sale, as will portraits of pop singer Taylor Swift.
The show marks one of the first times an artist of international renown has travelled to the Triangle to show his or her work. “This is fantastic for Raleigh,” says Shawn Brewster, gallery associate and art consultant at the Mahler. “It’s the tipping point for those of us in the art community,” she says, and “really speaks to where Raleigh is right now. We have national attention.”
Walter was delighted at the chance to speak with Peter Max recently by phone at his home in New York about his work.

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Walter speaks with Peter Max:
It’s interesting to see some of the works that will comprise your retrospective show here at the Mahler gallery. How do you go about choosing which canvases best represent your fifty years in painting?
There are certain things that are like classic pieces, and then you have some that are a little bit newer, and then you get some brand new ‘wow’ pieces that I recently completed.
Is there a work or a series of works that you are most proud of?
It’s really hard to say, because I’m so involved. It’s like asking a parent: which are your favorite children, and they have a dozen kids. It’s hard. I love them all. I like my drawings, I like my etchings, I like my lithographs, I like the posters, I like the paintings, I like the works on paper. So if I release it, where it can get into a show, believe me, I love it. That’s it.
Is there anything you’ve been working on recently that you’re particularly excited about?
When I go to my studio and I go through some of the archives, I just love all of the pieces. Each piece has a certain ring in my heart and my brain and I love them. Because I would never have finished it if I didn’t love it. I don’t move to the next piece until the one before it is where I want it to be. And the nice thing is, when you’re painting, you can always add another stroke, you can always change something. You know what I mean?
You wrote in the Huffington Post that love and creativity can change the world, and that you’re concerned that technology might be diluting our creativity as a culture. How do you balance the convenience and power of technology with your own creativity?
I think technology is wonderful. Technology is a vehicle that can transmit music, can transmit ideas, across the world in a much, much bigger way. Technology is unbelievable. We are very very creative, humankind. And we’re very lucky to have (technology). It’s just an amazing thing. Everybody’s creative. You wake up in the morning, and you turn on your television, and there’s 500 channels, right? Every channel is creative. You turn on the radio. Non-stop. You can go and listen on every channel, 24 hours a day. Music, music, music. So we are rich, rich, rich in creativity. The human expression is beyond belief.
You’ve said that your canvases sometimes paint themselves, that you’re just the middleman. Have you had that experience recently, when you painted something that surprised you?
When I paint, the colors get on the canvas, and as the colors get on the canvas, I just meet it halfway. I already love what’s on there, then I add something to it, I shift it around a little bit, and it’s a really, a very, very interesting dance, or creative moment, because it’s like music – and by the way, when I paint, 99 percent of the time, there’s beautiful music on. I even have in my studio a full-time DJ, he’s there just to play music for me, put stuff on that I like, and if I want to shift to something else because my mood is changing, he goes: boop, 1-2-3, and we’re right there. What a beautiful – what a wonderful – world we live in.
What have you been listening to lately?
Oh, I don’t even know by title. Just so much. Everything. You know this country, this society, especially in America, we are so creative. The American civilization is probably one of the most creative societies in the world. Do you know why? Because we are so mixed. The whole planet Earth, every spot on the planet – somebody from that spot lives in America. Isn’t it wonderful? Planet Earth lives in the United States, more than in any other country.
Can you tell me more about how music influences your work?
For me, it’s music, coming over the radio, or coming from a player that I have, and my beautiful 77 colors I have. Seventy-seven jars I have, 77 different colors.
Is it always that number?
Well that’s how many jars I have on the painting palette. Seventy-seven colors. I have 7 rows of 11 colors. It’s beautiful. I look at them, I love it…I just go to work, and I’m just so excited. I know right now, I’m leaving for work in a few more minutes, and I know in 15 minutes I will be at the studio, and I’m so excited about it.
What are you going to paint today?
Who knows? When you walk down the street, you’re going to hum something. Do you know what you’re going to hum two hours before? No.
So it just comes to you, and you let it take you where it’s going?
Yes, yes.
You have had many musicians as friends, including, famously, the Beatles. Has their music changed your art?
Nothing changed my art, but it certainly assisted in my art. Like for instance, whenever Paul McCartney comes to town, half the time he calls me. We go out on the town, we have something to eat, it’s wonderful.
You’ve painted some recent portraits of Taylor Swift. A couple of them are coming to the Raleigh show. Did her music influence the way you depicted her?
I love her music, and all music inspires me. So it’s not just her, it’s all music.
Is there a painter or a visual artist who has influenced you most?
I’ve admired Matisse tremendously. Picasso, Cezanne, Gaugin. Warhol was one of my best friends.
I’ve read that if you hadn’t become an artist you would have become an astronomer. Can you tell me more about that?
I have a tremendous love for astronomy. Because we are one little dot in the universe. One little speck. How many people do we have on our planet, 7 billion? That’s amazing. And then we have probably 8 million different species, all living happily on this planet. And then we are one of a trillion planets all within this part of the universe. The universe is so enormous, nobody has ever figured out how large it is.
And does that make you feel small or big?
It makes me feel wonderful. I wouldn’t consider it by size. I’m in awe of what I’m part of. I’m part of this amazing universe. Thank God for that.
Finally, I know that daily meditation and yoga play an important role in your daily routine. Can you tell me about how they help your creativity?
Meditation and yoga are such a wonderful aspect of life that we can incorporate. It creates calmness, clarity, and your whole body gets very, very relaxed.
To reserve a free place at one of the two free receptions with the artist open to the public at the Mahler (Nov. 22 from 6-9 p.m. and Nov. 23 from 1-4 p.m.), email info@themahlerfineart.com or call 919-896-7503.