Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peter Max, or minimum?

   When I heard that Peter Max was having a show of his distinctive colorful artwork, opening at Northbrook Court on Friday, I couldn't help but flash back to a previous time his work was spotlighted there and I wrote about him.
      The typical story would be the kind of respectful though toothless treatment that the Chicago Jewish News gave to Max this week, stressing his Jewishness, of course. When I wrote my piece, I asked an impolite question: is this art? And if so, what kind of art?
     So I interviewed him, and the column below was published. The publicist who pitched the story at me was aghast, enough to call me up and yell. But Max, to his credit, was intrigued. He appreciated being treated as a serious artist, even if battered a bit in the process. I think he liked my even raising the question, since most people don’t.  
     We sat down for lunch, and something happened that has never happened to me before or since: we sat talking until dinner. Red wine was involved, but it was also the tenor of the conversation, the ideas. I didn't take notes, and the only thing I remember is us discussing was his autobiography, which I volunteered to write, suggesting that instead of producing the typical coffee table book, he write something candid talking about his art as a business, and what it was like, as a man, to be rich and famous for the previous 30 years. I told him the problems a pal was having trying to write Hugh Hefner's autobiography, because Hefner thought he was an important figure in the history of free speech, like Thomas Paine, when the average reader was more interested in him screwing Barbi Benton on his round bed.
     The idea of my writing his bio lingered a bit —I remember him phoning late one night from his studio shortly thereafter. And he did send the boys a pair of posters signed to them, which are still framed in our rec room. But that was it. A few years later, the standard coffee table book came out, written with the usual self-satisfied rosy glow. Looking back, of course he would never take a hard, honest look at life: why start now and spoil a good thing? But it works for him, and he does have his ardent fans. This was originally publishing the Sun-Times in February, 2000:

    Yoga is back, big time. Tie dye, too. The Beatles—though they never left—are hot again; they just sold 600,000 copies of a new CD. 
    So why not Peter Max?
    When I heard Max is coming to town—he'll be at the North Shore Gallery the  weekend of the 16th—my first thought was, to be blunt, "He's still alive?"
    Sure, I remember him from the late 1960s. A thin guy in a Doug Henning mustache churning out wild, Day-Glo-colored images of running men and psychedelic heads. They covered the walls, floors, notebooks, lunch boxes and just about every other flat surface of my youth.
    But surely he had—oh, I don't know—gone into real estate or stepped in front of a bus or done a Cat Stevens and disappeared into religion.
    In fact, Max is where he has always been, in New York City, doing what he has done for more than 30 years—churning forth a jaw-dropping output of images, covering everything from a Continental Airlines 777 to Dale Earnhardt's NASCAR racer. He has been turned to for a burst of colorful whimsy by big events from Woodstock to the Super Bowl and big corporations from Target to Playboy.
    Therein lies the rub.
     If art has a myth, it is the outlaw, the renegade, the Impressionist masterworks banned from the Official Exposition. Artists thrive on scorn—the right kind of scorn, public scorn—while Max thrives on approval. His press packet is filled with the presidents he has painted, the awards won, the corporations he has bedded down with.
    Needless to say, this drives the art world crazy. Trying to express my own inarticulate Max angst—which I must have leached from the atmosphere—I called my pal, renegade artist Tony Fitzpatrick. The mere mention of Max's name was like taking an ax to a beer keg; out came a geyser of scorn.
    "Peter Max basically took all the ideals of the '60s generation, all the flower power stuff, pretended to be this voice of a generation and really was a corporate hack," said Fitzpatrick, taking a breath. "Peter Max was never in the real art world. He pretended to be some kind of countercultural element, and the guy was whoring himself to corporate America. Also his work sucks."
    Fitzpatrick went on in this vein for 20 minutes, but you get the idea.
    I don't want to leave Tony out on a limb. I was nodding and smiling with him the whole time. How dare Max present himself as an artist, and make his millions, when people like Tony and me know what real art is?
    And then I slipped on my sheep's clothing and slunk off to interview Max.
    Shock  No. 1. His voice. He didn't sound like I expected. He was no flipped out patchouli-oil-scented hippie marinated in a money cocoon for the past 30 years. He sounded like my Uncle Max, his voice rich with the Brooklyn of his youth. (He was born in Berlin in the late 1930s, his parents fled to China, and he ended up as a teenager in Flatbush.)
    Second shock. He was interested not in touchy-feely mysticism, not in promoting his newest swami, but in science, in math, in concepts.
    Third shock. His first love was old-school realism.
    "In 1967, before I got into that commercial wave, I was a full-time painter, a la John Singer Sargent, Rubens, Velasquez," he said. "Real academic stuff. I was so good at realism. Then the Beatles came to America."
    Max saw a revolution going on. Everything was media, pop, pizzazz. He gave up painting nudes and opened an ad agency. His clients were J.C. Penney and beer companies. Awards racked up; people loved his colorful style. Then somebody asked him to design a restaurant. He did, but something was missing.
    "I said to the owner of the restaurant that a restaurant is not a restaurant unless it has a poster," he said. "Think of `(Le) Moulin Rouge.' If (Toulouse-Lautrec) hadn't done a poster, nobody would know what it was. He said, `OK.' "
    A year later, Max had sold 9 million of his "crazy, wacky" posters. In 1969, some 700 commercial products carried his designs. Max had 55 people working for him in the early 1970s. Now he has 110.
    "I've got people who stretch canvases, people who do just backgrounds for me," he said, citing a constant need to draw and to change.
    "Many artists stay in the same style—Chagall or Miro. Miro spent half his life in the same style," he said. "I wanted to be more like  Picasso. To allow my style to change constantly."
    I began to see where Max ran into trouble. Any artist who compares himself with Rubens while pooh-poohing the limitations of Miro is just begging to be kicked. As we talked, I could see him torn between two mutually exclusive goals: to continue his fabulous marketing bonanza and to gain the kind of respect the art world has always denied him and probably always will. (Though, hey, they finally gave Norman Rockwell his due, so you never know.)
    An hour into our conversation, the charming, personable Max had won me over so completely that it occurred to me that I had been co-opted and had better run to the mountain to get some sort of final wisdom on the matter.
    I called my old teacher, the renowned artist Ed Paschke, fresh from Paris where he went for the unveiling of his work in a show at the Louvre.
    "It's a heady experience," he said. "Usually you have to be dead."
    I outlined the dilemma. On one hand, all this art world outrage damning Max to critical hell for being popular. On the other hand, lots of people like him, and he's a really, really nice guy who's sending posters to my kids.
    "You're caught between a rock and a hard place," Paschke said. "He's captured this kind of whimsical spirit of optimism that characterized the flower child generation. He's not somebody the serious art world takes seriously. Yet he has somehow managed to stay in the public eye many years."
    Isn't that art? How can someone like Jeff Koons pull all sorts of commercial stunts, and the critics roll over like puppies. But Max is damned because his work is on scarves?
    "Jeff Koons was a student of mine," Paschke said. "Jeff was trying to outrage the status quo, as Peter Max was trying to play the mainstream as an audience. It's about pushing the edge of what's acceptable. Koons is trying to push the buttons for shock purposes. Peter Max is trying to satisfy a safe, conservative, mainstream point of view."
     It's a shame, really. If only Max had written a manifesto declaring that he intended to shock art critics by playing to the unwashed public — God, the critics would love his daring, his rude gesture of contempt for the higher art circles. But he was too candid in his aspirations; that'll get you every time.
     Max, who's still into yoga, has no regrets.
     "When the posters happened to me, I realized I was in the right groove," he said. "That's when I made my decision: to walk one foot in fine art and the other in media. Media became my canvas. People who don't understand it, or who are jealous, or whatever—or even if they're right—I don't care. I have re-examined making that move, and I'll tell you one thing: I have made the right move. People love me around the world."


  1. It can still be art, even if lots of people like it.

    1. A lot of people like puppies. Are they art?

    2. Jim Wilda at Loyola Academy would call you a sophist, as he did to me many times.

      A painting etc can still be art if many people like it.

    3. Popularity isn't the issue, neither really is pandering. Norman Rockwell paintings are very popular, decidedly commercial, and definitely art, to me, because they're so finely wrought. Peter Max, to me, blends slapdash, cynical style with unconsciously vapid content. Vapid can be art -- Jeff Koons-- but not accidentally vapid.

  2. Paintings or sculptures or prints of puppies can be art. We can argue all day on whether it's good art or not, but just because someone doesn't pursue new directions/internal urgings/what-have-you in the creation of art doesn't automatically make the stuff being produced "not art." (My apologies if this gets submitted twice -- whenever I log in to Google, the comment box empties...)

  3. Jackson Pollock’s seemingly random splattering on canvas always struck me as something anyone could pull off, yet it is still art. David Letterman used to drop things, including cans of paint, off the roof during his show and they splattered on the pavement below. Was that art? I write and illustrate my own original palindromes. I find them amusing, but I doubt they are art.

    1. Pollack was art because nobody had done it before. Letterman doing it wasn't art because he was merely aping Pollack with a twist (the colors in Pollack are also carefully chosen -- they aren't random). I share your doubts about the illustrations.

    2. Whattamean no one had done it before?
      Kids were doing that long before Jack the Dripper started it.
      I'll even bet that's where he got the idea.
      Or maybe he stole the idea from my grandfather who was a house painter.
      I still have one of his canvas dropcloths from before retiring about 1950, that looks like a Pollack "painting".
      As much as I hate to say it, even that marketing genius, but awful "artist", Thomas Kincaid, had more talent than Pollack!

    3. That's just silly, the my-kid-could-do-that stuff. But your kid didn't, or your kid didn't recognize it as art and push it as such. Post-It notes were a simple idea, too, but 3M came up with them, and other people who were sticking notes on pages with paste don't count.

    4. Except that Post-It Notes weren't a simple idea.
      3M has said that it was incredibly difficult to come up with an adhesive that only barely sticks, as opposed to one that really sticks.

  4. Great article. I was crazy for his work in the early '70's while I was in the army. I guess it was my way of trying to keep in touch with my flower power inner self. I wouldn't have guessed about the "real" Peter Max you described. Somehow it makes me like him more. Does it matter what he's "about" artistically? It seems to me the pleasure he gave people, such as myself, is what really counts.

  5. I was crazy for his posters in the early '70's, especially while in the Army. I guess it was my way of keeping in touch with my inner flower power self. I think I like him more after reading your article. Does it really matter what an artist is about? I would think the pleasure the gives others is what really counts. Great article.


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