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Interview With Pop Icon Peter Max, America’s Most Collected Artist

{ May 27, 2012 }

By Bailey Powell

In April I had the pleasure of visiting with Peter Max at his studio in Manhattan. After realizing that we were both in the city our simple phone interview evolved into an entire evening complete with dinner and a tour of his Technicolor workspace. Read on for Mr. Max’s take on sudden fame, having 26 iPods, and what it means to go from the Woodstock set to a vegan, yoga-centered lifestyle. Personal swami included.

Bailey Powell: Hi, how are you doing today?

Peter Max: Okay, my dear, how’s it going my sweetie?

BP: Tell me about how you got started.

PM: How I got started is this: I grew up in Shanghai, China. When I was about three my mom and dad hired this nanny for me [and] she taught me how to draw. She came over every day with a small stack of paper, brushes, pens, and thick pencils and had me just draw circles, squares, and figure eights- she wouldn’t let me draw anything but silly stuff to get my wrist going. We didn’t speak the same language but with hand language, after about two or three months we learned to communicate as though we spoke the same language. So I drew and drew just nonsense, silly stuff, and what really happened was that at such a young age she allowed me to develop the skill of my wrist, my arms, my fingers by drawing nonsense without being uptight about what I have to draw. Then after a year or two she let me draw what I wanted but then she would say, “Okay, now circles and squares for the rest of the afternoon.” So she kept it up for years but every year I was allowed to draw more and more of what I wanted. I left Shanghai when I was ten years old and we moved to Tibet for a while, from Tibet to Israel, back to Shanghai, Shanghai to Israel then to Paris, where I studied at the Louvre. In Israel I studied with an Austrian painter. I had art teachers my whole life. When I came to America a friend of mine whose brother owned an ad agency was taking evening classes and weekend classes at a school that’s across from the Art Student’s League. Later on I found out that my teacher went to that school, and guess who sat next to him for seven years?

BP: Who?

PM: Norman Rockwell. Yeah. Unbelievable. When I [first met] Norman Rockwell I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was the first famous person I’d ever met. Then I found that Reilly, my teacher Frank J. Reilly- Frank J. Reilly God bless him- taught me how to draw and I was so impressed that he knew Rockwell. I stayed with him for seven years and when I came out of art school I was like, the best painter in the whole school. Within two years I won all these awards on Madison Avenue and I became well known and famous. I didn’t believe it because I never thought that was in store for me, you know what I mean? I never knew that an artist could become famous. Movie stars became famous, and singers like Elvis Presley, and here I became very famous and I was winning like, 10, 20, 30 awards a year. I mean like, 2-3 a month. It was unbelievable. By the time I was mid-twenties I’d appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

BP: I’ve seen that cover, it’s great. You had some amazing mentors. That’s incredible that you were so young and getting so much attention. How did that feel, like a whirlwind immediately out of school?

PM: Well I mean it felt good but I didn’t know how lucky I was until I got out and thought about it later on. At the time I thought maybe everybody has that, you know what I mean? My luck was so great, I had such amazing mentors and at the Louvre I picked up little tidbits about Picasso, Chagall, Monet, Rembrandt. I started painting like them a little bit and I developed my own style, and when I developed my own style I became really famous for it. Then, you know, people came to me wanting to put my images on products likes ladies scarves, and all kinds of products so I got into licensing and I only did this for about maybe two and a half, three years. I realized later on it’s not something I should do, you know what I mean? Cause I’m an artiste- stay at the canvas and paint. But I became the biggest licensing guy in the United States. I was proud of myself to have that foresight to stick to the art museums, the galleries, the art magazines, and the collector’s collections.

BP: Yeah, you never sold out.

PM: There are like, 150 museum collections at least. I’ve had 35, 45, maybe 50 one-man museum shows around the world. I had a huge show in Russia…

BP: Speaking of different countries, you have this incredible, geographically diverse background. How has that played into your art?

PM: Listen, China is a very creative country. Every young kid draws with chalk on the streets and I did the same thing they did. Chinese people are extremely creative people. My father would draw with me at night. I never thought I’d become an artist, I just thought it was my “play thing”.  Then I went to art school and my father was nervous. He would say to my mother “What’s he gonna do as an artist, sweetie? How’s he going to make a living?” and said, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. It’ll all be okay.” She supported me a lot. When I came out of art school all I did was win awards, day after day. By the time five or six years went by everybody knew my name, Life magazine had done three stories on me and the third story had me on the cover. Then I did two TIME covers, two Newsweek covers, and on and on and by now I’ve done over a thousand magazine covers.

BP: So what’s something you’d like to do that you haven’t done?

PM: What I haven’t done and what I’d like to do, I’m doing it now. I’m designing seven animated feature films. Not one, not two, but seven, and they’re all going to be very heavily musical. I’ve gotten myself about 26 iPods to put about 18 to 19,000 songs. I listen to the music on my iPods every single day and I rate them- you know how at the bottom of the iPod you can rate them with the five stars? I’m rating them. If I want them to be in the film it’s five stars. If it’s maybe yes maybe no it’s four, and so on. I’ve gone through about 2/3 of it so I’ve got another, maybe, four to 5000 songs to go but I’ve probably got three to four times as much music as I need, but I listen to all of it.

BP: Yeah, you’ve got to cover all the bases.

PM: I wanna cover all the bases. You’re absolutely right. Then I’ve already written kind of like an overview of the first four films. One is very cosmic, stellar, like space and the mind. The next one is a kaleidoscopic world with visuals and color. The next one is music and poetry. The next one is a love story. It goes on. I have three more to go.

BP: Why seven?

PM: I broke it down into seven regions that I knew about.

BP: Seven regions of what?

PM: Of consciousness.

BP: Which one’s your favorite?

PM: All of them. It’s like yoga. It has seven regions.

BP: Is there dialogue or is it all imagery?

PM: There’s dialogue, there’s music, and the most beautiful images ever. I’m gonna go to all of my best friends in Hollywood and get the best people to produce it.

BP: When do you expect these movies to be released?

PM: Probably, maybe middle, end of next year or the year after. If I get one or two done I’ll release them then.

BP: Do you always have some kind of background noise whenever you’re working?

PM: Oh yeah, believe it or not I have a nice studio with about 35-40 people and a full time DJ. Every day he plays me different genres of music and we’ve collected so much stuff that I love to paint to. Every few days he brings me something new.

BP: He’s got a great job, to just explore.

At this time Mr. Max turned the tables and began asking me questions about my writing and light conversation ensued. It was then we discovered our close proximity and agreed to continue the interview at his Upper West Side studio. Upon arrival I took a stroll around, taking in his rainbow, paint-splattered floor, a life size longhorn statue (very Fort Worth), and a multicolored piano donning a personal message to Max from Ringo Starr. We settled onto couches positioned in front of 18 TV screens looping an old interview, and as 18 Larry Kings flashed before us, we picked up where we left off.

BP: What is your advice for aspiring artists?

PM: To draw a lot, draw more than you want to, and draw silly stuff. Don’t draw serious stuff, just circles and squares, complete nonsense.  It gets the muscles going. Later on you get all the skills by drawing silly things, and you have all those things that you draw all the time, so when you [do] try you’re not gonna get stuck.

BP: Do you think you should have a set time of day, a schedule?

PM: No, any time [for] as long as you can. If you can do it six hours a day then do it six hours a day. If you can only do 60 minutes then do 60 minutes. If you can do ten times a day for ten or 15 minutes, do it like that. Move your hand with a pen, with a marker, with a pencil, and have hundreds of thousands of sheets of cheap paper. Just fill it up with nonsense. After a year or two you’ll be skillful.

BP: What do you wish people would ask you? 

PM: That’s a hard question. I get asked everything. Basically I’m very involved in lots of things but at the same time I’m very simple. I do yoga, I had a swami I brought to America, I meditate…

BP: What is something people don’t know about you?

PM: These are hard questions. They probably know everything about me. Some people know some parts of me, they know I’m a painter, some people know I’m a yogi, some people know that I grew up in China, some people know I was a hippie and lived in Woodstock…

BP: Do you wanna elaborate on that one?

PM: Well I lived in Woodstock and was Michael Lang’s best friend. Michael Lang is who created Woodstock festivals. He’s still my best friend and we speak [often]. He’s a cool guy. Then I met the swami in Paris, then I came to America and I became a vegan… nothing. You know what I mean? Nothing.

He insinuates that he graduated from his “hippie phase” and we share a laugh.

I just became very authentically yogic, yoga every day. There’s a line in yoga- there are many lines in yoga- but one line is “love all, serve all”. It means every person should love and serve a person. It’s a headline. “Love all, serve all”, I mean, that’s how I live my life.

BP: Do you ever find that challenging?

PM: No. It’s rewarding because everybody could use the help and every body could use the love. As long as you have that attitude people recognize it… and they like it.