| July 3, 2014 | People
Artist Peter Max has depicted everyone and everything from the Dalai Lama to the Beatles psychedelic cosmic style. Now, exclusively for Vegas, he interprets the Strip and beyond, while the hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, discover the colorful stories—and the man—behind the masterpieces.
Max puts the finishing touches on his cover for Vegas.
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 Vegas cover, one of a collection of 10 covers created exclusively for Niche Media publications that also includes LA Confidential, Hamptons, Ocean Drive, and Michigan Avenue. The original paintings will be auctioned on the website Charitybuzz starting this month to benefit The Humane Society of the United States. “Las Vegas is remarkable to me in that this city of entertainment, lights, and design that draws so many people to it was built up from the Mojave Desert,” says Max. “My cover art for Vegas magazine features the amazing oranges, reds, and golds of the desert, its vibrant sun, colorful clouds, and bright stars that go on and on—a fantasy landscape with Red Rock Canyon and Joshua trees. Amid all of the natural beauty are the manmade wonders of Las Vegas—the iconic glowing neon signs that welcomed visitors for decades to experience the legendary singers, dancers, magicians, and performers in town. The historic Stardust neon sign, now resting in the Neon Boneyard in the Neon Museum, mingles with the stars of the cosmos and reminds me of the fantasy, energy, and imagination of this city.”
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—a part of his routine for more than 40 years. He also gives freely of his time, money, and art to benefit animal charities such as The Humane Society of the United States and the Wild for Life Foundation, an equine rescue organization. By his side in all of it is his wife of 17 years, Mary Max. “When I met her, it fueled me,” he says, “and she still fuels me today, quite a few years later.” He spotted her one day while out for coffee and declared at first sight that he would marry her.
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 about his unparalleled career, his spirituality and philanthropy, and the famous friends who have influenced his work.
Peter Max, circa 1968, surrounded by some of his posters.
JOE AND MIKA: It’s a struggle for any artist to gain recognition, but to have it last 50 years is extraordinary. 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.
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 best know your paintings of the Statue of Liberty or the “Love” series, but what do you think is your most defining work?
There are so many. 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.
Peter Max (c. 1969) showcases the clock art he designed for General Electric.
There's a photo of you and Ringo right on top. Was it 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.
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.
How did you first meet Swami Satchidananda?
Conrad Rooks, who was the heir of Avon cosmetics—he was a billionaire kid—called me one day when I was still in my early 20s, and he wanted me to come to Paris to help him with the colors on a film he was going to make. A day or two later, I pack a little bag, my driver drops me off at Kennedy Airport, and I go to Paris. Conrad picks me up from the airport and we’re hanging out in the restaurant at the hotel that he’s staying in, and then in comes the Swami—long beard, beautiful long black hair, gorgeous eyes—and Conrad introduces me to him. After spending a day with the Swami, I knew I had to bring him to New York. All my hippie buddies were taking LSD, and I was thinking, This is the man we need to be with, not this other stuff. I brought him to America and I opened yoga centers for him.
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)