Published on July 16th, 2018 | by Darren Paltrowitz0
Legendary Pop Artist Peter Max On His Hard Rock Wentworth Gallery Showing & More
Having been commissioned by the GRAMMYS, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Woodstock ’99, the Super Bowl and the 1994 World Cup alike for original art, few artists are more “pop” than Peter Max. Yet in spite of his high-profile collaborations over the past 50-plus years, the German-born Max has always done things his way. His colorful paintings are distinct yet always honest to the subject at hand.
Last month, the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino opened in Atlantic City and its Wentworth Gallery included an exhibit of Peter Max’s work. Max was on-hand on July 7th for a visit to the gallery, which included hand-painted guitars. I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with Max following his trip to Atlantic City about his past, present and future as a music-supporting, fashion-friendly painter.
More on the gifted New York resident can be found online at www.petermax.com.
Peter Max: It’s a really great collection. Some of my cosmic works from the ’60s and ’70s and my really colorful expressionistic works, like my Lady Liberties and Central Park landscapes, and of course rock pieces like my hand-painted guitars and Beatles portraits. It’s a really eclectic mix of works from all eras of my career.
I’ve partnered with Wentworth Galleries for a long time. They are a great gallery partner and host exciting events and experiences at their galleries. Their new Hard Rock Atlantic City gallery is a wonderful space and it’s so close to the Etess concert area at the Hard Rock. So you can rock out at a show and then go immerse yourself in visual art at the gallery.
Do you have a favorite piece within the exhibition?
Peter Max: I really love my hand-painted Fender Telecaster guitars in this exhibition. I’ve painted some of my most iconic images on them: my Angel with Heart, Lady Liberty, my hearts and a homage to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. They’re really colorful and unique. Guitar players and collectors tell me how much they love them.
How long did the exhibition take to put together?
Peter Max: A few months.
Who was the first musician who you collaborated with or were commissioned by?
Peter Max: My first musician portrait was of Meade Lux Lewis, the jazz pianist. I painted him for a record album cover for Riverside Records. I painted it in brown sepia tones, and it won the best album cover at the Society Of Illustrators annual exhibition. Soon after I painted a portrait of Ornette Coleman, also in sepia. Then, in 1967, I created a poster collage called “Audio DNA,” which included images of Elvis [Presley], [Bob] Dylan, The Beatles, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, James Brown, Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia, The Beach Boys, Donovan, and The Mamas & The Papas. Soon after, I created individual posters of Bob Dylan and Donovan.
Throughout the years, I have painted so many beautiful, beautiful, imaginative musicians: Mick Jagger, Sting, The Beatles, David Bowie, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Pharrell Williams, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Jon Bon Jovi, Yes, Phil Collins, Gwen Stefani, Steven Tyler, Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and so many others. It’s mind-blowing when I think about it. I love great music and the amazingly talented people that make it.
Music is such an inspiration for me, particularly rock, fusion and jazz. And the DJ, producer, rapper and artist Swizz Beatz turned me onto hip-hop too. He and I used to spend a lot of time together in my studio when he was younger. I gave him the nickname “Double Z.” We talked about art, music and reaching the people with it. What an energy he is. He always wanted to learn and create more. He turned me onto new sounds, tech and artists.
I always listen to music when I paint, it has always motivated me. I used to play along on the keyboards to my favorite songs in the studio. I need to start doing that again!
Peter Max: I became American pop-centric in of all places — Shanghai, China — when I was young and growing up during World War II. I discovered American comics there on street vendor carts: Superman, Batman, Captain America and Buck Rogers. I put up a big fuss until my father bought some for me.
Then I discovered Hollywood movies. My friend’s father owned a movie theater and every Saturday for matinée he would show great movies, pirate and cowboy adventures, The Wizard Of Oz, Anchor’s Away with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, Three Stooges comedies and Popeye cartoons. Also, once a week, on Shanghai radio they played an American swing jazz program with music by Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. It just blew me away.
Then I saw Life Magazines, with cover photos of baseball players, movie stars, and five-star generals. I could never have imagined when I was a young kid, that I, myself, would appear on the cover of Life Magazine later in life. I loved America and it’s pop culture from across the ocean as a child and used so many of its icons and inspirations in my early work, especially my collages and poster art.
How did you wind up collaborating with Wrangler?
Peter Max: We originally collaborated back in the early ’70s and it was really great. Our collaboration took Wrangler from an iconic Americana cowboy brand to an American hippie brand. It was a great collection, bright-colored and denim-patched bell bottoms and wide-collar shirts with my cosmic art all over. Stars and planets and my cosmic characters, color–block jean jackets and groovy short-shorts.
Wrangler contacted me again a couple of years ago to reboot the original collection with them for their 70th Anniversary and the 50th Anniversary of the Summer Of Love. We’ve been doing seasonal, limited-release collections and they are just as vibrant, cosmic and fun, all of these years later.
We reworked the original pieces and designs with modern fabrics and fits and great new designs on sweatshirts, tops, scarves, jeans and jackets. It’s been in really creative boutique shops in Europe and available at Wrangler’s online shop in the U.S.
It’s been really fun to see new generations wearing the Wrangler x Peter Max brand. I’ve seen so many young, trend setters in the news wearing the collection like actress Sienna Miller, supermodel Gigi Hadid and her singer/songwriter boyfriend Zayn Malik and DJ Charlotte de Carle at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival.
It’s truly amazing to have seen the hippie generation wearing my Wrangler designs 50 years ago, and to now see Millennials and Gen Z wearing my new collection today. I’ve always loved bringing my art to the people, and am so thrilled to see new generations enjoying my work.
Is there a career accomplishment you are proudest of?
Peter Max: I am so fortunate to have had so many proud moments in my career. The first U.S. environmental postage stamp, the Life Magazine cover with a 6-page center spread in the heyday of print media, my record-breaking exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, the world’s largest stage for Woodstock ’99, a Boeing 777 super jet, and the hull of the Norwegian Breakaway ship. These are things that I could have never imagined would have happened when I was a young art student.
But my truly greatest accomplishment was bringing Swami Satchidananda to America and helping him found the Integral Yoga Institute and Yogaville. It’s now the largest yoga institute in the world with centers on six continents. He wasn’t the first yoga master to come to America but with the creation of the Integral Yoga Institute, he helped modern yoga take firm roots here.
I also encouraged legendary concert promoter Michael Lang to have the Swami give the opening address to the Woodstock Festival in 1969. He is now remembered as the “Woodstock Guru.”
Peter Max: I have an exhibition on right now of my early works at The Museum at Bethel Woods, at the site of Woodstock in upstate New York. I’m always painting and creating new graphic editions and seeing my friends and fans at my gallery shows. New projects come in all of the time and there are a couple of great surprises on the horizon for later this year and in 2019.
When not busy with your art, how do you like to spend your free time?
Peter Max: I love being with my friends and family, listening to music, going out to a great vegan restaurant, taking walks and lately I’ve been taking ball room dancing classes. It’s great as you age for your heart, your head, your bones, all over. And I sneak in yoga poses and meditation when I’m riding an elevator or taking a break between painting.
What was the last concert you attended for fun?
Peter Max: You know, these two concerts come to mind right away. They weren’t the last shows I’ve seen but they just came so vividly to mind, because they were not only fun, but really meaningful for me.
The first was seeing James Moody downtown in New York City, I think at The Blue Note, just before he passed. I was so lucky to see him then. I had painted a portrait of him to give to him at his show. I always painted to his music in my studio. I met his wife at the show and had them both up to my studio for a visit. I told him how I had loved his music since I was a teenager in Brooklyn, especially of course his classic “Moody’s Mood For Love.” That song brings back so many great memories and still gives me chills. It takes me back. It’s amazing how a song can do that to you. I’ll never forget that show.
The other show that really stands out is when I saw Sia perform at, of all places, the Starbucks at Union Square in New York City. One of my assistants had been playing Sia singing the song “Destiny” with Zero Seven for me at the studio. I fell in love with that song and played it all of the time. Then I started listening to Sia’s other works.
We found out she was playing at the Union Square Starbucks and went to see her. She was amazing. This was a few years before she became the superstar that she is today. She was singing acoustically at a small coffee shop and just filling up the room and all of Union Square with her incredibly soulful and passionate voice. She just seemed so other-worldly to me, such a talented singer and songwriter, a force of nature. I was so lucky to have seen her perform then and meet her. I painted to her music all of the time, and I’m thrilled to see that the world knows what a unique talent she is now.
Finally, Peter, any last words for the kids?
Peter Max: Well, I think it’s best to get involved and do it, whatever it is that you love to do or are inspired to do. Dive in and learn it, master it. And that means, practice, practice, practice.
Draw nonsense. Let your hand and wrist go and draw anything. Circles, squares, zig zags. If a drawing comes out of it, it comes out. If not, then go on to the next drawing. Just draw, draw, draw. Don’t worry what comes out. Let the pen and the wrist get used to the movement. Get used to the feel of the pen on the paper and the flow. You should become an expert in moving the wrist. You’ll get better with repetition. Not every drawing has to be a good drawing. You’ll have bad drawings, but eventually the great drawings will come and you’ll grow as an artist from there.
It’s also really important for young artists to get a strong foundation in art education. Study anatomy, perspective, light and shadow. Once you learn all of the rules, you’ll have the freedom to break them.