Does anyone here recall the iconic sixties era artist Peter Max? I first saw his art when I was 11 years old, growing up in a not exactly stimulating fledgling subdivision of Greenfield, Wisconsin – a suburb of Milwaukee. It was 1969. His legendary cosmic runner glided bell-bottom clad through the galaxy, a colorful gravity-free master of time and space. I got a Peter Max poster from a store at the mall that also sold black-lights, peace sign pendants, and furry little rugs in bright colors (the one in my bedroom was orange and shaped like a foot), and hung it in my room. His art took me somewhere else.
Max was one of my earliest, if not first (who can remember, really?) art influences. In my mind I connect his early stylized galaxies to the vibrant swirling paisleys, rock band posters, and flower power and kaleidoscopic images I associate with that time. I was just an 11-year-old hippie wannabe, eager to tune into my bohemian side to escape the conservative drudgery of small town Midwestern life. I swirled my pen round and round in my notebook, pairing disparate objects and shapes in earthly and celestial landscapes, connecting them with curvy lines until they were all one idea. Wasn’t that the ideal, after all – that everything was all one?
Just a few weeks ago, and coincidentally four decades later, me and my now rapidly whitening hair took an Amtrak train from Boston to Providence for the day. Entering the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) art supply store, a news rack carrying the Providence Phoenix caught my eye in the front vestibule. On the cover was a Peter Max self-portrait and the headline, “Peter Max’s Pop Life.” I grabbed it and slipped it into my bag to read on my bus ride to Newport later that day.
I liked the Phoenix’s interview with Max, which was for the most part a running monologue by Max about his life. I learned he was born Peter Max Finkelstein in 1937 in nazi Germany and that his Jewish family moved soon after to Shanghai. As a child, he spent time in Africa, India, Italy, and Tibet, and lived in Israel from age 10 until he moved with his family to Brooklyn, NY during his teens. Like Picasso, he started out as a realist painter, but his interest in astronomy began to insert itself into his paintings, inspiring him to slip space beings and astronomical images into the sides of his work. That was the first seed of the cosmic runner to come.
I saw that a Providence gallery called 17 Peck was exhibiting his current work and holding a “Meet the Artist” event with Max a week later. The possibility of meeting Peter Max had never even occurred to me, but now that it was in front of me I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I called the number listed and RSVP’d for the event. Over the course of the next week, I began to re-meet bits and pieces of my 11-year-old self, the one who gazed across Max’s galaxies at the black-outlined planets and stars floating in a sea of color. Some of that 11 year old’s wonder and trepidation at life’s possibilities was resurfacing. When my partner Joe and I arrived in Providence that Saturday evening, I wasn’t quite myself.
The event was a scene. Beatles and Yardbirds tunes played loudly – too loudly – in this midsized gallery packed with people and paintings. The air was full of strained happy chatter as voices competed to be heard above “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need is Love.” Max’s bold paintings were hung at varying levels, squeezing a lot of them in, and the color bounced off the walls and permeated everything. In a small back room with more Max paintings, including a large one of Mick Jagger doing his famous rooster dance ($49,5000), a table held a heavenly array of antipasto, which is not surprising on Providence’s Atwell Street where almost every storefront is an Italian restaurant. Perfectly roasted asparagus and eggplant and peppers mingled with deviled eggs, pitted olives, various sliced sausages and salamis, cheeses, and parmesan shavings. At a gallery asking $3,950-$49,500 per painting, beautiful food platters seems an appropriate, if not absolutely necessary, offering.
I picked up one of the tiny glasses of white wine and began to move around and take in the art, feeling alternately ambivalent and sentimental about it. The lush multicolored brush strokes along with the repeated images of the Statue of Liberty, the glowing umbrella, the bouquets of flowers, and the watery nirvana-like inlets began to gel together into one big Maxism. It became challenging to separate them out and see them as individuals. But every now and then, I’d round a corner for the second or third time and something I’d already looked over with nonchalance would catch my eye from across the room, shouting to me with such stunning brilliance that I couldn’t believe I’d missed its specialness the first time around. I’d suddenly find myself thinking I’d like to see that piece every day.
I began to wonder where Max was. We’d been there for a while now and I hadn’t seen him anywhere. When I mentioned this to Joe he said, “You just missed him. He was just right here.” This happened several times: “He was just standing right there shaking hands,” and later, “He was just right next to you getting his picture taken.” It occurred to me how ironic it would be to have come there and somehow never actually see him. But then there he was, standing just on the other side of a roped-off area, signing the backs of paintings for buyers (an added privilege which the gallery said required a $50 “donation”). His thinning hair was slicked back, and he looked older and feebler than I had imagined in his dark suit jacket and baggy khakis with faded white sneakers designed for support. We watched as the event photographer helped turn the paintings around and prop them on a ledge where he’d then take his black marker and begin drawing a profile of a face on the back, each time starting out quick and focused on the nose and chin before drifting wildly off into a spontaneous riff of hair going this way and that. Then some scribbled words for the buyer and his big signature: MAX.
I thought about how he’d achieved instant fame in his late twenties, becoming a very wealthy man practically overnight. More than four decades later, he is still a prolific painter.
At a break in the action, I rather shyly approached. The roaring Beatles music, an obvious choice for the event but too loud for conversation, forced me to choose my words carefully. I leaned in toward him and he toward me, and I told him I’d first seen his work in 1969 at age 11 and how much I had loved it. I said I’d grown up to be an artist – and here is where, inexplicably, I began to cry. Each time I tried to speak, I found myself fighting back tears and a quivering lip. All I could think at this point was, Oh great, now he thinks I’m a moron. I certainly felt idiotic. I no longer wanted to be there. But I muscled through the rest of my sentence, my lower lip curled and contorted, adding that I loved the happy vibe his art has always put out into the world. By now he had taken my hand, and as I spoke I saw that he was looking into my eyes and listening. He brought my hand up to touch his heart. “Thank you,” he said, sweetly, quietly, while tapping our joined hands on his heart. He turned to a nearby photographer and motioned for him to take our photograph. As I looked toward the camera, my face no doubt filled with the surprise of emotion, I suddenly realized I had one hand on his back and the other on his front. He turned to look in my eyes again and very sweetly and quietly thanked me, and I walked out the door of the gallery not knowing what the heck had just hit me.
Whether someone likes an artist’s work so much that they will buy a painting for tens of thousands of dollars, or is so moved by what they see in that art that it helps to propel their own artistic vision into being, it’s all one, isn’t it? The 11-year-old bored Midwestern girl with colorful dreams had met her cosmic runner after all.
Thanks, Peter Max.