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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Peter Max

Expo74 Commorative Stamp, 1974, Peter Max,
typical of his early style

Every generation has at least one artist that so squarely identifies the hopes, thrills, fears, and images of their chronological group that his work becomes practically synonymous with their lives and times.  For our grandparents, it was probably Maxfield Parrish. For our parents generation, maybe Norman Rockwell. For the baby-boom generation, there is no doubt, it would be Peter Max.  Though technically not a baby boomer himself (he was born in 1937), he and his work came of age at a time when beads, bell-bottoms, black lights, Yellow Submarines, and  flowery Volkswagen mini-buses were the props for a culture escaping the mundane 50's for the sweet, smokey 60's only to find their countercultural Shangri-La go up in the smoke of war and war protests. For a time, Peter Max seemed to be everywhere, album covers, posters, magazine covers, movies, television--though not technically a Pop artists, he was still the hottest art happening in the Pop world of the 60s and 70s.

Barrak Obama, 2009, a  Peter Max Warhol-like portrait today
If you're thinking Peter Max was a small-town American boy growing up to Saturday morning cartoons, Flash Gordon, Marvel comic books, Elvis Presley, and Rock 'n Roll, you'd be so wrong you'd be clear off the charts. He had the misfortune to be born in Berlin just as Hitler was starting to bare his teeth. When he was a year old, his parents fled Germany for the relative peace of Shanghai, China where they lived in a pagoda-style house sandwiched between a Buddhist monastery and a Sikh temple next door to a Vietnamese Restaurant. His family's idea of a fun vacation was a motor trip clear across China to a Tibetan mountain camp 9,000 feet up in the Himalayas, except that it was cut short when word came that Mao Tse-Tung was about to pay a visit to their hometown. Hurrying home, they packed up what they could, loaded everything on a ship bound for the fledgling state of Israel, only to find their way blocked by yet another war in the Suez region, forcing them to detour around Africa.

Peter Max in Las Vegas
In 1953, Peter's family landed in the USA. By the age of sixteen he knew he wanted to be an artist, and after high school, he began his studies at New York's Art Student's League. After college, he moved into the graphic design world, blending European and oriental influences from his youth with the dynamic realism, glamour photography, and commercial art swirling all about him. Photographers such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn influenced him as he and they helped invent the psychedelic art era of the 1960's. But as much as the cosmic, transcendental, pop culture catapulted him to fame, he has also proven himself able to move beyond that, his celebrity, money, and iconographic artistic stature allowing him the luxury to retreat into painting and to experiment with a dozen other art mediums at which he has become equally successful. From celebrating the fall of Communism by carving a dove from a 7,000 pound chunk of the Berlin Wall, to painting for six presidents (above, right), today Max seems to be everywhere at once. He has been the official artist for the Super Bowl, the World Cup USA, the US Tennis Open, the NHL All-star Game, the Grammys, the 25th Anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the Woodstock Music Festival, and an entire generation of Americans as hyperactive as he is.
From painting pictures to painting the real thing, a Peter Max Continental Air Line 777
gives the appearance of having flown headlong into a wet painting.

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