Vibrant colors leap from artist Peter Max's canvases -- not to mention from the posters, murals, wrapping paper, T-shirts, jumbo jets, and racing cars he's decorated in a more than three-decade-long career. Born in Berlin, Max spent his formative years in Shanghai, Tibet, Israel, and Paris, arriving in the United States at age sixteen and settling in New York City. Originally he hoped to become an astronomer, but his love of color surpassed his admiration for the wonders of the universe, and he found himself enrolled at the eminent Art Students League. "I thought art was something that just kids do. I didn't think this was where my life was going to be," Max confesses calmly on a cell phone from a Manhattan taxi cab.
By the mid-Sixties Max's life and that of the style-savvy American consumer was overtaken by his art. His quirky cosmic images, which captured the eco-conscious and peacenik Zeitgeist, suddenly were ubiquitous, appearing on more than 70 products, ranging from T-shirts to clocks to school supplies. "I loved the fact that I was able to be part of the scene," Max recalls. "It was in my heart, in my blood." Max hadn't even reached age 30 and his art had spawned a billion-dollar industry -- a stunning accomplishment but one he insists didn't overwhelm him. "The world is very big. How can the work of one little guy, one little human being, be that big?" he ponders.
The Max machine exploded (his work was shown in about 100 museums), and though he denies ever being exhausted by it all, in 1971 he felt the need to take a rest. "I just wanted to get back to the easel," he notes. He promised his studio staff he would be back in three months. Keeping a skeleton crew in his employ, he began to paint, draw, listen to rock and roll, and hang out with swamis and meditate. "I was a complete hippie," he reports, now speaking from a luncheonette overlooking Lincoln Center, where he's sipping vegetable soup. Nineteen years later he was ready to get back to business in a big way. "I started missing the action," he explains.
By 1990 he opened a small studio, which has ballooned to 90,000 square feet, half in the city, half across the river in New Jersey. Work began in earnest, and success quickly followed. (Max suffered a minor setback in 1998 when he pleaded guilty to tax fraud and was fined and sentenced to several hundred hours of community service.) And this decade many large-scale commissions have begun to pour in. A small sample: He adorned a Continental Airlines jet; became official artist for sporting events such as the Kentucky Derby, World Cup, and Super Bowl; painted more than 100 portraits of international figures, including five presidents and the Dalai Lama; and even embellished a NASCAR vehicle for Dale Earnhardt shortly before his death.
It's a dizzying array of work for anyone nearing official retirement age, but the sixtysomething Max has his own way of dealing with the stress: "If you know to keep yourself calm, life can be really beautiful. I'm addicted to my work. I love it. I'm in top form."