When Peter Max was at The Art Students League of New York in the 1950s, he studied under Frank J. Reilly, who himself was trained by Norman Rockwell.
“I was totally shocked and surprised that I got to know the famous Mr. Rockwell.”
Sometimes Max and a buddy would take a break on the stone steps of the League’s stately Beaux Arts building, which is diagonally across from Carnegie Hall on West 57th Street in Manhattan. One day a young blond woman happened by. She told Max she liked his paint-dappled pants and equally striking polka-dot socks, then walked on.
“I said to my friend, ‘She looks familiar,’ and he said, ‘That’s Marilyn Monroe.’”
Max got up from his seat and called after her, “Marilyn, we love you and your work.” And Monroe turned to give them the OK sign, putting her thumb and index finger together.
“She was stunning,” Max recalls, “with this amazing face and sexy body, very feminine, very beautiful.”
Clearly, the encounter stayed with the artist, for when an opportunity arose to paint on some of the best-known photographs of the actress – taken by fashion photographer Milton Greene – Max leapt at the chance. The result is his new “Marilyn Series,” which is part of “Peter Max: A Retrospective, 1960-2014” at Geary Gallery in Darien.
Max fans will be treated to “Marilyn” works like the one in which he turns her into a modern icon – surrounding her with a rainbow halo as she leans toward us, all smiles, white ballerina tulle and décolletage. Paintings like the “Central Park Series” – which capture the park in the four seasons – and the floral, Matisse-like “Friends Kentucky Derby” crystallize his lush, colorful style.
Other recent works include “Brooklyn Bridge” – all streaking reds and blues, linking the Brooklyn of Max’s youth with the Manhattan of his career – and another iconic woman, “Liberty.” Told the Statue of Liberty looks a little severe in his portrait, Max demurs: “She’s content and happy… but absolutely firm about democracy.”
Max is all about flower power, first in the sense of the bouquet of colors he creates, with pens and also acrylics, which he calls “the new oil paints” for the similarity of their textures to oils but faster-drying properties. He’ll color paper, canvas, photography, even a Continental Boeing 707.
But he’s also about Flower Power, coming of age in the 1960s. “That was my youth, and there was a tremendous excitement around.” Plus, he says, printing, TV, the computer – all were getting off the ground. The technology we couldn’t live without today, he reminds us, had its seeds then.
“Technology serves the imagination and the imagination uses technology.”
With his bold brushstrokes and palette, Max quickly found himself in the vanguard of the Pop Art movement and the glitterati. He has depicted everyone from the last seven American presidents to Taylor Swift. He has been the official artist of five Super Bowls, the 2006 Olympics, the World Cup USA, the World Series, the US Open, the Indianapolis 500, the New York City Marathon and the Kentucky Derby.
So it should come as no surprise that his studio, near Lincoln Center, is a bustling place made up of two 10,000-square-foot spaces and employing 50 people who do everything from archiving his work to selecting the music he wants to hear. Max, a big music buff, loves listening to jazz, rock and fusion rock.
Like a jazz artist, he’s keen on improvisation, “riffing” on color and line.
“Look, as an artist, you can go in many different directions. We are all creative beings and creativity is the extent to which you want to go. I love being as creative as I can be. I don’t even know what I want to paint. I just want to see what happens.”
A true New Yorker, Max enjoys going out with friends and catching new performances and exhibits. But he’s also a true child of the ’60s and as such, a serious yoga practitioner. It was he who brought Sri Swami Satchidananda to America, which led to the founding of the Integral Yoga Institute, now with centers worldwide.
“It gives you inner peace,” Max says of yoga. “It makes you walk 5 feet off the ground. It elevates you and makes you feel young.”