From pop to politics and back

While the name Peter Max may leave some members of our generation scratching their heads, the rest of the world knows Max as one of the most successful psychedelic artists of the 1960s and ’70s.

He has exhibited over 80 one-man museum shows in the last 25 years. He has painted for Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton, to name a few. He was responsible for the 1980 renovation of the Statue of Liberty – and for an original Peter Max plane designed for Continental Airlines. His most recent collection, “POP to Patriotism,” will be on display this Saturday, Oct. 25 in Virginia at the Wentworth Gallery at both the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and Tysons Galleria.

Max’s initial success in the art world led him to partner up with large corporations and license his work. He was one of the first of his time to bank on mass consumerism and engage with art as a commercial product.

Like any artist, the 71-year-old says his life is all about creativity.

“My biggest inspiration comes from the ability to do,” he said. “I surround myself with a creative environment.”

“I can’t wait to get (to my studio) in the morning, and at night I hate to leave,” he said, adding that he keeps inspired by periodically switching between listening to jazz and rock every two days.

“My favorite piece is always the one I’m working on. Whether it’s a five-five drawing or large-scale painting, I love them both the same,” he said.

Max was born in Berlin. His family fled Nazi Germany before settling in China, Tibet, India, South Africa, Italy, Israel and finally in Brooklyn, N.Y. Max attended art school in Manhattan where he said success found him.

“I came out of art school and became immensely popular and successful in a short amount of time,” he said. “Literally, before I knew it I was on Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan and Life magazine was putting me on their cover with an eight-page spread. This was all within two years, and I had no clue why it happened. It was surprising and shocking to me.”

Not long after his success with brightly colored pop pieces, large corporations found Max and his “cosmic period” was adapted to graphics.

At the time, the idea of commercial art seemed like a contradiction in terms. As a young artist, Max confronted this notion head-on – making alarm clocks, neckties and mugs.

By the age of 25, his work earned him a billion dollars.

“I think today you can achieve both types of success. The media is so everywhere that something commercial is just part of that,” he said.

By 1971, Max stopped licensing his art and returned to creating portraits – from Sharon Stone to 40 portraits of Mikhail Gorbachev, which he called “40 Gorbys.”

Since his pop art success, Max worked on what is now called neo-expressionism: art inspired by nature with intensified colors.

For his next artistic endeavor, he is focusing on creating animated movies, which should be completed by the end of next year.

“POP to Patriotism” will be on display Oct. 25 at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and Tysons Galleria from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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