Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Jennifer Goldberg
Jewish News of Greater Phoenix 

Peter Max's art still pops


Peter Max in 1988.

If Peter Max’s life had turned out the way he originally planned, he wouldn’t be an artist.

“I always thought I was going to become an astronomer because I loved astronomy so much,” Max says. “I thought art was something that kids do, a hobby.”

Max’s “hobby” has made him one of the most popular artists of the last 50 years, a painter whose dazzlingly colorful, easily recognizable work is among the most collectible in the art market. He has painted everything from musicians Jimi Hendrix and Taylor Swift to American symbols like the Statue of Liberty to cartoon characters and U.S. presidents. One of his more recent major works won’t fit in any art gallery: The Norwegian Cruise Line ship Breakaway, which took its maiden voyage on April 30, boasts a Peter Max design on the front half of the ship.

Max’s love affair with art began at a very young age in a very faraway place—Shanghai, China. Max, born Peter Max Finkelstein in 1937 in Berlin, was taken to Shanghai as an infant by his parents to escape Nazi persecution.

“They were extremely nice and generous to us, the whole Chinese culture, God bless them, they were amazing,” Max says. “They welcomed us with open arms. It was an amazing life there.”

Max’s father, Jacob, was an amateur artist, and after noticing 3-year-old Peter’s interest in art, his wife, Salla, secured a teacher for their son—the 7-year-old daughter of a local street artist.

“My mother hired her, she came seven days a week, and I drew with her,” Max recalls.

Max remembers crying when he had to part from his art teacher (and his cat) when the family left China for Israel in 1948.

“The Israelis sent a huge ship to China to take out about 2,500 Europeans who wanted to go to Israel, so we were on that ship,” Max recalls. “I’m 10 years old, and there were about 100 kids that I played with, I knew them all from school, so it’s like my same neighborhood was on the ship.”

Max tried to find his former teacher when he was in Shanghai a few months ago to no avail, but he had the chance to visit other sites from his childhood.

“I went to the old synagogue where my parents used to take me, that was still there, it’s all the same brick building it was before. Most of the other buildings that I knew were not there anymore, and instead there were 70- and 80-story buildings. You can’t imagine how many huge buildings there were.”

Max’s family settled in Haifa for several years, where he studied art and astronomy, then moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., after a stop of several months in Paris.

Max’s time in Israel has stayed with him, he says.

“I’m very, very fond of Israel, and I’m very concerned always,” he says. “I try to raise money for it all the time. I’ve never said no to an Israeli fundraiser, ever.”

In New York, after high school, Max began studying at the Art Students League of New York, where his teacher was Frank J. Reilly. Reilly had attended the Art Students League himself as a young man; Norman Rockwell was a classmate.

“Rockwell became the famous Norman Rockwell, and Reilly became very famous because he was Peter Max’s teacher,” Max laughs.

Max’s unique style had its genesis in his Shanghai training: “In China, line work was very important. I drew very beautiful lines, and then I painted in the colors,” he says.

He attributes his popularity to the fact that “my art stood out. I have the most unusual style, and at the same time it’s very complementary to the eyes.”

Today, at the age of 75, Max is still an active artist. He lives in New York with his wife, Mary, and goes to his studio in the mornings to paint.

One crucial component to Max’s workday is music. His assistant, who he calls his “DJ,” is responsible for putting on the day’s soundtrack.

“I love music. I have to have music playing when I work. I listen to everything, but mostly it’s popular music. It could be rock and roll from the ’60s to jazz today and sometimes amazing jazz from the past.

“I’m probably a bigger music fan than I’m an art fan. I do art. That’s what I do. I love my own art, and I’m filled with that. But outside my own stuff, music takes first priority. I just love music.”

Max says he doesn’t always know what he’s going to paint when he enters the studio: “That is always a surprise, not only to the onlooker, but even to me, the artist.”

For the last few years, he has created a number of works that pay homage to the 19th- and 20th-century artists he loves, among them Picasso, Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet and Chagall.

While most of his celebrity portraits are painted from a photograph, Max has had the opportunity to meet and even become friends with some of the most famous people in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, the numerous brushes with celebrity never fazed him.

“I haven’t gotten nervous—maybe my first one. Once I realize they’re just like me, or like you, I felt completely relaxed about it. We’re just people.”

Jennifer Goldberg is special sections editor at Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. 


Reader Comments

Speider writes:

Always a fan of Peter's work while growing up in the 1960s. I was honored to interview him for a German online magazine a couple of years ago and he was the most gracious and humble man of his fame I have ever met.


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