Thursday, January 29, 2009

Interview with Peter Max

San Diego Reader

Talking with Peter Max

By Josh Board | Posted January 29, 2009, 9:37 a.m.

Artist Peter Max is arguably the most famous living artist. I talked to him recently, and the conversation seemed to keep going back to music. He talked about his studio in New York, that’s 30,000 square feet. He told me it gives him a view of the Hudson, and this was a few days before a plane landed there. I would’ve loved to ask if he watched that plane land into the water.

Max employs a full-time DJ to play music while he works. He says, “I’m a big music enthusiast. All levels, all genres. The last two months, I re-discovered and re-fell in love with bee bop and boogie woogie. Stuff I loved when I was a kid. I have assistants, and I’ll nod if I like a piece of music or nod. I’m doing a lot of multitasking right now, too. There’s this animated feature film I’m working on, and I’m telling an assistant ideas for it, and words, while I have a paint brush in one hand, and a cloth in my other. All while painting and squinting, on a large canvas.”

I say, “It’s funny that when you’re in galleries, it’s usually smooth jazz or classical music we hear, not the music you described.”

Max laughs and says, “I can sometimes get them to play Stevie Ray Vaughn. I love him. Or that 70s guy…English. Who is he? He sings with that southern girl now…”

Robert Plant?

“Yes. That’s it! He’s unbelievable. But I like all genres, even Chick Corea, jazz, rock.”

I tell him how I once met him at a book signing, and made the mistake of telling him I liked his artwork with the Beatles Yellow Submarine and how I was corrected on the fact that he didn’t do it. He said, “Well, you were kind of right. I styled it for them. Lennon wanted me to do it. We had become good friends. I had met Yoko a year or two before she met John. She was a conceptual artist, and when Lennon went to her show, it was all over the paper and TV, that they left together. She called me two days later saying, “Have you heard?” I said, ‘Have I heard? The whole world has heard.’ I met him a week later in Central Park, and fairly soon at the Dakota, where he ended up being killed. We would talk and meet often. He always had neat lyrics and rhymes. He told me he wanted me to do the art for the movie Yellow Submarine, but at that time I couldn’t. I had gone from having an assistant, and selling one or two paintings, to needing two assistants, 62 people working for me. I was exploding everywhere. I was on Carson three times, Ed Sullivan did a special on me. Life Magazine did a covers tory. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I had never experienced that kind of fame or notoriety. The most press I had gotten was a line or two in a newspaper. My work was being licensed with 72 companies, magazine covers, and posters. I did 650 posters, selling seven million of them. Bill Clinton even told me when he met me, that he and Hillary had my posters when they were in college. So, The Beatles wanted me to do this, and I didn’t have the nine months to go to Germany and England. I found them this other artists who called himself the European Peter Max. His stuff looked enough like me. I also sent my stuff, and they had it in the production room, to see exactly what it looked like, so they could design it that way. So, it was all done in my style. Just recently, I was going through a filing cabinet and just found the contract to Yellow Submarine. I still had that.”

I ask if he ever did any album cover art and he says, “Oh yeah, lots. The Black Crowes, Bad Company. I forget them all. I was more into the poster scene. I did a portrait of Chrissy Hyde from the Pretenders. I did a painting of Elton John that he has in his bedroom.”

Since he’s just painted 44 portraits of Obama, I ask about that. He tells me he’s painted every President from Carter on (and many times, he’s at the White House with them). He said, “When I saw Obama win that night, everyone like Oprah and Jesse Jackson, teary eyed, I was too. The country has come somewhere. Something amazing has happened. He seems like such a nice young guy. And I immediately painted him. So, when someone asked me three weeks ago if I was going to paint him, I said I already did. The painting of him and Michelle I’m going to show on the CBS Morning Show three days before the inauguration.”

He tells me Clinton was impressed with how big his portraits were, and the Obama ones are bigger. They are 4’ high and 11’ across.

If you’d like to buy an Obama painting or one of over 300 he’ll have with him (including his famous Statue of Liberty); or you just want to meet him, he’ll be at the Wentworth Gallery, 1025 Prospect Street, January 31st, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

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