120 images provide full-color flashbacks from the '60s to the present
Mention “The ’60s” and whatever imagery comes to mind surely will include the pop art of the era, that ecstatically trippy, oh-so-colorful pop art of the era that ushered in the Summer of Love and echoed beyond the Age of Aquarius.
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, the name Peter Max became synonymous with psychedelic pop art. He didn’t invent the style, but he was prominent he was prolific. And he was an early master of modern marketing and licensing. A 1969 Life magazine cover shows Max’s face surrounded in a field of his vibrant, star-filled cosmos with the caption “Portrait of the Artist as a Very Rich Man.” Long before the term, “branding” was coined, Peter Max was a brand, a versatile brand that outlasted the culture wars of the ’60s to become an enduring part of Americana.
Chasen Galleries will present 120 images spanning 50-plus years in an exhibition called “The World of Peter Max Retrospective,” previewing Thursday, Jan. 16 and running through Jan. 26.
“We’ve been working with Peter for almost 25 years,” says Lesley Smith of exhibition curator Roadshow Company.This exhibition will cover every aspect of Max’s career, she says, while conveying something of the artist, which is why, she says, ’60s music will be playing in the gallery.
Of course, Peter Max’s art is associated with rock music. He's maintained that he's had bouts of synesthesia all his life, in which he "sees sounds" and "hears colors." Smith says he used to blare music in his studio and have assistants follow him with jars of paint so he could dip his brush while he bopped around as he painted.
When he hit it big in the mid-1960s, his “cosmic art” period, all the big rock stars wanted to meet him as much as he wanted to meet them, Smith says. “He was friends with all those guys,” it was this mutual admiration society, and it was inevitable his work and theirs would become intertwined.
Over the years, Max has provided artwork for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Awards, and some of his best-known works have been his portraits of musical stars, from Frank Sinatra to Mick Jagger to Taylor Swift and countless others in between, some of which will be among the exhibition.
That’s one of the reasons they like to play ’60s music at his exhibitions, Smith says. They play a lot of Beatles tunes, she adds, which feeds into a controversy that just won’t die, maybe by design.
For years, Max (and his camp, Smith included) has claimed that he was approached to guide the artwork for the Beatles’ animated movie “Yellow Submarine,” and that he turned down the project over time and money issues, but not before supplying sketches that became the basis for the film’s look.
Producers of the film have consistently — at times quite emphatically — denied Max had anything to do with the movie, for which Max contemporary Heinz Edelmann is given credit for overseeing the animation.
No matter, with so many other images over the years, like “Cosmic Runner,” an image commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to commemorate Expo ’74, or any of the variations of “Better World,” which depicts a sunrise over a body of water with some kind of foliage on either side.
It wouldn’t be possible to have a Peter Max retrospective without the “Love” image, “which really put Peter on the map,” Smith says. The image, which graced countless walls in 1968 as a poster, is of something that seems to be in mid-transition between a flower and a woman floating in a cloud of vibrant rainbow colors and anchored in the word “love” spelled out in letters that could have been spewed from a lava lamp. It contains many of the elements that define the Peter Max style, Smith says: broad strokes, vibrant solid colors and imagery that is simple, recognizable while just this side of abstract, with hints of playful anachronism.
Smith explains that the image shows both sides of Max’s background.
“Peter is a trained artist,” she says, “but he’s really a graphic designer. That’s what he started out as.”
The exhibition shows aspects of that classically trained side, with examples of his “master works” series, where Max reinterpreted classic paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and others.
The exhibition will also feature examples of Max’s Statue of Liberty series, which has been a long-running motif in his career, going back to New York’s bicentennial Fourth of July celebration in 1976, Smith says. There were going to be all these tall ships in the harbor, and Max went to paint a picture of them. But the ships never came close enough to shore to make a good image, Smith says. Then he saw Miss Liberty, posed and ready.
The statue became a favorite subject. Eventually, Lee Iacocca, then CEO of Chrysler, saw the paintings as a way to promote and raise money for the statue’s restoration in time for its100th birthday, and Max jumped onboard the project.
A lasting image
Younger audiences might know Peter Max best from the Statue of Liberty images. Chasen Galleries, owner Andrew Chasen says he thinks part of Max’s longevity is timing; his work sprung to prominence as the baby boomers were coming of age.
“They latched on to him and they’ve stayed that way,” he says. But nostalgia doesn’t explain how Peter Max’s art has continued to stay relevant for decades, Chasen says, or how it has been adapted to so many uses. As much as Peter Max’s work is associated with an era, he says, its attributes are timeless.
“I think color is appealing,” Chasen says. “I think most of his designs are pretty simple. They’re not complicated, so they’re easy to look at. They’re accessible. People relate to them.”
If someone relates to one of these images enough, they’ll be able to take it home. This is why the exhibition is ending with two receptions, Chasen explains.
“We’re going to have mixed media and original works,” he says. These aren’t the lithographs you find on cruise ships, Chasen says. These are for the more serious collector, with price tags to match. It’s best to give people a chance to look at a piece, take a couple of days, come back and take a second look before deciding “Love” is worth the cost.