Peter Max: Pop artist comes to Providence PDF Print E-mail
By Nancy Kirsch
Friday, 20 August 2010 00:00
An ordinary Jewish guy... not
NEW YORK – Simply put, retirement just isn’t in artist Peter Max’s lexicon. In a recent phone interview to promote Peter Max in his studio, in an undated photo.Peter Max in his studio, in an undated photo.his upcoming visit to Gallery 17 Peck, in Providence, the 72-year-old world-renowned artist said, “I am in my playground. My life is so fantastic, if I were to ‘kick back,’ I would keep doing what I am doing. If I stopped [creating art], I wouldn’t know what else to do.”
During the past four decades, he has created hundreds of pieces in dozens of media – paintings and graphic prints in museums, galleries and private collections all around the world; paintings of presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (the elder) and Clinton; a multiple portrait installation called “100 Clintons” for the first Clinton inauguration; a redesign of the peacock symbol for NBC television and, more recently, an installation on the walls of CBS’ “The Early Show” of 44 Obamas, recognizing the nation’s 44th president. At one time, a Peter Max creation appeared on a Continental Airlines jet.
His commissions include the first “Preserve the Environment” 10-cent postage stamp to commemorate the 1964 World’s Fair in Spokane, Wash.; 235 U.S. Border Murals at entry points to Canada and Mexico; and a painting of each of the 50 states which became a book, Peter Max Paints America, celebrating the nation’s bicentennial.
Although not a member of the “digital generation,” Max keeps abreast of current trends; fans can friend him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
Early influences
His Jewish parents (his mother was from Berlin, his father from Poland) fled Berlin in 1938 with Max (born Peter Max Finkelstein), then 1. During his childhood in Shanghai, China, he “studied a bit of Yiddishkeit at a Jewish school [after my regular school],” he said.
According to his Web site (, Max soaked up the art neighboring his parents’ pagoda: On one side, Buddhist monks used bamboo brushes to paint Chinese characters on rice paper; on the other, Sikhs at the adjacent temple sang their prayers. His mother, who had been a fashion designer in Berlin, cultivated his budding talent by leaving supplies – water colors, inks, brushes, crayons, colored papers and more – on the four balconies of their home. The Web site notes her long-ago statement, “Choose any balcony and medium, make a big mess and we’ll clean up after you.” Max was immersed in other American influences – comic books, first-run movies and jazz – even as he was ensconced in Shanghai’s splendor.
A move to Israel followed in 1948, just days after the land achieved statehood. There, Max’s interests in art and astronomy were further nurtured by a visit to the Mt. Carmel Observatory and an evening astronomy class at the Technion Institute, his Web site indicates. During an extended stay in Paris, he took classes at the Louvre.
Life in America
After settling with his family in Brooklyn in the early 1950s, Max studied at the prestigious Art Students’ League of New York, in Manhattan. Not long after he began his formal studies there, he gathered steam – in a variety of venues.
From television appearances – with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” in 1968 – and magazine covers – the Sept. 5, 1969 “LIFE Magazine” (one of some 70 magazine covers featuring Max) – Max and his artwork came to be an integral part of contemporary American culture.
Max has worked in oil, acrylics, water colors, dyes, pastels, lithographs, collage, video, computer graphics and more – every new technology, it seems, brings new works by Max. He said, “I love every medium – I am constantly working and can jump from media to media.”
With all of his childhood experiences, it’s not surprising that he embraces the world’s diverse offerings. “I love people and the diversity of the world,” he said. “I live in Manhattan where 50 different civilizations walk by in 10 minutes on Broadway.”
His love for his adopted country is clear; after painting many images of the Statute of Liberty, he spearheaded the statue’s renovation. More recently, he has created posters to benefit funds to help victims of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.
Whether due to his parents’ faith in tikkun olam or his study of yoga, which, he acknowledges is not a religion, Max seems endlessly enthusiastic and positive.  “I truly believe that all of Earth’s people live together harmoniously, people live peacefully [together] in New York,” he said. When this reporter expressed skepticism, he quickly moved on to respond to a different question, one about his parents. “They were very proud of me – I was happy to see them proud; they were the most beautiful parents.”
Art isn’t Max’s sole passion – keeping animals out of cages is a cause he’s adopted. In 2002, after a cow escaped from an Ohio slaughterhouse and was ‘on the lam’ for several days, Max decided to permanently rescue the animal. Her freedom to peacefully live out her normal life span at an animal sanctuary was guaranteed when Max donated $180,000 worth of artwork to an animal rescue organization.
In closing, Max summed himself up: “I’m just an ordinary guy with a Jewish background,” he said quietly. “ My religion is to love the world, love the planet and love people from all faiths.”

For more about Peter Max, visit


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