ARTIST INTERVIEW: Peter Max
In the 1960s, artist Peter Max rose to rock star status. In our decade, he's still shining on. Max will be appearing in our area this Friday, March 1, from 6-9 p.m. at the Peter Max Gallery at the Westfield Southgate Mall, in Sarasota. Max will also appear on Saturday, March 2, 6-9 p.m.; and Sunday, March 3, 1-4 p.m., at the Syd Entel Galleries, in Safety Harbor. Recent selections from Max's ongoing "New Masters" series and other works will be on display at both galleries to coincide with his appearance. Max spoke with us recently about what inspires him.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as the saying goes. If that’s true, many artists have flattered you over the years. How do you feel about that?
Ah, I don't mind. Artists have imitated other artists since the beginning of time. It’s the nature of the art and music world. It’s what artists do — I just happen to be on the receiving end. So, they’ve copied me and flattered me. I don’t get upset about it. I keep on working, that’s all. I keep on painting and drawing and I’ve had more museum shows than I could ever dream of. I’ve been a very lucky boy.
Your name is permanently associated with the sixties in the public mind. Do you ever try to break out of that perception? “Hey, I’ve moved on. I’m an artist of the now.”
No. I’m not stuck in any time frame — but I’m also not worried about how the art world perceives me. Being creative is the only thing I’m stuck in.
How would you describe your latest creative direction?
Well, I’m not really aiming myself in any direction. That implies that I know the end of my journey before I start out.
And where’s the fun in that?
Yes, exactly! (laughs) But it’s true. When I start a painting, I don’t want to know how it will end up. I go to my studio and there are all my paints and a bunch of empty canvasses. I just put one on the easel and I start painting. I have no idea where I’m going and I don’t know where I'm going to stop. Then — bingo! The most beautiful thing happens. I come to a point where I see what I’ve done and I suddenly say to myself, “That’s it. No more.” My own art surprises me — and that’s how I know I’m going in the right direction.
How’d you get started?
It’s a long story. I actually grew up in Shanghai, in China, before the Communist revolution. I was about three years old, when my mother and father hired a Chinese nanny to take care of me. But she did much more than that. She taught me how to paint and draw. Every day, she’d come to our house with — and I still remember this very clearly — she’d bring pens, brushes, pencils and paper. Then she’d have me draw circles and squares and various geometric forms.
No. Not at first. It was all just practice to loosen up my wrist. Silly stuff, you know? This was all without words, you know. We didn’t speak the same language, but she’d communicate with gestures. After about three months or so, we were totally on the same wavelength, and it didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language. She could communicate everything. And it was mostly practice, practice, practice. I drew a lot of silly stuff, nothing, really — but in the process the act of drawing got into my wrists and my arms and my bones at a very young age. After another year or so, she’d let me draw what I wanted, but make me go back to squares and circles in the afternoon. Gradually, she let me draw more and more from my imagination. This went on for years. I continued studying after I left Shanghai. I had art teachers in Israel, in Tibet, in Paris – all over the world. I expanded on her lessons. But everything I learned was build on those lessons. It’s been the foundation of my whole artistic life.
Do you know who she is?
No. I've been trying to find out. I would love to — I might even hire a private detective, you know? Everything I am today goes back to what she taught me.
"Peter Max: New Work" runs March 2-3 at Syd Entel Galleries, 247 Main St., Safety Harbor; (727) 725-1808.