My Tentative Interview With Declining Artist Peter Max In 2016
Recently there were news reports about artist Peter Max’s dementia worsening and conflicts over his care as well as questions surrounding his factory-like studio. I interviewed the artist for a 2016 piece for the Hearst newspapers of Connecticut. I thought it would be interesting to note my impressions then in the context of the current news stopries.
I was warned on the artios’s mental fragility, asked him the gentlest of questions and helped guide his unerstanding of the basic questions I asked. He was a man removed from reality but still able to address certain questions. Regarding his involvement in his art, I was told he still participated and there were many at the large factory-like who were churning the artwork out, supposedly under his supervision. In the end, I came away with the feeling of a man in great decline but also in a kind of peace, too.
Walk into the studio of Peter Max and enter a world of color, light and optimism, with walls decorated with paintings and art pieces that take you back to a time of peace, love and rock and roll.
Throughout the studio complex — which occupies two stories of a nondescript building near New York’s Central Park West — there are American icons as seen through Max's kaleidoscopic vision: the stars-and-stripes flag, the Statue of Liberty, Frank Sinatra, Woodstock. There's also a colorfully painted Baldwin piano signed by Ringo Starr in the main hallway. A Smirnoff vodka bottle Max designed hangs in the hallway. Then there are signature images of masterworks by Monet, Renoir and Degas as re-imagined through Max’s playful aesthetic. (Mona Lisa never had more reason to smile.)
At 78 and with more than five decades of prolific output, Max continues to produce projects large and small. Rooted in the psychedelic era of pop art in the ’60s, the popularity of his works still remains high, whether it’s for its nostalgia or sheer exuberance. A few years ago, he was commissioned to paint a design on a ship for a cruise line. (He had already decorated a Boeing 707.) More recently he provided artwork for NBC’s “The Voice,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he’s already planning the backdrop for the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival slated for 2019. There’s also a long list of museum exhibits and gallery shows scheduled, including one at the end of April at the Geary Gallery in Darien, which he will visit twice.
Max has long-since shed his flowing shirts for more J. Press outfits, such as the salmon-colored wool sweater he wore on the day of my visit. But he still has the sweet air of a transported soul from the flower-power days, and despite legal tangling last fall between his wife of 19 years and his son over ownership of works and the care of the artist. During the conflict — which received tabloid attention in New York — it was revealed that Max had a mild form of dementia, but he has never been ruled incompetent to handle his own affairs.