Hindsight has a way of producing a series of what ifs.
For instance, what if Salla Max hadn’t given her son permission to make a mess? She was a fashion designer working in Shanghai, China, and she’d strategically placed art supplies on the four balconies of the family pagoda house.
“She told me to choose any balcony and medium,” Peter Max says. “She said I could make a big mess, and my parents cleaned up after me. She gave me this freedom. She gave me permission to paint, to create.”
But what if Max’s mom had been more concerned with tidiness than artistic expression? Would Max be coming to New Orleans to commemorate his latest body of work?
It’s called “Homage to Color,” a newly curated collection of work that opens Friday, May 23, in the Angela King Gallery. The show runs through Monday, June 23, and Max will visit the gallery from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 24.
Max may be best known for his signature style of cosmic characters painted against vibrant colors in the 1960s.
“Capturing the zeitgeist of the era, Max’s art was often cited by journalists and art critics as the visual counterpart of the music of The Beatles,” states his biography at petermax.com.
The website also features milestone photographs of Max and his work highlighting a career that includes the 600-foot stage for the Woodstock Music Festival, the 10-foot guitars for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and external artwork on a Continental Airlines Boeing 777.
He’s known as the artist who ushered in the psychedelic theme of the cosmic 1960s, and he was the official artist of the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, as well as five Super Bowls, World Cup USA, The World Series, The U.S. Open, The Indy 500, the New York City Marathon and the Kentucky Derby.
And since 1968, there’s been an ongoing debate on whether Max’s art influenced The Beatles’ animated feature, “Yellow Submarine.” But would that debate be circulating had Max not been given creative freedom in childhood? Would he be looking at New Orleans through eyes that wouldn’t appreciate the city for its possibilities?
For New Orleans is special to Max.
“New Orleans is the most creative city in the United States,” he says. “I get a creative adrenaline rush each time I visit there.”
And Max has been visiting the Crescent City since the beginning of his career, which also was when the Angela King Gallery began representing him.
The gallery featured his collection, “Homage to the Masters,” in 2013, and this year, “Homage to Color,” will include the series, “Marilyn,” signed by both Max and Joshua Greene, son of fashion photographer Milton Greene, who photographed Monroe.
Max uses Greene’s photos as the foundation for his series. This exhibit also features Max’s best-known pieces, including “Statue of Liberty,” his “Flag” pieces, “Umbrella Man” and the “Cosmic Runner.”
All of which serve as a collective example of how his work is ever changing.
“I never start a painting with a preconceived idea,” Max says. “When I start painting, it can be any subject, and I surprise myself. Anything can emerge. It can be space and planets and stars or people or even people from another world.”
Max is familiar with other worlds. He speaks on the phone from New York, where he now makes his home, but he was born in Germany. His was exposed to different art genres in childhood while his parents’ work took them from one country to the next, and later he embarked on his own international art education finally emerging as a powerful force in the art world from the Art Students League, whose alumni includes artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollack, Cy Twombly and Norman Rockwell.
But Max isn’t thinking about his education at the moment. He’s more interested in discussing what awaits him in the studio each morning, even on this particular morning.
He walks in, asks his full-time studio disc jockey to choose a selection from Max’s vast collection of jazz, blues, bebop and rock ’n’ roll.
Yes, you read right — he employs his own full time DJ. But you can do that when you’re Peter Max, and the world is anxious to see what you’re going to create next, something Max can’t even predict until he walks into his studio.
“There’s an excitement each day when I walk into the room,” he says. “Everything is new, and it’s never boring.”
And he’ll surely bring the inspiration from his upcoming New Orleans trip back to his New York studio. He loves the city, its sheer life force.
It’s a life force whose possibilities Max will incorporate into his creative process, which never falls prey to a series of what ifs.