Monday, September 10, 2007

Peter Max

Peter Max
Peter Max rose to fame at a pop artist and poster artist associated with the mass media image of the 1960’s psychedelic art movement.

Max took his influences from the underground psychedelic concert posters and album art of the time, and the graphically simplified echoes of that art pioneered by Heinz Edelmann and Milton Glaser, and refined them into a cheerful, less threatening version that became wildly popular.

Max applied his version of the style to a line of very successful silkscreen posters posters and moved it into advertising design, clothing, and various kinds of marketing and product design, even to busses, large scale murals and the painted fuselage of one of Continental Airline’s Boeing 777’s.

His work became synonymous with 60’s “psychedelic art”, though to my mind he was less of an innovator than people like Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson and Anton Kelly. Fame wins out, however, and Max’s psychedelic lite version became a pop culture icon while the originators faded into obscurity. (I’ll do my best to introduce you to them in future posts.) Heinz Edelmann carried his style into the design for the influential animated feature Yellow Submarine, which is often wrongly attributed to Max.

The path of influences is difficult to sort out, however, and you can see the influence of Max and his progenitors and contemporaries on modern retro-60’s style, European comics artists like Moebius and Bati, and album cover art through the intervening years.

If my tone makes you think I don’t appreciate Peter Max, I’m remiss, because I actually do like him when he’s at his art-deco kaleidoscopic best, I just lament the obscurity of other artists who pioneered this style.

Max himself moved his style into a kind of neo-expressionism, often mixed with the pop psychedelia of his poster art. He expanded his working methods into a number of media and remains active today, creating posters, magazine covers, limited edition prints and gallery paintings.

His work is full of the vibrantly intense color relationships associated with psychedelic and op art, in which high-value, high-saturation colors are frequently juxtaposed with their compliments, causing an increased intensity and optical “vibration” from the way the brain processes color.

His web site has a small selection of his 60’s work. The gallery is the “Shop” (which tells you something), look in the “Vintage Poster” section. There are also interesting works in the contemporary “Posters”, particularly under “Misc.” I can’t give you direct links because the site is in frames.

A collection of his work, The Art of Peter Max, was published in 2002.

There is an exhibition called Peter Max and the Summer of Love at the de Young museum in San Francisco from now till October 28, 2007, supposedly in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” in 1967.

I’m not exactly sure what Peter Max actually has to do with the “Summer of Love”, except that they both marked the explosion of the 60’s counterculture into mainstream culture, which was, of course, its death knell. The establishment brownshoes who got so uptight at the rise of the “dirty hippies” who wanted to subvert the authoritarian consumerist conformity they desperately wanted to maintain just didn’t have enough faith in American Popular Culture, which, like a cosmic game of Katamari Damacy, can absorb anything.

Far out, man.

[Exhibition listing via Art Knowledge News, photo of Peter Max mural on Atlantic City boardwalk (image top, enlargement here) from Flickr set by iirraa, I've taken the liberty of cropping it and adjusting levels. Note the size of the passer-by on the boardwalk.]

6 thoughts on “Peter Max

  1. sara

    Thanks for this article. I’ve always liked Max’s work and never could understand why it was sneered at in some circles while Warhol’s soup cans and Lichtenstein’s comic books were considered “fine art”. I remain convinced that commercial success is synonymous with not being taken seriously in some sectors of the art world. Anyway, Peter Max manages to capture a cheerful and yet thoughtful aesthetic in his work. Looking forward to the future articles on those “pioneers” of this style.

  2. Dan van Benthuysen

    I beg to differ. I find his art numbingly formulaic — and not from formulas he did much to create, synthesize or refine.

    I think (as I did 40 years ago) it’s as hard to admire Peter Max’s minute amount of talent and skill spread so amazingly thin as it is equally difficult to ignore his prodigious, relentless self-promotion and marketing.

    That, at least, one has to respect.

  3. Charley Parker Post author

    The Madonna of pop art, eh, Daniel?

    I agree that much of is is formulaic, and he really cranked it out to make money,and stopped at nothing to find news ways to sell it; but in some of his better pieces he managed to distill that Edleman/Griffin op art psychedelic buzz, and some kind of art deco design sense that they often didn’t have, into a blended whole that worked. Not often, but enough to please the designer, artist, cartoonist (and countercultural freakazoid) in me. But I do very much prefer the more original progenetors of that style that I mentioned in the article. Max was the Monkees to their Beatles, but even the Monkees had talent (at least one of them.)

  4. sara

    Ok, so I was a Monkees fan too. I guess reading the book about Max (The Art of Peter Max, you mentioned) took him up a notch in my estimation. As you said, Charley, there is something about the blended whole of his work that pleases me and a few pieces of his early work–the ones with the monks–have a sophisticated simplicity that I find especially appealing.

  5. Betty

    Give me Stanley, Victor, Rick, Wes, and Anton any day. Short lived, high impact, purpose serving, influential, very creative, influenced as well, way out there dudes. Even though they didn’t invent the art nouveau style they sure arranged it in a unique manner. It was a one of a kind time in history. So creative. Would have loved to have been a part of that art and music scene! Or a fly on the wall in their studios. Sigh.
    Peter Max did lift the spirit too. That’s never a bad thing. Betty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>