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August 31, 1967, Vol. XII, No. 46
Peter Max: Mastering The Color Explosion
By Don McNeill
The poster boom is in full swing. Riding the crest of the psychedelic market, a million posters a month move from the press to the public. In San Francisco, the Avalon and the Fillmore ballrooms make their money not on the music but on the output of artists like Mouse and Wes Wilson whose appeal goes far beyond advertising. Shops with stock taped to the walls are opening in every major city, and sales are still rising.
Peter Max anticipated the boom. Three years ago, he gave up a highly successful design studio to isolate himself in a world of graphic explosions and cosmic visions.
He explored memory, fantasy, time, and space in the confines of a studio and emerged with over 4000 designs, a store which he now taps to produce an assortment of posters, plates, stationery, matchbooks, placemats, pocketbooks, and buttons. Each product has its own company, all flourishing under the umbrella of Peter Max Enterprises.
His commercial success is indisputable. Close to a quarter million Peter Max posters have been sold since they appeared on the market nine weeks ago. His products are shown and sold in head shops, boutiques, department stores, and shopping centers. He has even designed a restaurant, called the Tin Lizzie. With impeccable taste and an intuitive sense of what will sell, Peter Max is making it.
He began his career as a commercial artist, and as he has progressed he has become more commercial and more of an artist. Some of his finest work is still in advertising, a field that has influenced Max tot he extent that his wordless posters seem to advertise acid like Alka-Seltzer. His commercial work is a special relief on the walls and in the windows o the city. There, where the medium is a message, his posters are like flowers in an otherwise drab field. In a poster for the musical “The Coach With the Six Insides,” a monumental mandala floats like an oversized sun in a checkerboard sky above a futuristic profile of New York. In a series of posters for the Integral Yoga Institute, of which Max is president, a benign Swami Satchidananda smiles a the viewer. The text below the portrait seems only an afterthought.
His decorative posters show Max to be a visionary fascinated by time, space, and evolution. A psychedelic skyline prophesizes the day when skyscrapers may be temples, when the Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room may be used for meditation. The ancient and the modern mesh in a Captain Marvel mandala. Vintage motion picture stills stand as islands in seas of swirling color. His posters seem familiar and inviting, but the prominent logo leaves no doubt as to whose vision is hanging on your wall.
His visions are personal, and although Peter Max has had a traditional art education, his primary influence is his own life. His parents fled from Germany shortly after his birth in 1939, and moved to China where they lived for 10 years in a pagoda in Shanghai. There his father amassed a fortune as an industrialist. In 1949, he and his family went to Tibet for a year, to live in an old palace that had been converted into a hotel. He explored the temples nearby and played with the children of a maharaja — the only other guest. His impressions of Tibet are still strong today, and show clearly in much of his work.
When they returned to Shanghai, the Communists were coming into power, and the family was forced to flee again, now by sea around Africa to Israel. They lived in Haifa for three years, where Peter Max first studied art with an Austrian who lived on Mount Carmel. At the age of 13, he also began to study astronomy at the University of Haifa. This, too, would be a strong influence on his later work. “I always wanted to be an astronomer,” Max recalls. “The galaxies, the cosmos, the light years — all those abstract distances and time spans fascinated me.”
But he had always dreamed of the skyscrapers, and in 1953 came to New York. He studied at the Art Student’s League for five years, and in 1962 opened his design studio that was to win 62 awards.
The final influence was spiritual. Peter Max was impressed by psychedelic drugs. “They bring peace to the nervous system,” he said, “so you can receive all the transmissions of the cosmos.” As he continued along this path, he felt it necessary to find a guru. “This led me to Paris,” he said, “where I found Swami Satchidananda. We spoke for many nights and I told him about the youth and about psychedelics. I told him that millions of people would be having profound spiritual experiences and they would need help.” He persuaded the Swami to come to New York, where now they work together at the Integral Yoga Institute.
He next plans to work on a film and a ballroom, but always with an eye on the youth. Asked about hippies he said, “These titles — like hippy — are the foam of a tremendous wave that is just beginning to lift.”
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]