Q&A: Pop Culture Artist Peter Max About Career-Spanning Exhibition

Reprinted from Milwaukee Magazine

The uber-groovy artist Peter Max’s visual style, with its bright colors and hippy overtones, was part of the visual vernacular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Max has devoted nearly four decades painting pop culture. He’s painted portraits of many well-known musicians (Lionel Richie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and Taylor Swift, to name a few). He was also the official artist for the Grammy Awards five times.

His work has appeared in the political and sports world as well. He has painted the past seven U.S. Presidents. He’s also done work for five NFL Super Bowls, the 2006 Olympics, World Cup USA, World Series, U.S. Open, Indy 500, The NYC Marathon and The Kentucky Derby.

A career-spanning exhibit – Peter Max: The Collected Works 1960-2017 – opens at Whitefish Bay’s Gallery 505 on Saturday, June 3, and Max will make an appearance at the gallery on June 10 and 11. This exhibition is free to the public; however, RSVPs are required at 414-962-6302 or director@gallery-505.com.

In preparation for this event, we asked Max a few questions, and discovered that he still seems to be tripping out on LOVE and the amazing amazingness of everything. Groovy.

How do you feel about coming to Milwaukee?

I love it. It’s beautiful. I haven’t been to Milwaukee in quite a while.

Any favorite Milwaukee memories?

I’ve traveled so much that’s it hard to pick one to the other but I’m glad to be there. It’s going to be fun.

Has Milwaukee affected your work at all?

I’m sure it did at the time. Every place I go has an effect on me. It’s nice.

How does it feel to have such a wide impact on all corners of US pop culture with your work?

You know what, I slowly got into it but very softly. So it’s growing on me but I love it. It’s so nice. It’s such a wonderful media country. It’s unbelievable. The amount of media we have in this country is amazing.

What was the biggest thing you learned about American pop culture compiling your work for this exhibit?

That it’s one of the most amazing cultures on the planet. We have the greatest diversity here and it’s so brilliant. It’s an amazing culture.

How did you go about selecting what pieces of art you wanted to include with this exhibit?

I have a big inventory and select stuff from time to time. Mostly what I do is that it has to have a nice diversity it in.

As far your painting style goes, how does your overall method compare now with when you first started?

I’ve matured in it and I love it. Things that were difficult back then are easy now. It’s wonderful for me now.

For portraits, have you gotten any unique or usual requests by what subjects like to see?

Every portrait I do is usually interesting. They’re very diverse and come from all different cultures. Some of them are very well-known and some of them are not very well known. But overall, it’s an interesting category and subject for me.

Do you usually get input from the person you’re painting of what they’d like to see?

I usually make it up myself. I come up with it and it’s usually pretty nice. I’ve created a lot of diversity in my work so it always fits nicely.

What do you like most about painting musicians?

I like them all. Every painting is a new challenge. Completely unknown is nice and well-known is also nice. They’re all nice. Very fun for me.

Lately you’ve been commissioned to create portraits of each year’s honoree for the Grammy Awards MusiCares dinner. You’ve done a lot of well-known musicians. What has that experience been like?

Yes, I’ve done a lot of them. They’re a lot of fun to do.

This year, Tom Petty was honored as the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year. What was it like painting his portrait?
Peter Max Tom Petty portrait

Oh, they’re all fun. It was so much fun to do all the famous personalities. It’s all very exciting for me. I like painting them. It’s so great. I know they’re amazing people that have depth to them, you know.

Any favorite stories of meeting musicians?

All of them are famous and all of them are exciting people. They’re the most fantastic people in the world, really. Presidents, rock stars, it’s all fun. It’s a lot of fun for me.

One musician that thanked you for his portrait was Lionel Richie.

Yes. People are very nice. That was a very happy relationship. It was nice meeting him. It’s fun to be with these people. They’re the most fantastic people that live in this country.

What’s your favorite thing about painting presidents?

That they’re all different but fun to paint. They’re popular people. They’re very much loved and liked all over the country. I love them. They’re wonderful to be with. They’re great company for me.

Was there one you really enjoyed?

I love them all. They’re all so great. You get to meet Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and all these amazing people. It’s fantastic.

You’ve painted some things for the Super Bowl and the NFL.

Yeah, that was also great. It was a lot of fun. They’re all different from each other but at the time when I do them it’s a lot of fun for me. They’re all just a lot of fun. I got to know them and some of them I knew very well in advance. And some of them I got to know them as I’m doing it. It’s all very nice. I’ve done five Super Bowls, if you can believe it. It’s so fantastic. GRAMMYs, Super Bowls, and more over the years. All fantastic.
Peter Max Super Bowl 31

How has painting helped you understand pop culture over the years?

You drift into it. We have an amazing culture in this country. It’s such a popular culture. So, it’s unbelievable. Plus, we have so much amazing media like radio, television, magazines, newspapers. It’s all so unbelievable.

What do you think art’s role is in today’s world?

It’s a much bigger role than it ever was before. Because today you’ve got media and television. People get to see it and warm up to it. They see it in their own home in their living room. They get to see a famous artist. It’s great for them. And a great thing for me too.

What advice would you give new artists starting out?

Just to work with the media. We have an exciting media and living in an exciting world right now that’s all very playful. It’s wonderful to play with it.

If you had to paint something in Milwaukee, what would you choose?

I can’t think of it now but once I get the photographs and so forth I suddenly dive right into it. It works for me.

Do you have any big projects coming up?

More than you can believe. Dozens and dozens of those unbelievable things. My travels just fill up my studio. It’s exciting day to day. I’m very lucky that way. It’s a wonderful world for me.