Colors to the Max

Peter Max (left) and rocker Ringo Starr gave a piano painted by Max to MusicCares, an organization that raises money to take care of aging musicians. The piano raised $175,000.

If you lived through the ’60s, then you likely listened to The Beatles, and probably once owned a Peter Max “Love” poster.

It was Max who had his face on the cover of Life magazine in 1969 at the height of the counterculture — a Day-Glo artist who knew how to turn imagery into pop culture and a penchant for colors into a million-dollar living.

The colors of Max — orange, red, blue, purple — are strong, bold hues that pop off a canvas. The graphics often are simple, borrowed from a photograph, and played large. To see a Max painting is to open all 77 acrylic paint colors at once.

Even if you don’t know his name, you probably have seen his work. He’s been the official painter for five Super Bowls, World Cup USA, the World Series, U.S. Open, Indy 500, NYC Marathon and Kentucky Derby. He’s painted every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, although he says he hasn’t yet met Obama. And he has famous friends, such as The Beatles’ Ringo Starr, whom he’s accumulated through a lifetime of interesting living.

“I’m supposed to meet Obama, but the schedule keeps changing. First he has an appointment and then I have one. We’ll get together sometime,” says Max in a rapid-fire phone conversation from his studio in New York.

Max will visit Charleston for a show of his work 7-10 p.m. Saturday and noon-3 p.m. April 29 at Karis Art & Design Gallery in the Kress Building, 76 Wentworth St. downtown.

He says he’s been to Charleston many times, but this is the first time his work will have prominent display. It’s sure to be more than a gallery show. It’s an event.

Max is a man who has traveled, made friends, made money and gotten into yoga and become an animal rights advocate. He was born in Germany in 1937, but his parents fled with him to escape the Nazis and ended up in Shanghai for 10 years.

There, Max had a Chinese sitter three years older than him who brought drawing material with her. She would allow him to draw only circles for days on end because that was what her artist father taught her to do, a discipline that Max says he learned to appreciate in hindsight. He also studied astronomy, a lifelong love of his that still figures prominently in his work.

From there, his family moved to Israel and then to Paris, and finally to New York. Max says he remembers his first day at Lafayette High School as a 16-year-old.

“I took a pair of sneakers, and I was putting them on. All of sudden there is this huge aria sound, and I was so scared. Next thing I know, there is this big hand on my shoulder. It was Paul Sorvino, who is a huge star now. He was my first friend in America.”

He’s had other interesting friends, too. His career often has been associated with The Beatles, and many think he drew the album cover for “Yellow Submarine” although the cover art actually was done by Heinz Edelmann. And he says he has been friends with members of the group for years.

“I knew Yoko (Ono) before she hooked up with John Lennon. Then one day I get a call, and she’s telling me that they are together. It was so sweet.”

He got a call one day from Ringo Starr asking him to paint a piano that had been given to him by Baldwin, the piano company. Max stumbles over naming the parts of the piano, but he describes the colors: light and dark red.

Recently, Starr called again to ask if Max minded if he sold the piano. It went to the MusicCares dinner honoring Paul McCartney on Feb. 12, the day before the Grammy Awards. The piano raised $175,000 for the charity that takes care of aging musicians.

This is an artist who has never minded promoting his work and loves the art of the deal. He’s always figured out how to make money.

The Life cover article was about how Max had become wealthy because he was one of the first artists to recognize the power of licensing. At the time he had licenses for 30-40 brands, everything from a General Electric alarm clock to Continental Airlines.

“I had licenses with everything. People didn’t think an artist should be branding, but I always thought that having your brand on 10,000 pairs of Wrangler jeans was the best advertising.”

Jeans and one enormous jet plane. He painted a Boeing 777-200ER jet for Continental with his special flair.

His plan worked, and when he pulled back from branding products, his name was recognized by art museum curators. He has had more than 50 one-man shows in America.

These days, the 74-year- old artist says he is thinking about seven animated films on different subjects, such as astronomy. He carries around an iPod with thousands of songs on it, listening for what he wants to be part of a film. His archivists will come up with the images to match the music, and right now, he says he has several filmmaker friends who have said they are interested when he gets ready to produce it.

He has 38 shows lined up for this year, just like the Charleston event. He works in his studio during the week and then travels to shows over the weekend.

And ever the artist and savvy businessman, the work in the show is for sale. And you have to RSVP if you want to meet Max.

Reach Stephanie Harvin at 937-5557.