You know those people who seem to “have a guy” everywhere, or know everyone?
That’s my friend Milo. So I shouldn’t have been surprised back in 2009 when he said he could introduce me to THE PETER MAX. And I shouldn’t have thought to pinch myself a month later when I stood in front of PETER MAX’s easel, and Milo and PETER MAX made fun of me. Because that’s soo like Milo. But I was, and I did.
It went down like this.
“What’s with the psychedelic screen saver?” Milo asked.
“That’s my favorite painting,” I answered. “It’s ‘Cosmic Runner’ by PETER MAX.”
“Yeah, it looks familiar,” Milo said coyly. “You like Peter Max?”
“Dude, he’s been my favorite since we were kids. You know that. That’s why I called myself The Cosmic Entrepreneur back at school. That was a play on his Cosmic series.”
“Oh.” Milo paused. “You wanna’ meet him?”
“You kidding me?” I said. “Yeah…absolutely…yes.”
“I know him,” Milo said, as if that was nothing. “We’ve done some charity work together. I don’t know much about his painting, but I have a guy who brings people to his studio all the time to buy stuff. I’ll make a few calls. Maybe we can have lunch with him, then go to the studio.”
“I’d LOVE that.”
“Maybe you buy one of those Conscious Rumbles.”
“Whatever. Be patient: even with the recession, these guys are very busy.”
I appreciated the offer, but I had my doubts. I wouldn’t have bet on a MAX meeting.
A month later, Milo called me.
“We’re going to Peter’s this Friday at 2. I’ll email you the address. You meet me there. Eat first: Peter’s a vegetarian, and I’m sure not, so we’re not doing lunch. And don’t embarrass me.”
I certainly didn’t plan to.
PETER MAX’s studio is above the Shun Lee Restaurant on the Upper West Side.
You enter on 65th Street, through a nondescript hallway and a service elevator. The directory does not indicate that PETER MAX is in there: It’s all initials, all anonymous. It felt mysterious, maybe even dangerous. I followed Milo’s instructions and stepped in the elevator.
The directory does not indicate that PETER MAX is in there: It’s all initials, all anonymous.
It opened up into a wonderland. PETER MAX has the entire top floor of what was likely an old factory. The very high ceiling consists almost entirely of pitched skylights, the walls are all white, and the floors are blonde hardwood. There were a few internal display walls hung with oil paintings, and every other wall was chock-a-block with poster art and video screens and eastern ephemera. The entire place was flooded with sunlight.
Milo was already there, standing next to something of a reception desk to the right of the entryway.
“Peter’s on his way,” he said. “C’mon, you gotta’ watch the movie.”
“Yeah. There’s a whole movie about Peter‘s life. It’s really pretty cool: you’ll enjoy it.”
We walked past the reception desk, and turned left passing display cases and innumerable cubby holes with rolled canvases stacked within them. To the right was a very tall wall hung with PETER MAX’s most recent iconic pieces: LOVE, The Statue of Liberty, Marilyn (Monroe, of course), The Mona Lisa, Heart, Clinton, Reagan, George (you’re not really going to ask George who, are you?) and a lot of his recent swishy impressionistic pieces. Very little psychedelia or pop art. I was troubled by that for the second. Then, from off to the left of the wall, a large LED screen began projecting a bio-pic on PETER MAX. From his birth in Berlin, to his childhood in Shanghai, to his formative years in good old Bensonhurst, it covered it all. It explained his lifelong fascination with the cosmos, his interest in eastern culture, including meditation, and his time in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.
And then it really got going: the Age of Aquarius. I was, indeed, on the edge of embarrassing Milo, as the film took us through everything I remembered from my childhood, from The Different Drummer wall art, to his LIFE magazine profile, through the summer of love and the Be-in’s in Central Park, to the NY Yellow Pages cover, the zodiac series in the NY Daily News, right on up to the “Cosmic Runner” stamp from EXPO’74. And, of course, all the PETER MAX toy’s.
The second half of PETER MAX’s fascinating life was covered as well: The cruise ships and airplanes, the festivals, the portraits of priests and politicians and pop stars. But in my mind, I was happily back in 1969 by then.
I was, indeed, on the edge of embarrassing Milo.
Then PETER MAX arrived with his assistant, His hair was much shorter than in the hippy days, but he still sported his signature mustache. He had on a Henley over a plain white dress shirt, buttoned to the top. His attire looked vaguely monkish. Except he also had on bright red Keds sneakers! Milo introduced us, and when I addressed him as Mr. Max, PETER MAX said “Oh, please. Just Peter.” I could hear the Brooklyn in his deep but soft voice. He was very apologetic about his late arrival, and he and Milo made small talk about a doodle auction. Then Peter turned to me.
“So tell me about yourself?”
I did. Including the fact that I had an 18-month-old at home who didn’t like to sleep.
“Do you have a picture?” Peter asked. I showed him a picture of my son Lenny taken at his first birthday party, against a backdrop created by an orange sweater I wore that day.
“That child is gorgeous,” Peter said. “I would love to paint him for you.”
At that instant, Peter‘s assistant’s chin contacted my right shoulder, and she said in my ear “That’s $2,500.“
“We’ll see.” I said.
I narrated more of the tour than Milo appreciated.
Peter started to show us around. We saw a statue of a full sized cow painted blue with white stars. We were walked to a display case of what Peter called “tchotchkes”: MAX cookie jars and Christmas decorations and wrist watches, including the black-and-white checkerboard with toothy MAX smile watch that I wanted back in the ‘60s. I still want it. I narrated more of the tour than Milo appreciated. But Peter was nothing but gracious, answering questions, and seemingly excited by my excitement.
Then Peter showed us his piano.
“Ringo gave me this piano,” he said. “ I didn’t know what to do with it when I first got it. I don’t play piano. Then I thought, ‘well I do paint’, so I painted it. I like how it came out.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Paul likes to play it when he’s here. He says he likes the acoustics in here.”(Don’t dare ask me which Ringo and Paul he meant.)
Milo then asked Peter, “Didn’t you do the Yellow Submarine cartoon?”
“No, that wasn’t me. They asked me, but I didn’t want to do it. Maybe that was a mistake.”
Next, we went into Peter‘s workroom. I was gobsmacked! It’s not a big room, but what a footprint it’s put on the world. Against the wall in the back is a plain wooden work table covered in paints. To the side of the table, there’s one single easel upon which Peter does all his work. And that room is where the psychedelic ‘60’s pieces were hung. I identified most of them by name, followed by the word ‘wow’. Milo made stern faces at me. Peter seemed amused.
A very special work was on Peter’s easel.
“Oh my god, Peter. This is amazing. You took “Flower Runner” and “Cosmic Jumper” and “Zen Fisherman” and “Zen Boat” and combined them all into one piece! I’ve never seen this before. It’s fantastic.”
Peter turned to Milo: “Where did you get this guy?”
“My high school lunchroom.”
“Was he in the art club?”
“No. He read a lot.”
“About me, I suppose. He seems to know more about my life than I do.”
“Well, Peter, you did smoke a bit of weed.”
“No, I actually didn’t.”
It was snack time now. Peter’s assistant was mixing up a green smoothie.
“I’ve been drinking these every day for over 25 years. They keep me energized, and hopefully young. Would you like some?”
“Not me,“ Milo responded
“Oh, sure. I’ll try it,” I said.
And then I clicked plastic glasses with PETER MAX as he said something Asian sounding that I couldn’t understand.
“Are you gentlemen interested in buying anything?” It was Peter’s assistant again. As she spoke, Peter returned to his workroom.
“Actually, I would like to buy the piece that was on Peter’s easel,” I said.
“That’s going to be a series. A limited series. They’re not ready yet. He’s only finished one so far.”
“I’ll buy that one.”
“We haven’t even determined pricing.”
“Determine it now.”
“Let me go talk to Peter.”
A minute later, Peter and his assistant returned. Peter had a rolled poster in his hand.
“You can’t leave disappointed,“ Peter said. “Not after all these years.”
A reasonable price was announced, my AMEX card was presented, and the assistant disappeared for a moment.
“Let me sign this for your family,“ Peter offered. “You never told me your wife’s name.”
“So many ‘L’s! I love it. I love the sound. I love how it will look.”
Peter turned the poster over and wrote:
To Lenny, Larysa and Little Lenny
With Lasting Love,
Each ‘L is large and swirly. He decorated around the inscription with stars and hearts and spaceships. I should have framed it with a glass back, so that could be seen. I may still.
Peter’s assistant returned with my receipt and a camera, and asked if I would like a picture with Peter and my new purchase. Of course I did, and so she clicked away. She sent me the photo shown above the very next day.
Milo bought an oil painting of an angel for his daughter, and Peter said goodbye with a bow. He returned to his workroom, and his assistant told us it was time to close up for the day. It was nearly 5 o’clock. Milo and I both left smiling.
“I would’ve sworn you were going to buy ‘Cosmic Runner,’” Milo said in the elevator.
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t see it up there. I do still want it.”
“Don’t worry. I got a guy.”