Through the 1960’s, Peter Max’s name was a big one. It continued to be big, but I wasn’t tracking him.
In about 2004, at an ashram in San Ramon, California, I saw pictures of Ammachi – a.k.a. The Hugging Saint – painted by…Peter Max! How interesting! I didn’t feel drawn to buy them, at the time, but I always remembered that he was painting pictures of my most powerful spiritual teacher. You bet!
A few years later, I was finished writing a book about Ammachi, and I was thinking about what to have on the cover. Peter Max! I found an email for his business, dropped a note, and his assistant got back to me. After she had checked with Peter, she said, she was glad to report that he would be glad to paint a cover for me.
Sadly, I didn’t have the funds to move forward with that, so that was the end of that.
Then, this week, I saw that he was in town for a “Peter Max Retrospective”. From the 1960’s until 2015. I signed up, and I drove out to the mall. A mall?
Unprepossessingly, there it was: the Peter Max Retrospective. Taking place in a small store that used to be something mall-like and uninspiring.
At the door, a tall, young cop, with folded arms and a look on his face that said, “I’m frickin’ James Bond, so don’t even think about messing with me, or any of this artwork!” It would have been funny, but he was so majorly on duty, y’know? In stark contrast to his youth and seriousness, Beatles music played in the background.
I take a few steps in and the first thing I see is a basketball, boxed in Plexiglas, and designed a la Max. I’m instantly enchanted. I started painting everything from children’s chairs to clocks to candle holders, about a year and a half ago, and seeing Peter’s art transitioned from a wall to a basketball…well, I was enchanted! (I even have a chair that I call my “Peter Max Chair” because someone said it reminded him of Peter Max’s work, which – hey - is only one of the best painting compliments on the planet.)
Someone came up to the table where that basketball was smiling at me; she put down a bottle of champagne and some plastic glasses and told me that Peter had also painted some football helmets which were somewhere else in the exhibit. (“Peter”. I couldn’t imagine calling him anything but “Mr. Max.”) I asked her where he was, and she told me he was sitting at the back of the room at the counter. I wasn’t too eager to see him first; I wanted to see his artwork, plus I felt starstruck and shy. Little did I know that I was going to be floored as well.
His work is vibrant. Lyrical. Restrainedly and deeply passionate. Genius. Mastery itself.
I looked at three or four of them, and I suddenly realized something was happening. I said out loud to myself, “I have tears in my eyes!” A minute later, one of the women who was helping with information and sales, came up to me and asked how I was doing. I only had one thought in my head. I said, to her this time, “I have tears in my eyes!” and instead of smiling in understanding – “yeah! His work is unbelievable!” – she looked so concerned! I reassured her that I was fine, and that his work was just so…vibrant! And I felt so very moved! She said, “Well, mostly people get happy when they like something!” and she smiled at me. I said, “Well, you have two choices when you’re deeply touched by something. Either start dancing, or start crying. I’m a cryer.” And I smiled, but now I was really crying! She brought me a Kleenex. I had to promise that they were happy tears. Good Lord…
I have never cried about artwork in my life. The closest I ever got was the first time I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta. But this time, in the middle of the Kenwood Mall – somewhere between a Victoria’s Secret and a headphones shop – I was crying because Peter Max’s artwork was singing to me!
That’s the best description I’ve got for you. Now, after the fact, I can say that I felt the energy, that I felt the love, but none of that was in my mind. My mind wasn’t involved in this process at all!
All I could do was cry.
What a remarkable reaction. What a remarkable sensation!
I spent most of the next 90 minutes studying each picture’s rhythm, brush strokes, color combinations and choices…
The black-and-white image of 5 or 6 male figures, seen from behind, praying before The Wailing Wall in Israel. Called “The Wall”, I was told Peter had drawn in the 1970’s for a friend’s child’s bar mitzvah.
The four pictures of the four seasons. Distinct, full of movement and sensation.
His take on Van Gogh’s Silent Night. Evocative. Alive.
His painting of Frank Sinatra. Oh, those eyes! That hat! Those sparing brush strokes, next to those brush-loaded slabs of braided color!
His take on Monet’s Water Lilies. Meltingly gorgeous!
His Degas-like painting of dancers. Uncanny.
His painting of…a cow?
His deceptively simple – and absolutely swoonable – painting of an old phonograph. “This is mastery,” I remember thinking.
His paintings of multi-colored angels, both distinct and indistinct at once. And very alive as well!
His 1960’s-style painting of a male character striding in front of the Cincinnati Museum Center. The very definition of whimsy.
His vista-like pictures that have a giant, round, rich red/orange/yellow sun, trees that somehow, magically include all of the colors of the spectrum, and still look like trees, with trunks that go from brown to purple, and a body of water in the center with a minimal and recognizable sail in the foreground. It’s magical. It takes me there. It is a place to live, rather than just something to look at, or see.
…I find I’m still tearing up. I have to stop this.
I go over to Mr. Max – maybe if I do something like talk, I’ll get it together - and he has his back to me. Up until now, he has been talking to one person or another, but now he’s just rising from a chair and turning to pick something up from the counter behind him. So I put my hand on his thin velveted back, and I say, “Mr. Max,” and he turns around. He’s elderly now, of course, and yet somehow I forgot to expect that. He has very large eyes, and he looks one straight in the face, straight in the eyes, straight in the soul, and yet he is very self-possessed, very self-contained. He is warm in his energy, but not touchy-feely. He is very slight, physically, and he moves slowly, with the kind of deliberation that one has at an elderly age when one is still very mobile indeed, and oh-so-very-cool!
I said to him, “I want to thank you. Your work is so vibrant. So…full of life. And heart. I’m very moved.” He gave me a little smile. And goddammit, the tears start again. “I’m sorry,” I say, and he nods. No shaming, no pride, just a nod of “and here we are in this moment together”. I say, “You painted some pictures of Ammach that I saw,” and I watch the realization come slowly into his eyes, “Oh yeah,” he says with a tone of reminiscence, “I did. Some time ago.” Silence falls and I say, “Anyway, I just wanted to shake your hand, and say thank you.” He had his hand on my upper arm this whole time, and he just nodded again, smiled a little smile at me, and I walked away, and he sat back down, and I thought, “I don’t want to go home.”
I walked around that temporary art gallery too many times to count. And every time I turned the few corners there were, I found a new piece of artwork I hadn’t really given attention to.
I knew that I couldn’t leave until I had absorbed these sensations; until I had studied his style which is – I suddenly realized – the next iteration of my artwork; his work is so free, where mine strives for freedom. And I realize I can pull certain things from his work, as inspiration – his ombre backgrounds fading from purple to black, from light to dark red…; his black outlines, his rhythmic fillips of paint suggesting a flower, an angel wing, a tree.
I don’t want to leave.
Oh yeah, I don’t have to!
Suddenly, an elderly woman came up and started talking with me. We were both completely blown away. Sharing that amazement was such a delightful gift!
Within ten minutes, we had become friends. She had lost her husband and was visiting Cincinnati, where her daughter and son-in-law live. Turns out, their family knows one of Mr. Max’s experts who told my new friend all kinds of things about his artwork, like he uses brushes on his canvases that most artists consider too big for the canvas sizes he uses; he loads his brushes with multiple colors and then pulls some of the color out post-brushstroke by using the butt end of the brush.
Rose shared with me that the expert had gone to dinner with them and Mr. Max a few nights before. She told me that the whole time they were out, he barely spoke. “He’s an introvert,” she shared with me. I got that. And I think it’s even deeper than that. I don’t yet know his life story, but I do know about his Ammachi artwork, and I want to assume – given that, and our interaction – that his spiritual side is alive and very well.
I will call my friend Rose, and I will preserve my new friend’s anonymity and her family’s anonymity, because I learned what multi-million dollar (at least! Or maybe more.) business they are in, and they deserve their privacy.
Rose isn’t wealthy, though. Not multi-million-dollar wealthy. She and I were both in awe at how much the pictures cost. From $5,500 – as far as I can tell – up to $30,000 or more. And worth every. single. penny. If I had enough of those pennies, I’d buy every single painting in this “gallery”! Rose lets me know that the cow painting is actually a painting of a cow that Mr. Max rescued from the slaughter house!
At this point, Rose is pulled away by her daughter, and I continue my wanderings.
Eventually, I come across Rose and her family looking at two versions of the same painting – the one with the incredible blood-red sun, and the water with the sailboat on it. *sigh*…. They are talking with the expert woman who is holding one painting up beside the other. I (of course) have to get in on this conversation. I point out that one is larger than the other, that the smaller one is behind glass, and the other is on a gorgeous double-level “frame” without glass, and it leaps straight off of the media and into one’s heart. Oh my…so gorgeous. I go on my way to another part of the gallery to make notes about the Max style so that I can remember my inspirations when I get back to my paints.
Suddenly, Rose is back beside me. She is holding a book that Peter – er, Mr. Max – wrote, called The Universe of Peter Max.
She says excitedly, “Look! Look! See?” And she has it open to a page where it explains about the cow. Once upon a time, Mr. Max saw a news story about this cow that broke away from the slaughterhouse and was being hunted in Cincinnati. He was so moved by this – he is an animal activist, it turns out! – that he got on a plane to Cincinnati (!) to buy the cow and have it taken somewhere else to be housed and to live a good life.
But here’s the real deal, artistically – the thing that made me understand something about why I had teared up, and why I felt so inspired by his work today: A paragraph on that same page revealed that his entire purpose in his life is to live in “freedom”. That is a powerful, powerful word.
Freedom.That’s what I feel in his artwork. And it’s immediate, electric. Real. Authentic. Freedom. But it’s not the freedom of a reckless child. It’s the freedom that comes from feeling its opposite, and rejecting it. It is a freedom filled with the restraint that comes from knowing what is right, and what is extraneous.
Reminds me of what Michelangelo said about his marble carvings: that he just removed what was not supposed to be there.
Once again, my new friend was pulled away, this time by the expert, who had a private conversation with her. When Rose returned, she looked shell-shocked. “They’re buying me a painting.” I said, “Oh my God! Congratulations!” She said, “What on earth am I going to do with it?” which made me laugh. I think she mostly felt overwhelmed, particularly by the cost. It was a $24,950 painting! She kept saying to me, “How am I going to thank them? My goodness!” I kept telling her just to keep that great smile on her face, and she’d be fine…which her daughter overheard and nodded her agreement.
Rose later confided that it was my input that decided which painting they would get for her (yep, it was the sun-and-water painting). So, what is the motto? Something about not being afraid to get involved, maybe. Especially with lovely people.
I offered Rose my card and asked if she wanted to stay in touch. She was as thrilled as I was, and her daughter took my business card – my telling her that I rescued businesses from bad organization seemed to catch her attention - and actually started reading it (there’s a lot of stuff on there). I was impressed! No one really reads business cards, do they? Maybe her big ‘ol business could use little ol’ me – you never know.
So, Miss Rose is going to have a medical procedure tomorrow – and I gave her the name and number of my wonderful Healing Touch friend, Joan Stouffer, and instructed both her and her daughter to look into “tapping” or “Emotional Freedom Technique” on YouTube, to help her with some eye pain she’s having after a different procedure she underwent.
Meeting Peter Max, being blown away by his artwork – a transcendent experience. And this part of my afternoon was a high for me too. No tears, I have to admit - but connecting this way, and to potentially give my new friend some assistance with her health – made me feel so fantastic. Rose told me that Healing Touch is what found the problem she is being tested for tomorrow!
Synchronicity! And I have a new friend!
One last time, Rose was pulled away. She was guided to stand next to an easel that the staff loaded with a black backing that will, no doubt, be put onto the painting when they reframe it, which they’re going to do before they ship it. Mr. Max stood up and came to write her name in silver pen, sign it “Max” and the year, and surround the whole thing in a big heart. They then were photographed standing on either side of that black backing, Very cool to watch.
Her daughter and husband were next. The husband’s name was misspelled, and Mr. Max leaned forward to put in the missing letter. Something about the whole scene was the kind of cute that happens when youthful cute (Mr. Max) invades the worthwhile and easy spending of insanely large amounts of money. As Rose said to me as an aside, “Oh, it’s a drop in the bucket for them…” She had an “It’s not my reality, but…” kind of tone to her voice.
I had to smile. She was as blown away as I was by their wealth!
As we stood there exchanging our last words before leaving, I suddenly noticed Mr. Max’s socks. Multi-colored yellow socks, red shoes, dangling from the end of his exquisitely relaxed long, spider-thin legs.
I was seized of a rampant desire to take a picture of his FEET!
Rose was like, “Do it!” Given that I’d backed her in peeling the painting description off the wall, I wasn’t surprised that she was anxious to back me in this. But there were signs everywhere that said NO PHOTOGRAPHS!
Oh, what the hell. I went up to him – he was again talking to people – and I said, “May I take your picture, sir?” (I get so respectful when I am star struck by perfection and excellence like his.) and he waved his hand at me, as if to say, “Whatever. Happens all the time. Don’t care.” So I took his picture.
I wish I’d been more aware. I would have taken a photo of my new friend.
Rose…thank you for being my “sister” in wonderment. And my new friend.
Thank you, Mr. Max. For absolutely everything.