The man who painted David Bowie
#PlanetEarth is Blue.
Accompanying the elegy was a portrait of the musician in technicolor, completed by Max in 1987. In it, Bowie, with pompadour hair rendered in thick brushstrokes of red, yellow, black, blue and white, stares provocatively. Across his face, a superimposed rainbow of muted purples and pinks envelops the man, shrouding in mystery a protean figure whose public persona was in a constant state of personal and artistic flux. Located above and to the right of Bowie’s ear is the painter’s signature — a superfluous mark. Max’s customary color palette would seem to be identification enough.
The image of Bowie will headline a retrospective of Max’s work set to open Saturday at Darien’s Geary Gallery.
The Bowie painting typifies the output of a visual artist who, for the duration of his roughly six decade career, has shown a prodigious ability to tap into the zeitgeist by producing images that are always timely and often iconic. Max’s subjects have included politicians (each of the last five U.S. presidents), pop culture figures and, especially, musicians.
“Music has been such a big part of my life. It was jazz, it was pop culture, it was rock and roll. It has so many diverse concepts. It was very enriching. I loved it all,” Max told the Darien News.
Notably, unlike Bowie, a pioneering, risk-taking figure beloved for the vanguard artistry and relentless experimentation of his music, Max’s oeuvre requires a very different metric of success.
Max was born in Germany in 1937 but left the country with his family prior to World War II, living for stints in China, Tibet, Israel and Paris before settling as a teen in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Somewhere along the way he began experimenting with pen and paper. “I don’t know how it really happened. I started drawing as a kid and it became a habit. Before I knew it I was doing it every day. I started taking a small course in high school and it became a big course. Then I spent six or seven years in art school,” Max said.
Following his graduation from the Art Students League in New York in the early 1960s, Max founded a Manhattan art studio with friends and began creating designs for books and advertisements. His commercial rise was meteoric. In 1969, his floating head — topped with a Beatles haircut and bearing a large-toothed smile — was featured on the cover of Life Magazine, where he was profiled in a defining article titled, “Peter Max: Portrait of the artist as a very rich man.”
Drawing — some might say capitalizing — on the hippie-era ethos, Max fashioned psychedelic posters in Day Glo hues that became a staple of university dorm room décor. A formidable force in American commercial art, he emerged as the proprietor of a hugely successful money-making operation.
Since those early days, his popularity has never diminished. Lately, he’s produced images for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammys, the Superbowl, NBC’s “The Voice,” the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.
“Pop culture was always a big thing for me, I was just living it. It was there. It was outside the window. Everywhere I looked it was there,” Max said of his prolific output.
At its best, Peter Max’s fascination with popular culture has allowed him to capture, perhaps even define, quintessential moments and figures in the American experience. Still, his slick, assembly-line approach to art-making, coupled with a kitsch-like refusal to challenge his audience, raises significant questions about the seriousness and importance of his work.
Two days after the recent death of another pop music icon, Prince, Max again turned to social media. He shared with his followers an image, in shades of purple, of an angel’s ascent to heaven, with doves surrounding on all sides. He accompanied the picture with this message:
You were an amazing artist and
your music brought us so much joy.
You nurtured new artists and
changed the music industry.
#RIPPrince Heaven has a Rock & Roll band.
Does Peter Max rank among the premier artists of his generation, as his legion of fans suggests? Or, as others would argue, is he simply a shrewd and commercially calculating crowdpleaser who knows his audience well?
Viewers can judge for themselves by visiting the Geary Gallery, where Max’s work will be on display Saturday through May 7.