Peter Max brings color to the Grammy Awards

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(Host) It could be argued that the world’s most famous living artist is Peter Max. Max’s colorful images have appeared on everything from pillowcases to a Continental Boeing 777. This year Max is also the official artist of the Grammy Awards. On Thursday, Max will be in Manchester to open a new show and talk about the influence of popular music on his work.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more:

(Music: the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”)

(Keese) If you recognize the music, you’ll probably recognize the art. Artist Peter Max captures visually what the Beatles music was all about. His early psychedelic posters catapulted him to the covers of Life and Time in the 1960’s.

Max, who designed the official art for Sunday’s Grammy Awards in New York, will be in Manchester this week. He’ll be here to open a new exhibit of his work at the recently opened Art of Peter Max Gallery. He’ll also give a talk on the connection between popular music and his art.

(Lawrence Zupan) “Look at that lovely painting with that wonderful art deco headdress. You can hear ‘Sergeant Pepper’ coming out of that love piece. You can hear ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ coming out of that love piece that Peter painted.”

(Keese) Lawrence Zupan is a driving force behind the show and the Peter Max Gallery. Zupan worked with Max for many years. When he moved to Vermont three years ago, he persuaded Max that Manchester was the perfect place to display his art.

(Zupan) “Vermont being so beautiful and being an environmental example to the nation touches on themes that are dear to Peter’s heart. In fact, we’ll have on display here one of his environmental postage stamps that he did for the U.S. Postal Service in 1974.”

(Keese) Walking into the gallery is like a dose of color therapy. Intensely colored squiggles and shapes explode into red and orange flowers, or balloon into Picasso-like figures. Streaks of fuscia, green and gold energize his famous rock star portraits of Mick Jagger, Elvis and Aretha Franklin.

Earlier this week, stranded in a snow storm in Denver, Max talked to us on his cell phone about the link between his art and pop culture:

(Max) “Artists are usually capturing the time and the essence of each decade, and for me the music was a large element. I get inspired, whether it’s the Beatles, and then of course it became Stevie Ray Vaughn, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and…. We’ve got a very far out heavy metal station, I listen to that sometimes. I paint differently to different music.”

(Keese) Max was 12 when he came to the United States. He grew up in Shanghai, where his parents lived after fleeing Nazi Germany. His passion for American iconography started with some American comic books his father bought from a Chinese street vendor.

(Max) “I didn’t even know I loved color so much at that time, but they were so colorful I started to cry.”

(Keese) He also discovered jazz on a shanghai radio station. It was the music of Tommy Dorsey. (Music: Tommy Dorsey.)

(Max) “I heard just a few minutes of it and I thought it was almost like it was not allowed. It was so wild, like almost forbidden.”

(Keese) That sense of breakthrough and exuberant immediacy are crucial to Max’s style. Even when he’s traveling he paints between eight to ten hours daily. He says he’s as surprised as any one at the results.

(Max) “If I have a preconceived idea, I walk away from the canvas. I like to see what happens to me when I paint. But once there are some colors on the canvas, I become like the editor. What else does it need? What does it want? And kind of like, in service to the painting.”

(Keese) Max says his early fame could have led to stagnation or dissolution. Instead, he kept changing:

(Max) “America is a culture without limits. You could see how we went from the alternative rock to hip hop. Just every two, three years the culture has a new appetite and the artist could some how supply it.”

(Keese) Asked to work on the 1970’s bicentennial, Max created his famous Statue of Liberty series. The images became a catalyst and source of funds for the statue’s restoration. He created his “flag with heart” for George Bush Sr.’s Thousand Points of Light campaign.

He recently completed portraits of all 356 firefighters who died in the 9-11 disaster. He’s just been painting Bono, of the rock group U-2. Bono will be honored at the Grammies Sunday for focusing international attention on third world debt.

Max’s popular icons are only a fraction of his creative output. But even his most serious paintings show a sense of optimism and fun. Back at the Manchester gallery, Lawrence Zupan, says there isn’t a negative brush stroke in all of Max’s paintings.

(Zupan) “His role is to paint the joy and the beauty, the exuberance, the sense of possibility that his adopted country stands for, America and that he sees in life.”

(Music: the Beatles’ “Got to admit it’s getting better”.) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese

(Host) Max will be at the Art of Peter Max Gallery in Manchester on Thursday evening, from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. For information, e-mail the gallery at

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