Peter Max had a real moment, an important moment, in art. In the 1960s, he, perhaps more than any other artist, addressed the counterculture zeitgeist on a level that resonated with a much broader population than that of the love-and-peace movement.
His interpretation of pop art, which he fused with psychedelic imagery, seemed so fresh and original. Most of all, during such a turbulent time in America's history, it was positive and uplifting rather than threatening. His posters adorned walkups in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of hippiedom, as well as fraternity houses and dorm rooms. He did one for National Library Week in 1969. That's as mainstream as you can get, and yet he didn't compromise his vision, using a book as a portal into a place of creativity.
In "Peter Max: 50 Years of Cosmic Dreaming" at the Tampa Museum of Art, we see a career that spans about five decades including those heady, early years when many of us fell in love with his colorful characters romping through fantastical landscapes, even worlds. And then we continue to see them reiterated as the years go by. Cosmic Runner, for example, has had quite a run.
The most recent works are paintings continuing that imagery developed in his prints, joined by other paintings done in a freer, more expressive style. I wish I could say they impressed me. The former are nostalgic. The latter are not especially interesting.
Max, 78, had a fascinating childhood. His family fled Germany when the Nazi movement began its ascendancy, settled in Shanghai for 10 years and spent a few more in Haifa. On their way to settling permanently in the United States in 1953, they spent several months in Paris, which was an important time for the gifted youth. He studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan and opened a commercial studio with friends where his style evolved and was noticed.
The earliest works in the show are collages in which he used photographic images, sometimes vintage, combined with his own flourishes. Collages from 1965 show a direct surrealist influence. One, for example, is a photo of two men standing and a seated woman. Her head is replaced with that of a cat, and a marbleized background hovers over the trio.
As the 1960s move along, we see how Max developed a new kind of surrealism, becoming a sort of everyman's Salvador Dalí without tapping into the challenging, even disturbing, symbols Dalí drew from his subconscious. Like Dalí, he also became a great marketer. Large-edition posters were only the beginning. License deals and commissions have earned him multimillions. He has designed postage stamps, airplanes, accessories and home decor. He has painted portraits of presidents and celebrities. He's famous. He's generous. He's talented. He's nice. (He couldn't have been more gracious during an interview several years ago.)
Which is why my disappointment runs deep. His hearts, for example. They're pretty swooshes of color. Jim Dine, another artist associated with the pop art movement, has done them better. Umbrella Man, which echoes the style of René Magritte, is a dim echo, void of Magritte's wit. And his appropriations of Mona Lisa, in which he places her in a noncontextual setting of color washes, adds nothing to her history. (Appropriation, by the way, is not a bad practice.) But they're all better than his landscapes. A trio of the same scene in Central Park in different seasons looks like the work of a mildly talented amateur. They present a stark contrast to his gifts as a graphic artist.
Max is prolific, and it's tempting to take the easy way out and say he doesn't take enough time with his work. But that would be unfair to someone who really seems to care about his subject matter and has developed such a recognizable style. At this point, he's a very successful artist, and I am all for the commercial success of artists.
This is, I'm sure, a popular exhibition, one that triggers memories, and it will probably inspire many viewers. His cast of characters is memorable, indelible even. I will always smile when I see Cosmic Runner, even if today he's just coasting.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.