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Conversation with… Peter Max

Peter Max in his studio.

Peter Max in his studio.

From Berlin to Shanghai to Tibet
to Israel to New York to the top of the art world

By Cindy Mindell

Most Americans alive during the ‘60s and ‘70s know the psychedelic artwork of Peter Max.
But how many have heard of the artist Tuvia Finkelstein?
Those very same Baby Boomers – they just don’t know it.
Peter Max Finkelstein was born in Berlin, Germany in 1937, just months before he and his parents, Salla and Jacob, fled the Nazis. The family settled in the Jewish refugee community of Shanghai, China for 10 years, the first stop on what the artist who became known as Peter Max describes as the “cosmic adventure” of his life’s journey.
With paintings on exhibition in hundreds of museums and galleries worldwide, Max and his vibrant colors have become part of the fabric of contemporary culture. He has been hailed as a pop icon, neo-Fauvist, abstract expressionist and the U.S. “Painter Laureate.” He has painted portraits of the last seven U.S. Presidents and some of the the world’s best-loved celebrities.
Many people are surprised to learn that Max was not the artist behind one of the most iconic examples of ‘60s-era pop art, the Beatles’ 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine. Max claims that he was approached by producer Al Brodax but had no time to work on the project, instead sharing his artistic vision for the film with Brodax. (In Inside the Yellow Submarine, author Bob Hieronimus writes that Brodax denies this encounter.) While Max says he was great friends with each of the Beatles and still hangs out with Paul and Ringo, it was German artist Heinz Edelmann who was hired for the film. “He was a big Peter Max fan, whose artwork looked like mine,” says Max.
Peter Max/Tuvia Finkelstein spoke with the Ledger about a bit of the “magical mystery tour” that is his life.

Q: Describe your family’s journey from
Berlin to New York.
A: For my first 10 years – eight months to age 10 – I was raised in Shanghai and it was amazing. For me, the world was one huge playground. The Chinese kids would draw with multicolored chalk on cement floors and I became one of them. When I was three, my mother hired a nine-year-old girl to be my babysitter. Her father was a painter and she held my hands, drawing circles and circles on papers to teach me to draw. We would draw outside and use the chalk to draw the sun, the sky, and the moon in many colors.
Then we moved to Tibet for a little bit and we read that there was going to be a little revolution, by a man named Mao Tse-Tung. At the time, Israel knew that there were quite a few Jewish people in Shanghai and sent a very big, beautiful, exquisite ship to China. My father heard about it and we came back from Tibet and the ship was leaving the next day, with 2,500 people already signed up. My father had homes, apartment buildings, and stores, and gave it all up so that we could go to Israel.
I was 10 when we arrived; my Hebrew name is Tuvia. I went to a regular comprehensive school and took classes in art because my mother wanted me to study art. I remember visiting an observatory on Mount Carmel. One day, I looked through the door of a classroom at school and saw stars and planets all over the chalkboard. I wanted so badly to study astronomy that my parents took me to the Technion to ask about an evening class. The teacher let me enroll, even though I was the youngest in the class – 13 or 14, and most of the students were 15 and 16.
I studied art with a Prof. Honik, an Austrian immigrant to Israel who was a really great Impressionistic, New Age type of painter, a Fauvist who exaggerated colors. He taught me how to paint really nicely. But I never thought I would be an artist; I always thought I would be an astronomer – the stars and the colossal, enormous size of our universe; still today I’m amazed at the size. It comes into my art; I love the cosmos and anything to do with the universe and our history and where we’re from. I can’t get enough of it.
When I was 16, we left Haifa and spent a few months in Paris, where I took classes at the Louvre. We moved to Brooklyn and after high school, I studied at the Art Students League of New York.
I’ve only been back to Israel for a day or two when I was in Paris and I want to go back again.

Q: You describe your life in magical terms, with no apparent trauma from your
family’s displacement and losses during
the Holocaust. How did you develop this positive attitude?
A: When we fled Germany, my parents hadn’t gone through much; they just had the intuition to leave. My mother left her mother there and my father was one of 11 siblings and lost quite a few of them. But he didn’t find out until much later.
It was a cosmic adventure: we got to China and I had no comparison to European streets or people. China was the nicest place in the world to me. Then I adjusted to Tibet high up in the mountains, with monks in orange all around me and their prayers all around me. Then I came down the mountain with my parents back to China, and then I was playing with friends on the ship to Israel. We went from Shanghai to India, tried to get through the Suez Canal but they wouldn’t let us, so we went back down around Africa, past Europe, and 40 or 50 days later, we got to Israel. I grew up there at a great age, from 12 to 16.
I don’t think you can “commemorate” the Holocaust; it’s too sad. But you can go through it again in your own mind. My daydreaming, on a daily basis, is about astronomy, stars and planets, how we travel around the sun, how beyond unbelievable the cosmos is.
I do pro bono work for Jewish and Israeli organizations like the Salute to Israel Parade [in 2013] and animal-rights organizations. Whenever I get a phone call from one of them, I always respond with a very positive attitude; it’s always a yes. My dad and my sweet mommy are both gone, and I do it in their honor.

Q: What is your artistic life like now?
A: I paint every day, either in my studio at home or in my studio 18 blocks away. Out of 52 weekends a year, I do 48 art shows, two to three per weekend, so 140 gallery openings in a year. I love it beyond belief: all the people who come are big Peter Max fans. To me this kind of show is a pictorial history of my life. When I look at my work in some galleries, especially if it’s a retrospective, and I’m there with all the fans and everybody’s buying and talking about my work, my life is floating back and forth in front of me. Our lives are uncertain, so it’s a lot of fun.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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