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Peter Max isn't a fad, he's a great artist

In defense of the acid-age designer and painter.

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Humor me for a moment. Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Now, I know that's a lyric from "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"—but does that sound like an image that existed in the acerbic mind of John Lennon, or the whimsical wonderland of Peter Max's artwork?

Girls with kaleidoscope eyes, cellophane flowers of yellow and green, rocking horse people eating marshmallow pies: all of these visions are in some way indebted to Max, the subject of a career-spanning show and sale that has a weeklong run in Northbrook. The visual character of the late 60s and 70s might not have taken shape without Max. Nor would there be Lisa Frank school supplies or innumerable cartoons, including Schoolhouse Rock or even Yellow Submarine. In fact, according to an interview with Max in Westchester Magazine, the Beatles initially approached him about illustrating Yellow Submarine—which is so strongly imitative of his style that most people believe it's his creation—but he couldn't commit to the project. He recommended a German illustrator named Heinz Edelmann, who went on to direct the film and who Max claims had a business card that read "Heinz Edelmann: The German Peter Max."

Though Max has stayed extremely busy over the last 45 years, his 60s output remains his most famous. Even if the artist's name isn't familiar, his works from that period are instantly recognizable; his aesthetic remains a subconscious touchstone of American culture, like Formica and polyester. Max's flower-child characters, in their blousy garments and circuslike haberdashery, look like a cross between kabuki, mime artistry, Grace Slick, and a child's doodles. His early work features springtime colors like chartreuse, peach, turquoise, mellow yellow, and mauve. His drawings, more than anyone else's, recall Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French artist who created The Little Prince and its memorable illustrations of characters with tiny eyes, long faces, and large, baggy clothing. And like de Saint-Exupéry, who was an aviator, Max is fascinated with astronomy; he frequently employs cosmic imagery—planets, stars, the sun, galactic vapor.

Most of Max's 60s work came out of his nominal graphic design studio, which produced pieces that appeared on numerous hash-scented dorm-room walls or in magazine ads desperate to appeal to the counterculture. The word love, a constant presence, was rendered in puddle-shaped text. In September 1969, Life put Max's head, emblazoned on one of his groovy illustrations, on the cover; inside the magazine was an eight-page spread about the artist.

In the 70s Max shuttered his design studio to focus exclusively on painting. One might surmise that another reason was that the style Peter Max Studio popularized had become passe. But Max continues to have large-scale exhibitions of his paintings, and he still does plenty of commercial work. In the past couple decades his art has become both more bold and more conventional. It bounces between sharper, more focused renditions of his trademark style; still lifes and landscapes rendered in bright basic colors; and popular imagery (the Statue of Liberty, Disney characters, Taylor Swift album covers) executed in garish brushwork. This output might seem the least interesting (because of the familiarity of the genre) and most derivative (of Warhol and related pop art) of Max's oeuvre. But some of his painting and design over the last quarter century is weirdly captivating in an ephemeral manner, subversively channeling dolphin paintings and other creations destined for the shelves of beach-town art shops.

On a surface level these pieces might look like they belong on the front of Trapper Keepers and little girls' notebooks (and the 76-year-old doesn't really make his maturity all that convincing when he says things like, from a recent story in the Chicago Jewish News, "There are so many billions of people, of species, the whole aspect of life—human beings, doggies, kitty cats, horses, elephants"). Yet a lot of the time I'm reminded of the artist Yaacov Agam, who like Max (born Peter Max Finkelstein) is Israeli and works with equally bold colors. Though Agam's geometric experiments are in a formal sense completely different from Max's work, both artists use color to create a kinetic experience not all that different from how art is encountered in childhood, free of pretension, theory, or fashion.

Like Warhol and Jeff Koons, Max's work is postmodern and pop art in the most obvious sense: it draws on the tools of commercial culture as a means of commenting on capitalism and entertainment. Yet the respect of the high-art world has evaded Max. In a 1997 Reader article about Max, gallery owner Robert Henry Adams said, "Max's work is mediocre with no depth. He had his time, and now he imitates Warhol—but without Warhol's sophistication." That perception likely has to do with the artist's childlike aesthetic, which can be perceived as childish. And that's probably why "Peter Max: A Retrospective (1960-2014)," isn't happening in a downtown gallery but rather in a suburban mall.

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