The colorful world of Peter Max


By Leslie Brownstein, Special to the Jewish Light

Quick trivia question: What modern iconic artist has painted the last seven presidents of the United States; a Boeing 777 jumbo jet; a 600-foot stage for the Woodstock Music Festival; a giant mural unveiled at the 2002 Winter Olympics; more celebrities than most of us can count and who earlier this month, received a commission to design the hull artwork for the Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship? 

The answer, of course, is Peter Max, whose vibrant colors and whimsical style is unmistakably recognizable and whose thousands of pop arts creations span the last five decades. After a 10-year absence from St. Louis, Max will be in town this weekend where his exhibit “Colors of a Better World” is on display at the Ober Anderson Gallery in Clayton. Included in the show is both a Max-painted St. Louis Rams helmet and a St. Louis Cardinals batting helmet, the latter of which seems particularly topical since the team is now playing in the World Series.


Max was born Peter Max Finkelstein in Germany in 1937 to Jewish parents who fled the Nazis. They first landed the family in Shanghai, China; then Haifa, Israel; Paris, France, and eventually, Brooklyn, New York, where they settled in 1953. Interested in both astronomy and art, Max’s parents encouraged training in both, and he eventually attended the Art Students League in Manhattan. In the early 1960s, he set up a small studio with three friends. There he illustrated a children’s book and with his interest in astronomy, he created album covers and posters that had a cosmic, psychedelic feel. Max’s work was widely considered very avant-garde, especially with the introduction of four-color separation as a new graphic technique.

In an interview last week, Max says he was “just lucky” that his art caught on like it has. “I got into Pop (Art) early on,” he said. “Every year or two I was involved with something amazing. One year I was asked to do all border stations throughout the U.S. There was a huge billboard that said, ‘Welcome to America.’ I licensed my work early on, like Ralph Lauren or Pierre Cardin. Then I gave that up because I thought I was becoming too commercial.

“Every artist who makes over $20,000 per painting wants to become licensed. Today I do about 60 interviews a month, about two per day to all media. I’m lucky and I go with the flow.”

Max says he thinks he comes by his penchant for art naturally. His mother, who was from Berlin, was a fashion designer. His father loved to sketch. And while he doesn’t like to be labeled as “a Jewish artist,” he says he is very proud of his “Jewishness,” adding, “My father’s father was from Poland and he was a Hasid. I lived in Israel and I speak fluent Hebrew.”

In addition to his art, Max is an environmentalist and involved in human and animal rights. He also credits his practice of yoga for helping him to feel young – he turned 74 today (Oct. 19). “Having lived all over the world, having studied yoga…I met the great Yogi Swami Satchidananda,” he said. “When I met him I begged him to come to New York. I flew him there and he stayed in my house and about 60 friends came to meet him. We opened the first Yoga Center in New York on 13th Street and later opened an ashram in Virginia. Eventually, there were 33.”

In case you’re wondering, Max didn’t just paint one portrait of each of the last seven presidents. “I did 40 Gorbies, 25 Reagans, 100 Clintons. He (Clinton) is a friend of mine. Fourty-four Obamas, since he is the 44th president.”

Lisa Ober, who owns Ober Anderson Gallery with her business partner, Daven Anderson, is thrilled to be showing Max’s work, especially since the gallery is new. She said there are approximately 100 pieces in the show, including prints, paintings and “lots of originals.” She said when buying a Peter Max, “you are buying a piece of an icon. He represents a period.”


‘Colors of a Better World’

When: Receptions to meet the artist are 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. The show runs through Sunday.

Where: Ober Anderson Gallery, 14 North Meramec

How much: Free but an RSVP is requested

More info: 314-727-1345 or