Max on Monroe

Pop icon Peter Max talks Austin, Marilyn Monroe — and the universe

Pop icon Peter Max brings his iconic work to the Russell Collection

Peter Max
Peter Max's work will be on display at the Russell Collection. Peter Max

You may not know the name Peter Max, but you’ve almost certainly seen his work. Among his impressive resume are portraits of the last seven sitting presidents, including "100 Clintons" and "44 Obamas," an active passenger ship of the Norwegian Cruise Line, a wide-circulation postage stamp commemorating the World’s Fair in 1974 and the Boeing 777 "Millennium Plane" in 2000.

He’s also done official art for more national and international events than you can shake a stick at, had one-man museum exhibitions galore and recently entered into collaboration with American Apparel to introduce his work to a whole new generation of admirers. He's a veritable superman of visual pop, the U.S. "painter laureate" according to some, and you can hang out with him on October 26 and 27 during his new exhibit at the Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery. 

Max has a storied legacy, and one that greatly influences his work. Before his collection comes to Austin, CultureMap reached out to the artist to find out about his childhood, his inspiration — and the time he met Marilyn Monroe.

Max grew up in Shanghai, where his parents moved shortly after he was born. It was there that a neighborhood old-timer initiated him to the mysteries of the physical universe. “I was maybe 4 or 5 years old and once we started talking he started filling me up with stuff about how big the moon is, how big earth is, the universe, the planets," said Max. "Maybe two or three times a week I would see him and I would just ask him questions. I’d stand by the window, when I was in Shanghai, and look out at the stars.”

This early interest in astronomy would hardly surprise anyone who knew Max’s work during his “cosmic '60s” period. You’d be hard-pressed to find another visual artist who exemplified the cosmic psychedelia of the era to a greater degree than Peter Max. You’ve seen this LOVE poster, right? There’s no collection of '60s poster art that doesn’t include stacks and stacks of Max.

Although he uses less cosmic imagery in his work these days, Max’s interest in astronomical matters has never waned. He hung around with Carl Sagan, in the first-run Cosmos days, and he’s become close pals with Sagan’s successor, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. “I’ve got his number in my iPhone,” Max said about Tyson. “He knows I’m a big fan. Sometimes I give him a piece of art and he gives me knowledge. He’s a big Peter Max fan and I’m a humongous Tyson fan.”

Max is also a fan of Marilyn Monroe, whom he met while was studying at the Arts Students League in New York. (Many great painters including Norman Rockwell also trained there.) He met the icon there once, in his 20s, a story he recounted saying, “[The building has] steps outside that extend in either direction, you know, from the front door. A friend and I were sitting there one day, and this beyond-belief gorgeous woman starts walking in, from the left. She’s gonna pass us, and about 30-40 feet before she got to us and I looked at her, I couldn’t believe it, and suddenly I said to my friend, 'I think that’s Marilyn Monroe.'"

“I couldn’t believe, you know, her legs, her skirt, her high heels, just that look. Her walking was unbelievable. And then she said something, as she passed us by she turned around and she said, 'I love your pants.' I had paint all over my pants. And then she just continued walking. That was my little thing with Marilyn Monroe,” he said.

At the Russell Collection, Max will display pop classics from his oeuvre and his Masters series, interpretations of old visual wizards like Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh. If the pieces of Marilyn look familiar, and they likely will, it's because Max contacted the estate of eminent fashion photographer Milton Greene to acquire iconic images from which to paint.

Appearances take place Saturday, October 25 at 6 pm and Sunday, October 26 at 1 pm; a children's event will be held from 11 am to 12 pm on Saturday afternoon. RSVP is required, so visit the Russell Collection website for details.

Before his appearance, we had to ask Max about Austin (of course) and the gentleman icon gave the answer that any of us would — particularly in the paradise of these early autumn breezes. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful little city,” he said. “I love it.”