About 15 years ago a couple of us here, myself included, had the occasion to unite with Peter Max and his wife Mary in an effort to protect animals–a cause they were passionate about. We, along with them, were giving testimonials to the New York City mayor and city council in support of a city-wide law that would keep companion animals with their families. My memory of Peter Max as we waited with the crowd outside to enter the council chambers on a frigid, cloudy winter day was of a slight, aging man whose powerful aura turned everyone else in the crowd into a hazy, grey background.
Some years earlier, my longtime friend who was in the entertainment business had the occasion to work with Peter Max on organizing the transaction and transfer of the cars originating from the VH1 Promotional Vette Giveaway project–the so-called, “VH1 MAX Corvette collection”.* His impression of the iconic artist was that of a man with an incredibly large presence that superseded everything else going on.
Perhaps these impressions of Max reflect what happens to a human being who has been elevated for decades to icon status. Or perhaps his bigger-and-brighter-than-life persona is what allowed his elevation to icon status in the brutally competitive art world to begin with. Either way, you don’t get there from a place of silent humbleness and humility. And the pieces and components of his life that made him a generation’s symbol for turning on, tuning in and dropping out also made for a long, strange trip–one that (even without his awareness) continues on today.
By 1968 [Peter Max] was a bona fide Pop Art sensation. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Max was a counter-cultural icon, a rare painter to achieve name recognition in the mainstream…His DayGlo-inflected posters became wallpaper for the turn on, tune in, drop out generation. And as the hippies who loved his work grew up and became capitalists, so did Mr. Max…while other protagonists of the movement — like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — used their art as a commentary on commercialism, Mr. Max’s happy palette defined it. His psychedelic renderings could be found on the cover of Time, the White House lawn and even a postage stamp.
…several years ago, he received a diagnosis of symptoms related to Alzheimer’s, and he now suffers from advanced dementia. Mr. Max, 81, hasn’t painted seriously in four years… He doesn’t know what year it is, and he spends most afternoons curled up in a red velvet lounger in his apartment, looking out at the Hudson River. -NYT
If this story stopped there it would be just another tale of an aging icon…
But instead, despite his aging status and dementia, the Peter Max story continues to get even stranger. If the reports outlined in the Times are false and concocted for personal gain, it is obscene; if the reports are true, it is nothing short of elder abuse. His second wife Mary**, the animal protectionist, is accused of suggesting a scheme of hiring out for someone to physically harm him, as withholding food from him as punishment, and as dancing around premeditated murder by putting whole Brazil nuts in his smoothies so that he might choke.
And that is not all. In a series of events that read like the scripts from the old television show Dallas, family members, colleagues and friends have been reported as engaging in every manner of fuckery surrounding his art and fortune.
Go here to see this must-read piece from the New York Times:
Dementia Stopped Peter Max From Painting. For Some, That Spelled a Lucrative Opportunity.
Now Peter Max’s associates are trading lurid allegations of kidnapping, hired goons, attempted murder by Brazil nut and art fraud on the high seas.
New York Times
*VH1 had come up with a high-publicity promotional giveaway of Corvettes from every year. Peter Max purchased the 36 Corvette collection in 1988 from the contest winner for $250,000.00 with plans to use the vehicles in an art installation he envisioned. But Max was too busy with existing projects and the reportedly narcissistic artistic endeavor (replete with cheerleaders screaming out “These are Peter Max Cars!”) never happened. Instead, the classic cars were left to deteriorate in a parking garage for over two decades until a group of investors with restoration and resale plans rescued the classic automobiles in 2014.
** Post Script: Mary Max, the wife of artist Peter Max, died from an apparent suicide amid a family fight over her husband’s work and allegations that he was being exploited.
The New York Police Department said Mary Max, 52, was found dead Sunday June 9, 2019 in her apartment by her husband’s health aide. She and iconic artist Peter Max had been married since 1997.