america art

Peter Max, Positive Surrealist

Friday, September 12, 2014 Rob Samuelson

The first thing you notice about PeterMax's art is the colors themselves. That sentence may be expected when one looks at the work of a painter, but there's more going on, something hard to pin down. Whether he works in oils, watercolors, or something else, there's a pastel-but-not-pastel color scheme. It's as if he had taken a hardware store paint mixing machine's primary colors, baked them in an oven, and lightly applied them to the canvas. I say that because the colors have a softness to them, but the saturation has been turned way up. From style to style, the heightened reality of the colors transfers – it's the through-line of his work. It livens everything, significantly warming the pieces, especially when married to the often surreal depictions of images familiar to most Americans.



That familiarity is important to Max's work. He has pieces depicting the sports of Chicago, those teams beloved by the people in Northbrook, where his latest gallery showed last week. A basketball gets doused in layers of paint. A football gets the same treatment, but it's almost psychedelic. A Chicago Bears helmet remains a Chicago Bears helmet, but with some alterations, namely, flowers and other new age-y imagery to juxtapose the inherent violence of the game of football.

But Max doesn't seem to be much of a cultural critic in his painting. He acknowledges the oddness of requiring a heavy helmet to play a game, sure, but he doesn't want that game to go away.


This is most noticeable in his line of work on the Statue of Liberty. Running through the half dozen or so pieces is a patriotism that connects with me. It's a recognition of the sheer oddness of our culture's touchstones, strength through beauty and symbolism over substance. He does this by utilizing that famous Beatles-esquemulticolor negative exposure look and using colors that don't necessarily appear in the sky or in the New York city of reality. It's a surrealist's idea of what America is, but it's not a critique. Max's art says that we should praise the praiseworthy while admitting it's a little weird. It makes us think about how unlikely the American experiment is, from its mistaken-for-India beginnings to its surprising independence win to its rise to the world's superpower while housing the oddballs of all cultures. It doesn't say we don't have problems in this country, but the unusual arc of history that led us to this point should be celebrated.

Strong figures pop up regularly in Max's art, as does the idea that multiple iterations of anything can lead to greater understanding. The famous facade of Vincent Van Gogh pops up in several canvases, making his influence on Max both stylistic and textual. His “Audio DNA” piece features a psychedelic family tree starting with Elvis, flowing down to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Frank Zappa, and other hugely influential members of the rock pantheon. Those artists began with the basic blues and country structures of early rock 'n' roll and, through copious experimentation, created music that is of the same family but can often sound alien when played one after the other.

Likewise, his “Heart Series” paintings take that idea and make it literal. Each piece in the set features a loose cartoon heart with a primary color box surrounding it and the rest of the canvas filled with whatever filled Max's head at the time. This is the same structure repeated many times and, be it a different mood, circumstances, or what have you, each piece feels wholly its own and imbues unique feelings among those who view them individually.

There's beauty in repetition and there's beauty in the things a culture holds dear. There's beauty everywhere, but sometimes you have to mess with it and make it weird to bring that out. This is what Peter Max does. I only wish I had thousands of dollars to spare to share Max's art with my friends and family.

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