By Anthony B. Perkins

In the 1960s Peter Max became a household name by combining his cosmic art, with its bold lines, blended colors, and transcendental themes, with a natural flair for product marketing. Products brandishing his trademark images — from coffee mugs to dorm room posters — generate over $1 billion in retail sales. In the late ’70s, Mr. Max suddenly dropped out of the commercial world to concentrate exclusively on Art, and went on what was supposed to be a six-month hiatus. Six months turned into 18 years. During this period he was invited to paint the portraits of five presidents — Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton — and several world leaders, including Mandela, Thatcher, Gorbachev, and the Dalai Lama. He also created some of his most compelling characters, such as Dega Man, Zero Megalopolis, Umbrella Man, and the beautiful Reclining Lady. Today, Peter Max is officially back in commercial business. And he is betting on a variety of media and channels, from canvas to the computer screen, from retail stores to the Internet, to create his art and, as he says, “distribute it to the masses.” THE HERRING talked to Mr. Max at TEDSell, the recent gathering of computer artists in Monterey, CA. During one of the breaks, we hustled Mr. Max into a room that was dark and empty, except for a 3D video that was playing on the screen. We donned 3D glasses, and watched the video as it played over and over again in a continuous loop.

Max: This is really wild! We are sitting here wearing 3D glasses and watching a slice of the human body rotate in 3D and doing an interview. This is very 1996!

The Herring: Well, we try to create the right atmosphere for our interviews — you know it’s pretty tough keepin’ up with those bitheads over at Wired. So is using a computer for your art very 1996 too?

Max: Actually I started experimenting with computer art as soon as the first paint-box came out in the early ’80s. Some art directors at ABC television bought those huge Quantel machines the size of refrigerators, and let me play with them and create stuff. When I found out I could hook a video camera into these machines, I started doing real-time visuals. Remember when cycling colors and painting with cattails that were made up of rings of colors became possible?

The Herring: Kinda, yeah…

Max: I was drawing on a black background, and zooming in and zooming out with these multi-colored cattails and it suddenly looked very beautiful to me. So I kept working with computers and evolved with them over the years. I remember when Steve Jobs sent me the first Apple computer. When I called him up to thank him, and asked him when color was coming out, he was quiet on the phone for about a minute — maybe I said the wrong thing — and he said it would be years before that was possible.

The Herring: What do you see as the computer’s limitations for art?

Max: The original machines were very limited, because everything ended up looking very pixelated. So I began to make use of the pixel in my designs and created things that made the pixel look beautiful — you know, the way Apple has done with some of their icons.

The Herring: Did you ever go through a period where you became obsessed with the computer, and didn’t go back to brush and canvas?

Max: One of the many disciplines I use to stay so prolific is to constantly change the medium I am working with, so I don’t get stagnant and tired. When I paint in acrylics or oils for many, many hours, for example, the stuff begins to feel like yogurt, so I go into another room and do etchings until I get tired of that, then I’ll go downstairs and do ceramics. I include creative brainstorming in this repertoire. I love to talk about the idea of global marketing and distribution and mass media. I love these subjects as much as I love art.

The Herring: Do you see the Internet and the World Wide Web as a viable new means to set up global distribution channels for artists such as yourself?

Max: Back when the Beatles and rock-and-roll started happening, I could see how a new art form could gain a wide audience almost overnight. I started to apply my images on stuff like t-shirts, caps, magazine covers, and book jackets. Suddenly, I had 30 or 40 licensing deals, and, to my shock and surprise, retailers were selling a billion dollars in merchandise with my images on them! I think that type of merchandising phenomenon is even more possible today with the Internet. So I am now working with the New York Institute of Technology and IBM to open a media lab to get my work to the masses.

The Herring: How did growing up in a pagoda house in Shanghai influence your life?

Max: My house sat between a martial arts school on one side and three monasteries on the other side. For the first 10 years of my life, I watched how these people would move — hold their postures. [He waves his hands slowly in Tai Chi fashion.] And the monks! To watch them meditate, to hear the gongs, the bells, and then the constant smell of incense — this all had a profound effect on my art. At 4:30 every morning, a Sikh would go out into the courtyard and chant, which would put a chill through me. These chants came from deep meditation, so they came from way down inside. So the subject of all my cosmic characters — the sages, the Zen Buddhist monks, the Zen boats, the Mount Fujis, and the stars — all of those things came out of my early experience in China.

The Herring: In your view, what is the pinnacle of visual arts?

Max: Pure realism. To paint something that is photographic. But what is really great is if you can do that with flair and style. I very much admire the work of John Singer Sargent, who, in a couple of brush-strokes, could make a dress look as if it were satin.

The Herring: How do you respond to critics who say that computer art isn’t really fine art?

Max: You can use what ever you want to create art! There is nothing wrong with taking a sketch and scanning it into a computer and adding a couple of colors, because it’s faster on a computer, and printing it back out and drawing on it, collaging it, cutting it out, and scanning it back in again. It’s great! When I paint, I use all sorts of different tools. I rub the paint with my thumb, or a piece of tissue, or a Q-tip, who cares! And as a tool, the computer has several advantages. You can store your work on it. You can tilt and flop your work, you can combine it, mirror it, kaleidoscope it, use different textures and colors, you can do many, many different things instantly on a computer that you can’t do using any other tool. Like the software that Live Picture, John Sculley’s new company, developed.

The Herring: We haven’t seen that yet.

Max: John Sculley came over to demo this product, and the pixels are so fine you almost can’t tell the stuff is computer-generated. It’s fine as dust! You can use it to layer rouge on a child’s cheek. It’s a hundred times better than anything that’s out there right now.

The Herring: So our kids can throw away their brushes and crayons?

Max: Not exactly — it’s still important to learn how to draw. You can’t do it on a computer if you don’t first learn to draw by hand.