For the benefit of Mr. Max

They're not going to make it, judging from a quick glance at the clock and the degree of difficulty the dozen or so staff members at Florence Art Gallery are having. One of the gallery's harried staffers stands at the wall phone, alternately talking, hanging up, and answering the next call -- and the next. "It's been like this all day," she says, flustered and trapped at her post by the nonstop ringing.

The white-shirted, black-skirted waitstaff arrive, and the woman frantically motions for them to set up the bar. One guy carrying a tray of sandwiches is nearly knocked off his feet by scurrying gallery workers, who navigate an obstacle course of still-folded tables, works of art, a few well-dressed patrons strolling with upturned glasses of champagne, and the occasional early, and decidedly unwelcome, guest. In less than two hours, the gallery will have to handle an expected 1,200 of them.

Already, a line is forming outside along Fairmount Street, where velvet ropes stand ready between brass stanchions. "It's going to be a long night," one staffer says, raking hair off her sweaty forehead.

Less than 24 hours ago, nearly 800 invited guests lined up, out the doors and down the sidewalk, at Fort Worth's Milan Gallery in Sundance Square for part one of this out-of-control circus. Apart from their Italian art-city names, Milan and Florence have no real affiliation; but, this weekend, they are opening concurrent shows of the artwork of Peter Max, the part-spiritual, part-psychedelic artist who gave the 1960s a lasting visual identity, and whose old and new work is again very hot and very pricey.

All this hullabaloo is for him, and for the legions of fans who expect to rub shoulders with a legend. He is, after all, the man who knew the Beatles, styled their animated classic film, Yellow Submarine, and put his artwork on fabric, shirts, jeans, New York City buses, the Woodstock stage, posters, airplanes, clocks, and, eventually, on museum walls. Classic Beatles tunes drift from the sound system at Florence Gallery, and someone says this is part of Max's retro shtick. His bodyguard is here, a tall, multi-ethnic man whose shaved head shines above the growing crowd. He's huge, elegantly dressed, exuding control and introducing himself only as required. "I am Nim," he says in a low, deep Dr. No growl. "I put all this together."

Nim is the first to realize that Max has arrived, and the crowd parts to let the hulking curator-cum-terminator pass through to greet him. Max is elegant too, smallish and slight, dressed all in black. He could pass for much younger than 59, except for the telltale thinning hair that reveals the entire outline of his head. Max has elegant manners, greeting strangers and friends with equal grace. He pulls a black Sharpie pen from the folds of his turtleneck and makes a doodle drawing for a fan on one of the 4x4-inch squares of glossy paper he carries for this purpose.

"I am always drawing," Max says, his voice revealing a hint of a German accent. "The other day I saw Fight Club, and I made 40 drawings right there in the dark, in the movie theater." The sea of people opens up as Max does a quick walk through the gallery, checking the placement of his work. He is serene, smiling and attentive as he surveys more than 150 paintings and drawings hung in every available space. He speaks softly to one of the staff about the music. "Some of the songs, you know, get tedious and you must skip over them," he tells her. "Particularly 'Revolution 9.' People get so tired of that 'number nine, number nine, number nine.'"

Judging from the adulation, no one is tired of Peter Max. After making his first million in 1970 at age 30, the artist is riding the crest of a 10-year-old resurgence of interest in his work. After an 18-year retreat to draw and paint, Max returned to graphic design and merchandising in 1989 with a staff of 85 people and 45,000 square feet of studio and office space in midtown Manhattan, just blocks from where he lives. His work today is a combination of acrylic-on-canvas originals, painted-over reprints of old and new lithographs and serigraphs, and experiments in ceramics and sculpture.

But he's never lost his lust for media or metaphysics. He practices yoga daily, works 14-16 hours each day, and fields requests from corporations around the globe to put his images on their "stuff." He's appeared on the QVC shopping channel eight times this year, where, he says, he can reach 3.5 million people in just two hours of airtime. "If Picasso and Gauguin were alive today, they'd want to be on MTV or QVC or E!, which is very hot," he says. "Why wouldn't they? It's a flourishing, colorful artistic culture. Would they want to be in some attic, some back room, down there with the grandmother cooking them soup, and suffering? No. They'd want to be seen. Like Michelangelo when he painted the Sistine Chapel."

Max doesn't compare himself to Picasso, but he references the modern master to explain his belief that the community of artists belongs in the media in the information age. "When I became a famous artist in the late 1960s, I gravitated to things in the media. In fact, media is my canvas in many ways," he says. A self-described futurist and ecology activist, Max parlayed stars, clouds, rainbows, long-legged and leaping nymphs, and geometric shapes into a visual definition of the "Age of Aquarius." It's ironic, he says, that his devotion to American iconography ended up making him an American icon himself.

"In the late '60s and early '70s, I'd been on the cover of Life magazine, and I'd met the Beatles," he says. "I was doing my work, and General Electric called and wanted to make a Peter Max clock. Van Heusen came and wanted me to do shirts. Then Wrangler wanted to have Peter Max jeans." In the span of three years, he says, Peter Max designs were licensed to 72 different companies and accounted for $1.1 billion in retail sales. "I was hot," he says, smiling. "When people said, 'Aren't you afraid you're going to be too commercial?' I said that has nothing to do with it. There's nothing wrong with it. My art is as pure as pure can be. It's purely inventive from my mind. I do it for the image's sake itself."

Max was a near-instant media superstar by 1970, and in one magazine interview, he said he planned to work for 10 more years, then retire to a mountaintop in India and study at the knee of his spiritual guide, Swami Satchidanada. In 1971, he visited Satchidanada and told the guru he wanted to study with him full time.

"He stood next to me, with his nose this close to me," Max recounts. "His eyes were shut, and I could hear him breathing. He opened his eyes and said, 'Pete, I want you to be a Manhattan yogi. There's enough swamis in the world.' What he meant is go do the yogi stuff in civilization. Don't do it on a mountaintop in India. So I became a propagator of yoga ideas and a positive attitude." His images, then and now, are all positive -- whimsical people in his trademark rainbow-colored palette, views of the cosmos, and liberal use of the word "love."

Max's fixation with spirituality, Asian culture, Oriental philosophy, and drawing comes from his growing up in Shanghai, China, he says, the only child of a German importer-exporter father and a fashion-designer mother. His bedroom window in Shanghai overlooked the courtyard of a monastery, where he watched monks paint black ink with five-foot brushes on large sheets of rice paper held down with stones. "My ama, the woman who took care of me, taught me Chinese calligraphy," he says. "And the monks were making these huge signs to tell people of upcoming holidays."

He would recall that memory when he made his first poster, a black-and-white etching of Toulouse Lautrec, with smoky, rainbow typography in the derby hat. One of Max's new paintings at Milan Gallery references his Lautrec poster, and the face still looks more like Ringo Starr than like the late French artist. In art school in New York, Max was trained as a realist painter at the Art Students League. "But when I got out, realism was dead," he says. "I suddenly realized I was very strong in graphic arts, and I started winning awards. I won every award that New York City would give in advertising, design, graphics and typography. I had no idea I was good at it."

He still says he doesn't believe the acclaim, and downplays his status as an American visual-arts icon, even as the packed-to-capacity Florence Art Gallery proves something about his status as an art talent and his sheer celebrity. "I meditate on being humble, so I don't take it on like it's a big deal," he says. "I'm just Peter Max, the artist, and the art lives in my nervous system and in my blood. So I can draw and paint like the way we breathe. It just happens to me." He is grateful for his staying power, he says. "I have fans as recent as 3-year-olds who discovered my stuff in the mid-1990s. I have guys who discovered my stuff in the mid-1980s, and then I have old hippies who know my stuff from the 1960s."

Nim nudges Peter Max, and bends to whisper an introduction of the proud new owner of one of Max's latest works, which sell from $1,250 for a small lithograph to $60,000 for a new acrylic on canvas. She's an older woman, short, white hair set off by a shiny, late-'60s polyester shirt made of Peter Max-designed fabric. Max takes her painting from the wall, whips out the Sharpie, and makes an original, personalized, signed and dated doodle on the back for the beaming buyer.

"You know," he says a little later, "whenever I see old hippies at a gallery, I'm so in love with them."

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Annabelle Massey Helber