For the benefit of Mr. Max

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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."

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Annabelle Massey Helber