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."