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Once Lost in the Stars of His Psychedelic World, Peter Max Has Subdued His Art and His Life

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In the 1960s he was the prince of psychedelic art. Peter Max splattered his wild, weird patterns first on posters, then on plates, clocks, bed sheets, shoes, clothes, puzzles, cars, planes, stamps, even pantyhose. By his early 30s Max had put together a $4 million empire, which he got to on odd mornings in a chauffeur-driven psychedelic Rolls-Royce. Then slowly it became clear that his reach had exceeded his grasp. In 1971 he laid grandiose plans for a World Spiritual Festival in Oregon (he had invited the Pope) only to see them fall through. A year later Peter Max abruptly disappeared from sight. His familiar painted stars and cosmic images faded from the landscape, and, as Max says, “the season was over.”

What happened? Now 38, a scrubbed version of the long-haired hippie he once was, Max says, “I stopped cold. I was repeating myself creatively. I had filled myself with being everywhere, doing everything. I had had it.” Public appetite for his work had not diminished, he is quick to insist. If anything, his commercial spin-offs were too popular. “I was having these brand-new inspirations,” he says, “but the demand was for the same old things.”

So, with no formal announcement, he allowed the Max art factory to grind down, sold the five-story building that housed his 40-member staff and “let everything that was instinctively coming to an end, end.” He went into virtual seclusion in a Riverside Drive studio in Manhattan, where his career had begun. He thought his exile would last five or six months. It has been almost four years, during which he worked at a furious pace, turning out paintings, lithographs, drawings and designs. “I’ve been going through as many styles in a month as Picasso went through in years,” says Max, who has been dabbling in surrealism, impressionism and abstraction. His newest technique is to take a Polaroid snapshot of a subject, then embellish it with acrylic paints.

“I’m full of excitement again,” says Max. He unveiled the whole array of styles this spring in a book commissioned for the American Bicentennial by a Swedish manufacturer of electrical and engineering equipment. Called Peter Max Paints America, it is a collection of 50 paintings and drawings, a tribute to each state. Max has just returned from Tokyo, where he had his first one-man show in three years. He plans to take it on a tour of the U.S. this winter, and a 15-year retrospective of his work is being assembled in New York.

Looking back on the ’60s, Max sometimes marvels that he survived. “Everyone thought, wow, Peter’s always got chicks hanging around. Instead, it was a drain. I was exhausted,” he says. Were it not for his devotion to yoga, vegetarianism and meditation, Max says, he would never have been able to withstand the pace.

“We had millions of dollars coming in, but millions going out, too,” says Max, who found after the dissolution of his business that he was $500,000 in debt. He has since paid off the creditors by selling his paintings. His marriage to Liz Nance, a former North Carolina beauty queen and mother of his two children, Adam Cosmo, 12, and Libra Astro, 9, has not escaped change either. The Maxes are still married but increasingly independent. Max lives in his two-story studio and Liz lives nearby. His current muse is Ford model Roseanne Vela, inspiration for many of Max’s current paintings.

If Berlin-born Peter Max (he was raised in Shanghai, Israel and Brooklyn) has settled down in his fashion, so has his work. Gone are the star-covered gurus who leapt from planet to planet in brilliantly decorated robes. In their place is a new series of characters, more impressionistic and softer, drawn from the Maxian “mind bank.” “They are still far out,” he says. “But these are the descendants of the saints and sages. They have settled on the planets and evolved a highly developed society.”