It was an evening in 2003 and my BFF, her husband and mine joined me at a local art gallery to see an exhibition by the Boomer-era pop artist, Peter Max, and to meet him.
He was delightful.
Max is best-known for his pop art depictions of the flag, the Statue of Liberty and other more commercial images. Boomers loved that stuff and it really did characterize our generation. He had plenty of them. But they weren’t what I liked best.
Me? I fell in love with his vibrant and colorful abstracts. So I bought one.
He inscribed the back to me in silvery ink and sketched a little sailboat with my initials. It was charming.
I love my Peter Max purchase and it’s hung wherever I lived, as it does now, in my living room.
A few years ago a professional gallery framer pointed out that I actually had TWO original Peter Max pieces, because his sketch and autograph were also art. He could remove the backing and frame it separately, he suggested.
“Can you do it without damaging the backing?” I asked. He assured me he could. And he did. Like I said, he is a superb gallery framer.
My framer removing the back of the painting.
So it was with dismay that I read a recent New York Times article that revealed Max had been diagnosed with dementia in 2012. That there had been talk of elder abuse, kidnapping and that money-grubbing “partners” were hyping his work on cruise ships, where they did a booming business. His son and second wife are both accused of elder abuse, reports say. (She committed suicide just a couple weeks ago in the midst of charges and counter-charges, but after the NY Times story.) And Peter Max is now a confused, 81-year-old man in the clutch of advanced dementia.
May reports were that he wasn’t actually doing his more recent painting. That he couldn’t. That assistants actually painted and then someone put a brush in his hand and made him sign each piece.
The New York Times story was heartbreaking.
I suppose a story like this about a Boomer icon was inevitable. We are, after all, aging. Shit happens. Like dementia. Our icons are being knocked down by age, one by one. And so are we.
But Max is still an icon for me, a visual representation of the excitement of my generation. I still love my painting. I still love his art. And I am sad for his decline.
The New York Times reporter wrote this poignant coda to the story:
“For months I’d been hoping to speak with Mr. Max. I wanted to ask him directly about his career and the drama of recent years, but now that I saw his confusion for myself, I didn’t attempt an interview. So I thanked him and turned to leave.
That’s when I spotted one of his earlier works hanging on an otherwise empty wall. The deep movement of the piece drew me in –the teals and yellows of an otherworldly garden party bouncing from the canvas and radiating something joyful. It hit me that long before a Max work ever sold on a cruise ship, the man had been a great–even avant-garde–artist.”
And that is how I will remember him, and, I hope, how my nephew will remember him when he inherits the piece from me.
Here’s the entire New York Times story by Amy Chozick.