Sunday, March 29, 2015

for pete's sake

In between commercials for reverse mortgages, suing for a wrongly-applied trans-vaginal mesh and Life Alert® (the good people who brought you the unforgettable "I've fallen and I can't get up!"), I started seeing announcements on my favorite nostalgic TV network for an appearance by Peter Max at an art gallery not too far from my home. So, on Saturday afternoon, with nothing else to do, Mrs. P and I ventured out to the Wentworth Gallery* in the tony King of Prussia Mall to maybe have a close encounter with the artist.

In the 1960s, Peter Max was a pretty big deal. Taking the pop art movement to a more commercial (read: money-making) level, Max's work appeared in advertisements for 7Up, while slyly remaining an icon for the burgeoning hippie counter-culture and a friendly face of the otherwise malevolent world of psychedelia. With his charming good looks and guest shots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show, he made himself even more accessible to Mr. and Mrs. Average American. And he got very, very rich. He remained popular into the early 70s, as the United States Postal Services commissioned his work for postage stamps. He was contracted to create a series of paintings featuring the Statue of Liberty in conjunction with nation's Bicentennial celebration. Although he remained active and viable, with commissions from Major League Baseball and the Grammy Awards, his popularity and relevance was at its height in the carefree and wild 1960s.

In 2012, Max designed the art for the hull of the Norwegian Cruise Line's massive ship Breakaway, just prior to its maiden voyage. Mrs. P and I sailed on the Breakaway in February 2014. So, before we drove out to the local Wentworth Gallery, I printed a photo that I had taken of the vessel docked in the ice-filled waters surrounding the Manhattan Cruise Terminal. Maybe we could get him to autograph it.

"I could buy this friggin' ship."
We arrived and parked in the multi-level garage at the mall. We found an entrance and began our search for the gallery. Just past the second-floor entrance to Bloomingdale's, a large crowd was converging on a small glass-fronted store, its windows displaying the unmistakable work of Peter Max. The tiny gallery was packed with all sorts of people — kids, older folks, peers close to my age — all craning their necks and standing on tip-toes for a glimpse of Peter Max. My wife asked a smiling gallery employee about the evening's policy for meeting the artist. He explained that original works were available for purchase, that would include a personal inscription on the piece, as well as a professional photo with Mr. Max. "If there is time later," he continued, "he may offer additional autographs." He also noted a strict protocol of no personal photography.

We stood in the midst of the crowd, catching an obscured peek at Mr. Max, as he wielded a Sharpie across the brown kraft-paper backing of a rather large farmed piece of one of his paintings. With an exaggerated flourish, he scribbled some lengthy sentiment, finishing it off with a large "MAX" and punctuating it with the year 2015. In his ill-fitting tweed blazer and ridiculously sparse comb-over, he was hardly recognizable as the one-time charismatic virtuoso of  kaleidoscopic artistry. 

The signed piece was suitably bubble-wrapped and handed off as another gallery worker called out a name from an official-looking log of buyers and waited for an acknowledgement. Mr Max turned and faced the immediate crowd with a cocked, if somewhat disinterested smile. Many people began shoving an assortment of books, posters and other ephemera in his direction. He dutifully swiped a signature across each one while the next paying art collector made themselves known. Mrs. P asked me for the Breakaway photo and I quickly slid it out of the manila envelope I held at my side. She took the picture and wormed her way up to the velvet rope barrier that separated the common gawkers from the artist and those willing to overpay for the privilege of getting really close to him. Mrs. P. caught his attention and offered the photo to him, saying with a grin, "My husband and I sailed on the Breakaway last year."

He looked at the picture and muttered atonally, "How do you spell your name?" She replied and he scribbled, obviously not interested in any further conversation.

The next buyers were located and ready for their little meet-and-greet and the gallery employee asserted, "Peter Peter? Peter?," trying to get the artist's attention. Max turned and sneered, "How many times are you planning to say my name?"

My wife stepped away from the still-clamoring group, holding the signed photo high above her head. "Well," she assessed, approaching me and handing over the picture to slip back into its protective envelope, "he certainly isn't as good looking as he used to be,"— adding, "And he's a bit of a jerk."

Artists. We can't get a break.

*The Wentworth Gallery is an East coast chain of art galleries located primarily in shopping malls that cater to the clueless affluent who are solely out to impress. They bring well-known contemporary artists to the upscale masses, actually presenting authentic works by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso alongside those by Paul Stanley... yes, that Paul Stanley. It's sort of the art equivalent of The Capital Grille.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think I ever knew what Max looked like, and I don't think I'll hold it against him that this kind of event wasn't his cup of tea. On the other hand, I've met some very famous artists and have been thrilled that they turned out to be really wonderful people. One of them spent special time with my niece to encourage both her and me.