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Hippie Icon Peter Max Maximizes TV, Web Exposure

'60s pop artist mines lucrative new markets--two hours on QVC can mean $1 million.

March 13, 2000|From Washington Post

NEW YORK — Peter Max loves trivia. "Do you know how many people watch QVC?" he asks.

The '60s pop artist is standing over a table of Woodstock 99 posters that he will hawk on the cable shopping channel that evening. With one of those fat black markers that make a room reek, he starts swishing "Max" across 100 of them.

"About 3.5 million people watch QVC." He's already signed 10 posters. "You know how big that is? That's the population of all of Manhattan." He's up to No. 30. "That's the size of 70 stadiums." He's reaching the bottom of the heap. "But you're not a speck of dust up on the stage. You're the big picture."

How long does it take Max to turn a pile of posters into $20,000 worth of merchandise? One minute.

That's also how long it takes to flip to QVC to buy one of those posters for $200. That's how long it takes to log onto EBay and bid $7.99 on a vintage Peter Max ladies' size 10 bathing suit, or $23,000 for an original Statue of Liberty painting. That's how fast you'll be able to click over to Petermax.com for a $125 signed Earth Day 1995 T-shirt.

At 62, Peter Max, the prolific hippie icon long pooh-poohed by art purists as a commercial sellout, is being virtually reincarnated by the Internet and cable TV.

"Everybody is starving for content," he says. "And I have more content than anyone on planet Earth--more than Disney, more than Viacom. . . ."

The only thing better than having a dot-com these days is having the material to plaster on Web sites and cable channels to draw eyeballs--and, ultimately, advertising dollars. Content, after all, is what propelled Martha Stewart into a thriving publicly traded company. It's why America Online wants Time Warner.

"I want to reach 100 million people in one fell swoop," he says. "I want to shift with the way the world is going."

Max will launch his own online business later this month to flood "planet Earth" with tons of pent-up work that until very recently trickled from tiny galleries and flea markets. If all goes according to plan, he will sell shares of his company to the public next year and pour part of the proceeds into Peter Max stores and a syndicated television show.

"Max demonstrates the power of the Internet to pump up the value of old nostalgia and conventional artwork," said David Shayt, cultural director of the National Museum of American History. "He is once again becoming a force to be reckoned with."

At the heart of his lucrative rebirth are thousands of images that Max has been producing at warp speed for 30 years--3,000 hearts, 5,000 silhouettes of ladies, Snow White, Gorbys galore, the 1993 Middle East peace accord signing at the White House.

"What do you want to see?" the painter asks, ripping through boxes full of negatives that cram his studio. "President Clinton? Picasso? Umbrella Man?"

Fans will be able to download images or shop from a line of merchandise; collectors will have a place to trade old Peter Max bluejeans, clocks, posters, chessboards.

Cameras will beam Max live from his studio onto computer screens, so cyber-surfers can command him to paint--for a price. "If they have a hand in it," says Bruce Brownstein, a vice president at EBay, "the artwork will become even more valuable."

*

Back before QVC and MTV, Max landed his bold patterns on everything from jeans to wristwatches. From 1967 to 1971, he had 72 product lines generating $1.1 billion. In the late 1960s, his "Save the Planet, Use Mass Transit" posters were plastered on 68,000 New York City buses.

"I used to be bigger than Calvin or Ralph," he says wistfully. "You couldn't leave your house without eating out of a Peter Max bowl, putting on Peter Max stockings, scribbling on your Peter Max pad."

After the divorce from the mother of his two children, Max virtually disappeared for a good 20 years.

He resurfaced with a bang in November 1997, arrested on charges of tax fraud, allegedly attempting to barter his art for property between 1986 and 1992. Max entered a work-release program and served penance by helping inner-city elementary school children on art projects throughout New York.

He does not want to talk about this chapter. "I'm not a nostalgic guy," he says. "I'm always looking forward."

Luckily for him, though, the rest of the world is looking back. "As we enter the new millennium, as one generation yields to the next, there's a sense of loss," Shayt said. "Everyone is re-exploring the whole mystery about the '60s, the upheaval."

In California during the last few years, Max's artwork has continued to lure private collectors and to be featured in gallery and museum shows. He also appeared at the Ronald Regan Presidential Library in November to help 18 Simi Valley-area students paint a computer-generated vinyl mural commemorating the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which once divided Max's hometown.

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