The artist Peter Max’s colorful, psychedelic work typifies the aesthetic of the late 1960s, so it is no surprise that a new retrospective at Off the Wall Gallery is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the “peace, love, and music” festival that marked the high point of the hippie era.
But the show also comes just a few months after The New York Times quoted multiple sources alleging that Max, now 81, hasn’t painted in years, and that his work is instead produced independently by a cadre of amateurs, some recruited off the street and paid minimum wage.
The article also states that Max is suffering from advanced dementia, doesn’t know what year it is, and is physically incapable of painting. Other sources in the story dispute those claims, including an employee of a large private art gallery who said that Max’s dementia had actually made the artist more creative.
Off the Wall President Mimi Sperber-Wasserberg, who has been an art dealer for nearly four decades, said she wants her clients to be comfortable with all their art purchases.
“I will not take work from outside sources that I don’t know,” she said. “These works are coming from the studio of Peter Max. There is zero in the show that comes from anywhere else. There are certificates of authenticity and everything.”
Peter Max has always been highly prolific, and thanks to his volume of output, his work has always been accessible to both experienced and budding collectors.
“The message of Peter Max is love and happiness,” Sperber-Wasserberg told us. She and Max have been friends for nearly 20 years, and while this isn’t the first Max retrospective at Off the Wall, Back to Woodstock was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the music festival, which took place August 15-18, 1969. The show includes several paintings of musicians from the 1960s and ’70s, including the Beatles, Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen. There are also portraits on loan from the George and Barbara Bush Foundation, as well as more recent paintings by Max that are reminiscent of the Impressionists. More than 100 works are for sale.
Max has long used assistants to help create work of great scope or size, which is not uncommon among artists. For example, Jesús Raphael Soto’s final work, The Houston Penetrable, was installed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2014, even though Soto died in 2005.
Some of Max’s most ambitious projects include painting a Boeing 777 and the hull of one of the largest cruise ships in the world.
“Peter Max is an artist of such caliber that he’s being commissioned to paint whole airplanes and ships,” said Danielle Rowan, marketing director at Off the Wall. “No one is expecting him to be up there painting those, you know?”
Sperber-Wasserberg said she sympathizes with her friend as his health declines.
“This gets very personal,” she said. “I’ve had a couple of arguments with people about the stories that are out there about Peter. I had a conversation with someone pretty close to me, and I said, ‘How would you take away someone's freedom to do the only thing they can do in their life that they remember. Would you deny him that privilege?’”
Sperber-Wasserberg’s ultimately refers back to her philosophy on collecting: Art is meant to be enjoyed.
“Peter Max, I love when people denigrate him, and I love when people put him up there,” she said. “Art is like clothing or architecture—you buy what you love. Don't buy it because you think you're going to make money from it. If you're lucky, you will; if not, you might break even, but enjoy it. Otherwise, play the stock market.”
Peter Max—The Retrospective, thru August 25. Off the Wall Gallery, 5015 Westheimer Rd #2208. 713-871-0940. More info at offthewallgallery.com.