Peter Max: America's legendary figure behind the cruise industry's unique art

Popular visual guru, Peter Max, remains famous as an icon of North America's swinging-1960s hippie movement, but he is also a celebrated cruise ship artist. Here's the whole story

His full name is Peter Max Finkelstein.

A Jewish child of Berlin forced to flee from Hitler’s dystopian nightmare, his early life became influenced by an adolescence spent in Shanghai and Israel, before his family settled in Brooklyn, New York.

One of the main artistic trend-setters for North America’s celebrated ‘hippie movement’, Max amplified his status as a counter-cultural icon throughout the 1960s; he was the psychedelic Banksy of his day.

As time’s onward march propels us further away from those summers of peace and love, his name may not burn as brightly in the storm of modern life. Still, Peter’s cultural impact has decorated contemporary viability. He has firmly become part of our societal DNA.

His full title may not resonate as a voguish household name, but, as a seasoned cruise traveller, you’ll definitely have seen him. Well, that is, you will have witnessed some of his many creations.

You see, Peter Max is somewhat of a star in the cruise world. An unsung hero to most, but a true genius to those who understand the artistic landscape offered aboard most luxury liners.

Norwegian Breakaway, as painted by Peter Max. Credit: Norwegian Cruise Line

Who is artist Peter Max?

Peter Max is a pop artist who remains legendary (if not slightly polarising) on the art scene, with a long and prolific career to back him up.

Responsible for a vast array of noteworthy commissions worth boasting, such as the '44 Obamas' painting he crafted for former president Barack Obama, alongside celebrated works for the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the White House; most people don’t realise that Max has flavoured the cruise industry with a unique touch.

Walking into any art auction on a cruise ship, it remains likely that you’ll spot several of Max’s eclectic pieces up for sale. It might be his unique and colorful take on the Statue of Liberty, or perhaps his well-known piece titled 'The Umbrella Man', of a gentleman standing with his bowler hat and an umbrella.

With countless trademarked works sold aboard various cruise ships, Max has made quite a name for himself in the sea-faring art world. Any one of his pieces is immediately considered a collector’s item and, subsequently, aficionados fall over themselves to throw money at the vendor.

His creations have even managed to transcend the makeshift auction halls of a ship and end up on the outside of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ hull. In 2011, Norwegian Cruise Lines asked Max to paint 40,000 square feet of one of their largest ships, the Norwegian Breakaway, in his own style.

That was, arguably, Max’s biggest project to date.

By 2018, the ship’s hull was completely covered in his signature vibrancy, showcasing several designs that left passionate connoisseurs on their knees, weeping with admiration.

The project's magnitude reflected the impact Max bore upon the industry’s artful culture, demonstrating how much his work remained valued and appreciated.

An impressive set of achievements, no doubt, but how did Peter Max go from escaping Nazi Germany to the giddying heights of a cultural icon sought out in this realm?

Peter Max: His origins

Before discovering his passion for the colourful and psychedelic style that would lead to recognition and fame, as a child, Max was exposed to influential foreign culture during his formative years. Not that the first leg of his journey was by choice.

The son of German-born Jews, Max (less than a year old) and his parents fled Berlin before the outbreak of World War Two. Relocating to Shanghai, China, where the family remained for nearly a decade, the household then shifted to Haifa, Israel, in 1948.

However, Peter was yet to feel his artistic calling.

It wasn’t until a temporary move to Paris that those first beatings of an expressive future emerged. He fully immersed himself in classes at the Louvre, and by the time his family decided to finally settle down in Brooklyn, New York, Max had become ultimately dedicated to his art.

Starting his formal education at the Art Students League of New York, and the School of Visual Arts, it didn’t take long for his colourful creations to quickly make an impact. He soon became one of the most iconic Pop and Neo-Expressionist artists of the 1960s, right alongside Andy Warhol.

Max certainly knew how to commercialise his work, and his hallmark style became engrained across large swathes of Western media. Primarily utilised by business and sporting bigwigs, Max’s inimitable visuals graced everything from cereal boxes to posters for the 1994 Super Bowl.

His work was eventually showcased on the cover of Time Magazine, before being featured on stamps, exhibited in museums, flaunted at the White House, celebrated on The Tonight Show and even decorated upon a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Impressive, but where does the cruise industry fit into all of that?

'Auctions at sea' remain hugely popular. Credit: Shutterstock

The art of auctioning

Large halls filled with art, free liquor, an overbearing sense of competitive seniority, and people hoping to re-home one-of-a-kind art pieces. It may sound like something from Dynasty, but it’s actually a frequent sight on cruise ships.

This is the art auction at sea.

You can usually find a Peter Max original among the hundreds of pieces on display during these events. It won’t come cheap, in any case. Starting prices aren’t for the faint of heart, with thousands of dollars attached to each multicoloured masterpiece.

So, how did Peter’s work end up going under the hammer, while afloat upon the ocean?

That’s where Park West comes in; one of the most prominent private galleries in the world, and one that happens to deal with cruise lines.

The Park West Gallery is located near Detroit and was founded in 1969 by Albert Scaglione. They get most of their revenue from the cruise industry, selling countless art pieces to luxury cruise operators annually. Some of these companies include Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Carnival Cruise Line.

Soon after Max gained notoriety, Park West quickly became a significant buyer of his work, and his vibrant, eye-catching pieces entered the ‘art at sea’ sphere.

With his art now easily accessible to millions of cruisers every year, Max became renowned for his talent among passengers. Sales to wealthy travellers managed to fund Max’s extravagant lifestyle until the early 2000s.

Peter Max's signature, as displayed above one of his galleries. Credit: Wikicommons

The signature

What made Max’s work so valuable, as is the same with other artists and their art, was his classic signature in the corner of every piece - indicating its authenticity.

Max would sign all his works with a big M-A-X, in capitals, rounding his M and angling his X, so they were slightly lopsided compared to the other two letters.

This iconic signature is what people want, and what they bid thousands of dollars to own. To get your hands on a Peter Max original while at sea was one of the greatest achievements for a cruise art auction goer.

But with fame comes its fair share of controversy, and Max soon ended up under fire.

It all started with the aforementioned Park West, which had gained notoriety for selling overpriced pieces on cruises. Passengers were spending thousands of extra dollars over and above the art’s actual worth.

Accusers claimed that the spotty onboard Wi-Fi made it almost impossible to price check online, and as the champagne never stopped flowing, it was more than easy for passengers to get swept away and overbid. A bit like paying £300,000 for a child’s macaroni drawing, because their parents pushed you into a state of inebriation.

Park West has suffered a string of lawsuits over the decades regarding this practice. A court filing from 2012 highlighted that no less than 21 of its customers filed legal claims against them.

In 2013, they were also accused of manipulating and pressuring passengers on cruises to buy art at inflated prices, many of which were not originals. The gallery’s most recent scandal, however, revolved around Max, who in 2014 was accused of using ghost painters to do his work for him.

The accusations claimed that Max would only sign these creations, thusly overvaluing a potentially fraudulent artwork. Suddenly, that £300,000 macaroni painting turned out to be an impasta.

An example of Peter Max at work. Credit: Picryl

A question of authenticity

The main reason Max is accused of using ghost painters? It’s reportedly because of the advanced state of dementia he’s been suffering from over the years. People close to Max have claimed that he can no longer function as he once did, instead spending most of his time resting in his apartment.

Max’s son took over the studio and continued selling his work to art auctions at sea, a curious move considering how Max was seemingly unable to paint. Naturally, with all these accusations, questions were raised regarding the authenticity of Max’s recent work.

However, passengers didn’t clock that auction pieces were often replicas, rather than the original piece. Park West commonly offers reproductions of an artist’s efforts, with an accompanying signature, or a few brush strokes, added by the artist to ensure an element of exclusivity.

This is called a giclée, which describes art made using inkjet print, a serigraph, or mixed media.

In the case of Max, he would reportedly use paper lithographs to copy his artwork, and then add a few dabs of paint onto the copy, as well as his signature, before selling it off to Park West.

So, passengers are not usually getting an original work, but rather a copy approved by the artist, which is not illegal. Yet, selling them at a higher price is not viewed kindly.

The Expo74 Stamp, as designed by Peter Max. Credit: Wikicommons

End of an era?

In 2016, Park West announced that returns would be accepted within 40 days of any passenger purchasing an auction lot, and an exchange could be agreed within 40 months. Major cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have also put more consumer protections in place.

But what about Peter Max himself?

Though his art is still sold at galleries and auctions, he is still undergoing his fair share of struggles.

Once a prolific artist, he has been under court-appointed guardianship since 2016 due to his dementia, a decision that has caused strife between his family and representative lawyers.

His daughter, Libra Max, wants him to be free from his guardianship, for she claims that its terms are unjust and keep him from seeing his family, though the court refutes these accusations. You can find various quotes from legends of the industry regarding this court-based decision.

Max’s financial affairs are also controlled by court-appointed lawyers, rather than his family members.

Yet, despite all this, Max’s work continues to be purchased by individuals who respect him and his style on cruises worldwide.

So now, even clouded in controversy, Max’s legacy still lives on, his influence on the art world unforgettable and irreplaceable.

Words: Jasmine Venet

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