By Amy Chozick
The scene played out for years. Twice a week, in the late afternoon, above the Shun Lee Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a creaky elevator would open, and out would step an elderly man. Thin as a rail, with a sparse mustache, he would sometimes have little idea about where or who he was. A pair of security doors would buzz unlocked once surveillance cameras identified him as the artist Peter Max.
Inside, he would see painters — some of them recruited off the street and paid minimum wage — churning out art in the Max aesthetic: cheery, polychrome, wide-brushstroke kaleidoscopes on canvas. Mr. Max would be instructed to hold out his hand, and for hours, he would sign the art as if it were his own, grasping a brush and scrawling Max. The arrangement, which continued until earlier this year, was described to The New York Times by seven people who witnessed it.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Max was a countercultural icon, a rare painter to achieve name recognition in the mainstream. His psychedelic renderings could be found on the cover of Time, the White House lawn and even a postage stamp. But several years ago, he received a diagnosis of symptoms related to Alzheimer’s, and he now suffers from advanced dementia. Mr. Max, 81, hasn’t painted seriously in four years, according to nine people with direct knowledge of his condition. He doesn’t know what year it is, and he spends most afternoons curled up in a red velvet lounger in his apartment, looking out at the Hudson River.
For some people, Mr. Max’s decline spelled opportunity. His estranged son, Adam, and three business associates took over Mr. Max’s studio, drastically increasing production for a never-ending series of art auctions on cruise ships, even as the artist himself could hardly paint.
Then, in 2015, Mr. Max’s second wife, Mary, asked a New York court to appoint a guardian to oversee her husband’s business. Soon after her request was granted, Adam took his father out of his home for more than a month, moving him between various locations around New York.
For five years and counting — the latest lawsuit came Friday — the artist’s family, friends and associates have been trading lurid courtroom allegations of kidnapping, hired goons, attempted murder by Brazil nut, and schemes to wring even more money out of what was already one of the most profitable art franchises in modern times. From Shun Lee to the high seas, the twilight years of Mr. Max’s life have produced a pursuit of art-auction profits and a trail of misfortune as surreal as his trippiest works.
‘Portrait of the Artist as a Very Rich Man’
Peter Max Finkelstein was never very discerning about his art. He was the son of German Jews who fled Berlin in 1938 and settled in Shanghai, where Mr. Max discovered the primary hues he’d been deprived of under bleak Nazi rule. Eventually, the Finkelsteins moved to Brooklyn, and by 1968 their son was a bona fide Pop Art sensation. But while other protagonists of the movement — like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — used their art as a commentary on commercialism, Mr. Max’s happy palette defined it.
His DayGlo-inflected posters became wallpaper for the turn on, tune in, drop out generation. And as the hippies who loved his work grew up and became capitalists, so did Mr. Max. He painted a Statue of Liberty series with the backing of Lee Iacocca, the celebrity chief executive of Chrysler. He painted official artwork for the Super Bowl, the United States Open tennis tournament and the World Cup. He splashed his art on cereal boxes, bedsheets, a chunk of the Berlin Wall and Dale Earnhardt’s racecar. When Mr. Max appeared on the cover of Life, it was under the headline “Portrait of the Artist as a Very Rich Man.”
Money let Mr. Max indulge his eccentricities. After he divorced his first wife, Elizabeth Nance, in 1976, a staircase in his duplex connected two apartments so that she and their two children, Adam Cosmo and Libra Astro, could live downstairs. Mr. Max went on to have dalliances with Rosie Vela, a model, and Tina Louise, who played Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island.” In 1996, on a Manhattan sidewalk, Mr. Max spotted Mary Baldwin, a blond pixie with a Mia Farrow haircut, some 30 years his junior. He walked up and said, “Hi, I’m Peter Max, and I’ve been painting your profile my entire life.” They married a year later.