Sample from the Winter 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine
Pop Artist Yogi
An Interview with Peter Max
One of the most famous living artists, Peter Max is also a pop culture icon. His bold colors, uplifting images and uncommon artistic diversity have touched almost every phase of American culture and has inspired many generations. He is especially beloved by yogis who have benefited by his inspiration and foresight in being the person who invited Sri Gurudev Swami Satchidananda to America in 1966. Gurudev gave Peter Max the name Atman and they enjoyed a close friendship for over three decades. In this interview, Atman talks about that relationship and how it influenced his art.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How did you develop your unique style?
Peter Atman Max (PM): I didn’t really realize I was creating a style. Before I became interested in art, I wanted to be an astronomer. I was always very interested in galaxies, stars, the universe. As a child, I was already contemplating questions like, “What is God, what is the universe, how many galaxies are there?” Recently, they found out that there’s hundreds of millions of universes. When I came out of school I was a very good realist, painting almost photograph-like portraits but as I got involved in Yoga I learned how to open up. I knew that, to draw, is to be an open channel and I would put my pen on the paper and I would just let the drawing occur. It’s as if somebody was watching over my shoulder and seeing the drawing occur. With my original interest in astronomy, I loved to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos and, through Yoga, I learned about the sages and saints—and all of this began to come out of the drawings themselves—the planets, the stars, the moons, Saturn, the godly and other-worldly images. So my style began to take on a certain look.
IYM: How did you meet Gurudev?
PM: A miracle brought me to Paris. Conrad Rooks asked me to come to Paris to help him with his film, Chappaqua. At that time, Gurudev was a guest of Conrad Rooks and he was helping Conrad out with his life through Yoga. I was working in my studio when the phone rang. The man on the phone asked, “Are you the artist Peter Max?” I said, “Yes, who is this?” He replied, “My name is Conrad Rooks and I’m calling from Paris. I’m the son of the owners of Avon cosmetics, I’m living in Paris and I’m doing a movie. I love the style of your art and I’d like you to come to Paris for a few days and maybe you could help me with the film. I love your creativity and I’d love to work with you.” I got on a plane a few days later and flew to Paris to meet him. As we sat in the hotel restaurant to have breakfast, Conrad looks up and says, “Oh, there’s the Swami. He may be looking for us.” I said, “There’s the who?” He says, “The Swami,” and he points to a man in orange with a long, flowing beard. I said, “He looks beautiful. What does he do?” Conrad answered, “Well, he’s a holy man.” I asked about him further, “Is he here with you?” Conrad explained, “Yes, I brought him here from Sri Lanka. I studied Yoga with him there for some time and he’s staying in the hotel with us. He wanted to meet you.”
Next thing I know, Gurudev was standing at our table and Conrad said, “Peter, this is Swami Satchidananda.” Gurudev said [Peter imitates Gurudev’s voice and accent] “Hello, my name is Swami Satchidananda.” I said, “How are you, sir?” I really had no idea who or what he was. I didn’t know he was a yogi, a Guru. I was puzzled about where he was from and what it was all about, but there was a presence, a beauty and peacefulness about him that I got right away. He sat down and after a few minutes, I dared to ask, “Swami, what do you do?” He replied, “I’m a monk from India. I come from a tradition of monks. My teacher was a Swami and we come from lineage and tradition from India that goes back hundreds of years. He explained that he came from an ashram in India and that he had an ashram in Sri Lanka now, where Conrad had met him.
IYM: Did you know much about Yoga at the time?
PM: I knew it was an exercise that people did but I really didn’t know anything about the philosophy. I asked if he taught Yoga and he said he did. It was all very new to me and I didn’t really understand what meditation was. Within about half an hour, I was in love with him. All I wanted to do was spend the rest of my three or four days there with him—next to him, as close as I could. Every time we would go out, I would stand as near to him as I could. I’d see if my shoulder could touch his shoulder, if I could touch his orange robe. I just wanted to be so close to him. I got to know him quite well and he invited me to his room. He would sit on the bed, with a few pillows propping him up and I would sit in a chair right next to him and I asked, “Swami, please can you tell me a little more about Yoga?” He said, “If you want, I can give you a Yoga class right now…”