Peter Max celebrates President Obama with 44 portraits

To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th U.S. President, pop artist Peter Max painted 44 portraits of our first African-American chief executive. Max brings his Obama installation to La Jolla’s Wentworth Gallery on Jan. 31.

Having painted portraits of the last five U.S. presidents, Max was not surprised when CBS’ “The Early Show” asked him to paint then President-elect Obama. CBS provided Max with numerous photos to work from, and he selected two different images. He started painting the portraits shortly before Christmas and worked through the holiday to complete his colorful installation of four rows of 11 portraits each.

“I wanted to bring out his look; when you see him on TV, there is always a nice energy around him,” Max said.

Max, who debuted the portraits on “The Early Show” on Jan. 16, speaks with great admiration for the new president.

“When he was elected, the whole country rejoiced, and I was teary eyed when it was announced,” Max said. “We have an elegant African-American, beyond-belief intelligent president, and he’s going to be very good for this country.”

Since the late 1960s, Max’s color-splashed images have chronicled cultural moments such as the Summer of Love; American icons, such as the flag and the Statue of Liberty; and a multitude of celebrities, including all four Beatles, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. But initially, Max sought a more scientific career.

“I was young and loved music, art and astronomy,” Max said. “My father was concerned about my making a living as an artist, so I chose astronomy because it sounded more like a profession.”

It took only one summer at the Art Students League of New York to change his mind.

“I fell in love with color and got the bug,” he said.

That bug has sustained his efforts for more than four decades. Frequently labeled a pop artist, Max loves composition and abstraction, but no matter what the label, spontaneity always plays a key role in his designs.

“If you came into my studio and watched me pick up the brushes before an empty canvas, you’d hear something musical, as I have a full-time DJ,” Max said. “And if you stood behind me and watched me paint with the music and were surprised as to what came out, I can assure you 1 million percent that I am just as surprised, and that’s the best part of my work - that I surprise myself. I don’t anticipate anything.”

While Max paints in the present, many of the 1960s ideals continue to inspire his heart and drive his brush.

“I have environmentalists, save-the-planet people and peace-loving people in my studio every day, and we give money away to all kinds of organizations,” he said. “People who buy the Obama images at

should know that much of that money will go to orphanages.”

After 9/11, Max began painting portraits of all 343 firefighters who perished that day. It took him nine months to complete the American Heroes project as a gift to the firefighters’ families.

The Wentworth Gallery show will feature more than 100 pieces, including acrylic originals and mixed media originals.

Peter Max show

  • President Obama portraits installation
  • 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 31
  • Wentworth Gallery
  • 1025 Prospect St., La Jolla
  • (858) 551-7071