By Jeffrey Felshman

Peter Max can still draw a crowd, and he’ll sketch a face just for the asking. You want him to scribble a few lines that sort of look like you? Done, at no charge. You want a Peter Max heart on your sleeve? Easy. A personal inscription on the back of that $5,000 painting you just bought? He’s pleased to do it.

Despite the approaching Bulls game time, the Merrill Chase gallery at Water Tower Place is bustling with Peter Max fans, here for the unveiling of four of his paintings of Dennis Rodman. The gallery has set out cookies, strawberries, and champagne. Four televisions stacked together show Max-designed rock videos interspersed with scenes from Max’s life–laughing at a rock festival in Moscow, drawing on fans’ leather jackets, working in his studio. None of the TVs is tuned to the other media event.

Several Merrill Chase employees are working the crowd tonight. Danice Brumer says, “Peter Max has painted Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Clinton, Reagan, Andy Warhol, and now Rodman.” Rodman is a natural for Max, she says, because his multicolored hairdos look like those on characters Max created back in the 60s.

But below the hairline the four Rodmans bear little resemblance to anything Max has painted before. His paintings have always been fanciful and light–marshmallow moons and pink stars. The expressions on the four Rodmans are pure menace.

Smiling at the paintings, Max says the expressions do seem less than friendly. “It must be the makeup,” he says.

Max, who was born in Berlin in 1939 and fled the Nazis with his family, lived in Shanghai and Israel as a boy and still speaks with an accent that gets stronger when he’s excited. And he’s excited now. “These are just quick sketches I did from a photo in an hour and a half,” he exclaims. “But I’m going to do more Rodmans, bigger Rodmans. Twenty-four Rodmans–electric, bizarre. Rodmans in wacky colors, Rodmans in black and white, Rodmans in profile. He has a great profile–a great nose, a Roman nose.”

Max’s brightly colored psychedelic pop art had a big impact in the late 60s and early 70s–it’s been seen by nearly everyone on the planet. But gallery owner Robert Henry Adams says, “Max’s work is mediocre with no depth. He had his time, and now he imitates Warhol–but without Warhol’s sophistication.” Indeed, the Rodmans do look like Warhols, and they’re the most interesting paintings on the gallery walls.

Adams warns that fans shouldn’t think they’re buying something collectible. “If they’re buying them because they like the paintings, that’s great. But if they think it’s going to appreciate or even be worth what they paid for it, forget it. His signed prints are worth about five, six hundred dollars at the most.”

Still, 25 paintings sell in an hour and a half. Most of the buyers are casually dressed, middle-class, middle-aged fans, happily forking over checks for thousands of dollars. Max speaks to every one of them. He presses against each buyer, shaking hands and smiling brightly through his trademark walrus mustache. He poses for photos and signs the backs of the paintings. One buyer has a son named after Max; he and the kid get together for a shot.

Max doesn’t mind one bit. “I love it! I get to meet with people who love my work, who grew up wearing my shirts, wore my socks, who slept on my sheets. It’s like a dance.”

It’s just about game time, but around 50 people are still milling around the gallery. More show up during the first quarter. Max says the game is holding down attendance. “We’ve gotten 15 to 20 times this amount of people at other shows. I’ve done shows where 6,000 people come.”

He pumps the hand of another fan, then walks briskly over to the Rodmans and whips a marker out of his pocket. A woman notices him and nudges her two children. “Look, he’s signing them–he’s painting on the Rodmans!” A crowd gathers to watch. Max pirouettes and flourishes his marker for the crowd. One of the Rodmans now bears a bright green “Max” above its head. Another has its hair colored even more brightly.

Max pulls the paintings off the wall, picks a woman out of the crowd, and directs her to hold one of the transformed Rodmans over her face. He does the same, and they pose for a photograph with only their legs showing underneath the canvas. “Look,” Max says, pointing to the woman, “Rodman in a skirt.”

A man carrying a wrapped painting says, “He’s so charming.” One of the young employees working the floor says, “He’s great with the collectors–that’s what’s so beautiful about him.”

Max says he hasn’t spoken to Rodman yet, but a phone call has been arranged. “It’s interesting with Rodman. Some people know him from basketball, some know him from his books. Some people know him from his movie–have you seen it? Me neither. I didn’t know him from any of these. I knew him only from the wacky colors.”

Max says he doesn’t know if he’s had any influence on Rodman’s look. “Five or six people must have said to me, ‘He looks like a Peter Max.'” And Max can’t wait to tell Rodman his plan to do more Rodmans. “It’ll blow his mind,” he exults. “It’s going to be something that impacts on the media, on the planet!” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peter Max’s Dennis Rodman.