So whatever happened to Peter Max?

He became part of the national consciousness with his explosion of posters in the late 1960s, remarkable for their bold, whimsical images and cosmic themes in incandescent pastels. Then came the wildly patterned panty hose, the sneakers with sculpted soles that left his signature in the sand. The megalicensing of his designs peaked in 1971, and about a year later he dropped out.

Now Max is back, with renewed business vigor and acumen, appearing recently at Woodward & Lothrop's, to hustle his bathing suit collection, with watches, men's ties and women's sportswear all to come.

Where's he been?

"I've been in a creative retreat since the early 1970s. I expected it to be for six months, at most a year. I was always painting ... I was an artist of a new age who believed that in the later 20th century the artist should expand from canvas to other mediums. I delved into other areas ... computers, videos, as well as putting images on objects, even vases. Americans gravitated to it in a big way, and when America did, more came my way. I was a painter all day long. Designers on another floor {of Peter Max Enterprises} applied the images I created onto objects whose shapes I created.

"By 1970 I had 72 licensees. It happened so suddenly and I was so naive that I didn't even realize I was licensing images. I thought I was just putting images on stuff. I got object-crazy -- wanted to decorate everything. I found myself painting in hotel rooms, using the coffee table as a palette, drawing in the back of limos. I could spend only three to four hours at the easel, not 12 as I preferred.

"One day, after four years of this, I was at John Wayne's villa ... so relaxed, I had four easels going at the same time. I realized I should never give that up. I reached my peak with a {1969} Life cover and 10 pages inside. I had not burned myself out, I just wanted to be full time into painting.

"I called New York. Remember, I had more than 50 people working for me, two or three cars, an assistant for everything, in-house lawyers, accountants. I called the fellow who ran the company and said I think it's time to wind down. I didn't want to get into just a gigantic business with the source -- my art -- diminished.

"It took a year to wind down the company. I found work for the people who worked for me in other companies, kept five people ... painting assistants, personal assistants."

He moved back to his home, New York's West Side, and started painting full time, then "started rethinking, how to come back out ... I wanted something for fans in every city, like scarves or other objects.

"I stayed in retreat, spending several months in Woodstock, about the same amount of time in Barbados, and in Manhattan, painting in all three places. But after 10 years I started missing the public contact. Painting is great, self-sustaining, but there was an adrenalin from knickknacks, calendars, that I missed. I missed the fun of getting buttons in from the factory that I could give out. I really missed that ...

"Then, out of the blue in 1981, I got a request from Nancy Reagan to paint the Statue of Liberty as part of their first Fourth of July celebration in the White House. We decided I would paint six of them on easels on the White House lawn.

"They built a beautiful stand guarded by the Marines. I flew paints down, rented all the suites facing the White House at the Hay-Adams {Hotel}. Even my parents came. I went to the White House that morning, did six paintings that day between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. That night Ronald Reagan faced the public at the White House wearing a straw hat. The paintings were behind him.

"I came back to New York, where I was painting flowers and coming off the high of the day at the White House. The doorbell rang. I was told it was a Bob Grace, a big Peter Max fan who, it turned out, was a lover of the Statue of Liberty."

Grace brought Max close-up photos of the damage throughout the great statue, and pleaded with him to enlist the White House in the statue's restoration. When he called the White House, however, "they praised my patriotism but said they couldn't help with the funding ... They said I'd have to go through private enterprise.

"I called a friend at an ad agency who handles the Lee Iacocca account and said I had something for the chairman. Iacocca had the image of a man who gets things done, and as my mother used to say, ask someone who is busy.

"I got involved many ways. The first 5 or 6 million dollars I raised on the phone from the studio. And then Iacocca accepted the challenge, and I was invited to the announcement of Iacocca chairing the fundraiser for the Statue of Liberty, held at the White House. Iacocca gave Ronald Reagan one of my 4-by-8-foot paintings. Reagan responded, 'I thank you on behalf of the people of America, my landlords.'

"During the period of my retreat, I started to paint more brushy work, more impressionistic than before. By the later '70s I moved to a new expressionism, and by the early 1980s my work went neo-fauvist ... powerful expressionist painting, colors very rich and bold, colors juxtaposed, people with purple faces, hair green, pink or yellow clouds and a black sea. Or the sea might be lavender, but never blue or green. The spectrum of colors is important ... and using them in a non-normal way.

"But I missed being out there, doing things for TV and MTV {for which he created three station logos} and rock 'n' roll stations. The media work gets my adrenalin going. So when I went to Hollywood and stayed with Jerry Weintraub, head of his own production company {tied to Columbia Pictures}, he took me all over Hollywood. There was such a response to my being there that it occurred to me it was time to come back out. It really stimulated me. It gave me that push, and I decided to put aside 200 drawings from the '60s, '70s and '80s, easily reproducible on objects.

"Now I use a unique licensing firm which finds me objects to put these on. I may use only a dozen companies to make things for the fans ... scarves, bathing suits ... they are colorful, more colorful than what you would normally wear on the outside. They are like a billboard.

"I think the watch is a visual icon of the '80s, like a poster of the '60s. So I'm doing a line of watches for Sutton Watch. The biggest thrill was when the first 12 dozen watches arrived in the studio, and everyone grabbed a few. I could have them in my pocket to give one to Cher and Dennis Quaid and other friends. That was the big thrill ... to have something to give away. But in order to be able to do that you have to have them manufactured.

"The items {for his new line} were carefully chosen with the help of my friend Helen Gallant {former president of Bonwit Teller}. I want to be careful. I want objects that are fun to give away, but I need to sell to make them, to make an impact on a generation who had not seen my work.

"For me these objects mean the same as a radio station to a musician. It's my way of getting out to everyone. I know there has been criticism of my commercialism, but if John Lennon could only play Albert Hall or Lincoln Center and not play an FM station ... Young artists today are trying to do what I did in the '60s. Like Keith Haring and his graphic T-shirts. I learned the balance last time ... everything has to be chic, cool, tasty. You can't sell out for money ... or it's over in six months."