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Wall’s Fall Gets Max Treatment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pop artist Peter Max and Ronald Reagan hardly moved in the same circles back in the 1960s, when Max made his mark on a generation of young Americans swept up in the counterculture.

But the artist’s presence Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where he helped 18 area schoolchildren paint his neon mural commemorating the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed as natural as nudity at Woodstock.

Perhaps that’s because Max was never as counterculture as the movement that lofted him to fame and fortune. It’s also because Reagan and Max share a connection to the wall.

Max was born in Berlin, and as an infant was whisked out by his Jewish parents as they escaped the Nazis in the late 1930s. Although he spent his childhood in China, Tibet and Israel and has been in the United States since the 1950s, he still bears a German accent.

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In 1987, as U.S. defense spending was breaking the Soviets’ bank and the Cold War was grinding to a close, Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate, where the wall had divided Berlin for decades, and challenged then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall that bound one Germany to communism.

When East Germany opened its borders two years later, during the George Bush administration, both Max and Reagan got chunks of the wall.

On Tuesday, about 140 children from schools throughout the Conejo Valley gathered outdoors at the Reagan library to meet Max, learn about the history of the Iron Curtain and talk about freedom. Of that group, 18 students were selected by their art teachers to paint in the white spaces on the computer-generated vinyl mural Max designed in his New York studio. Max had the mural shipped here last week to be attached to planks of wood in a replica of a 50-by-10-foot portion of the wall.

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Most of the students knew next to nothing about Max--or the Berlin Wall, for that matter. Parents and teachers had briefed them the night before or on the ride over.

“Our teacher gave us a little background on him,” Jesyka D’Itri, 17, a senior at Thousand Oaks High School, said of Max as she blended fluorescent yellows and greens into one of the mural’s mountainsides. “He was revolutionary for the time and captured the essence of the ‘60s.”

As for the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jesyka remembers it only in the context of a sibling’s birth: “I remember that my sister was born that year, the Ninja Turtles’ first movie came out, and the Berlin Wall fell.”

Ten-year-old Braxton Overgaauw, student council treasurer at Manzanita Elementary School in Newbury Park, also had gotten a crash course on the wall. He was 9 months old when it fell. “I know it separated East Germany and West Germany,” he said. “Russia got one side,” and for anyone who tried to escape, “they would shoot you.”

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The new mural, titled “Berlin Wall Revisited,” features many of Max’s trademark characters--spaceships and cosmic fliers--as well as doves and an overall freedom theme. After a showing at the Reagan library, it is likely to travel as an exhibit, perhaps to the Louvre in Paris, Max said.

Three decades ago, Max was exploding onto the national scene with his “cosmic art,” hanging out with yogis and comparing his place in art to the Beatles’ place in music. Reagan was being sworn in as California’s governor and was critical of Vietnam War and free-speech demonstrators on college campuses.

But while Max’s social set was different, he said Tuesday that he never was a political animal. “I was part of the Woodstock generation, but it was just part of growing up,” he said. “I’m not anti-establishment. I’m pro-establishment and pro-democracy.”

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During Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, Nancy Reagan invited Max to paint 8-by-4-foot canvases of the Statue of Liberty on the White House lawn. One of his Liberty paintings is housed at the Reagan library, he said. (He also created the “40 Gorbys” depiction of Gorbachev.)

Although he did many rock album covers and posters, he’s also been the official artist for five Super Bowls, several other professional sporting events and the Grammys. He’s done paintings for every president since Gerald Ford and in recent years painted a tribute to slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin.

Through shrewd marketing, the New Yorker--who says he is 60 although “Who’s Who in America” lists him as 62--has amassed a multimillion-dollar empire.

But Max said the ability to make money is not as integral a part of the American dream as the right to free expression.

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To illustrate, he explains that he and Donald Trump were competing for the same chunk of the Berlin Wall that the German government was giving away in a public-relations move.

Max says he beat out Trump because he pitched a creative idea: Carve a dove from the center of the wall and place the symbol of peace atop the slab, perched as if it were free to fly away.

“Ideas are always greater than capitalism,” he said.

Times’ librarian John Tyrrell contributed to this report.

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