Peter Max, the tremendously successful artist whose work defined the psychedelic aesthetic of the hippy generation, has been at the center of a number of lawsuits since 2015. Having Alzheimer’s symptoms for a number of years and suffering from advanced dementia since at least 2019, these litigations surround Max’s guardianship, which was put in place in 2015. In 2019, a long exposé in The New York Times said this guardianship was put in place at the request of Peter's late wife, Mary Max, but a recent court filing on behalf of the guardian alleges that it was Peter himself who requested it.
Max’s daughter Libra Max and her friend Edward Tricomi have fought to get the guardianship removed, but in a lawsuit dated 13 December 2021, Max’s guardian Barbara Lissner is suing Libra and Tricomi in the Supreme Court of the State of New York for defamation, claiming that Libra “has tried to wrest control of the guardianship, asking the court time and time again to appoint her as Peter Max’s guardian,” according to the complaint, which also notes that Libra’s renewed interest in the case has been “buoyed by the ‘Free Brittany [sic] Spears’ movement”, referring to the hyper-public guardianship battle recently won by the pop music star.
The new complaint, along with years of preceding litigation, paint the picture of an extremely messy situation in which none of the key players are rendered in a flattering light. The word “kidnapping” has been thrown around multiple times, directed at multiple parties, with Mary Max accusing Peter’s estranged son Adam Max of “kidnapping” his father, and with Libra and Tricomi accusing Lissner of having “kidnapped” the artist and engaging in “human trafficking” with respect to him, according to the defamation complaint. The latest complaint states that Libra Max has accused Lissner of “confiscating” and “disposing of” Max’s cats, before alleging that “Libra confiscated Peter Max’s cats and only she knows their whereabouts”. The complaint also claims “Libra’s lawyers suggested that Libra would begin making press releases that [Lissner] steals from Holocaust victims to coerce [her] to resign from the guardianship”. (Lissner is an estate lawyer who has worked with Holocaust victims.)
In 2021, Libra spoke to The New York Post, arguing that her father “is being treated like a prisoner” as a result of the guardianship, and alleging that she is only allowed to visit her father for one hour at a time, with visits limited to a public bench in Riverside Park. Libra and Tricomi have created a website, FreePeterMax.com, where they have published press releases and court documents, and published a letter of support signed by hundreds of signatories.
Max’s late wife Mary, who died by suicide in 2019, also faced a number of abuse allegations before her death.
There have also been a number of lawsuits by collectors against both Max and Park West Gallery—a private art dealership that regularly holds auctions aboard cruise ships, at which Max’s paintings are often among the main draws—primarily over allegations that the collectors were misled over the value of the works amid claims that Max’s studio is effectively a highly-lucrative factory-style operation in which hired hands make paintings that Max later signs.
Peter’s son Adam spoke to The New York Post on behalf of Lissner, saying: “Everything Barbara Lissner is alleging is true.” He added: “Barbara Lissner is giving my father excellent care. He’s never been treated better in his life.” While Libra Max’s Lawyer, Jeffrey M. Eilender, told The Post that the new case is “motivated by greed and a desire to silence Libra Max for exposing the abuse of her father”, adding that “the suit is a tissue of lies and a money grab”.
In 2019, a reporter for The New York Times attempted to interview Max himself about the ongoing situation, but upon arriving at the artist’s home, she found that Max was in a state of dementia-related confusion far too severe for the two of them to hold a conversation.