If you’ve ever listened to Marshall Arisman’s stories about the absurdities and anomalies in his life and work, then you must have heard him say at the end of a thought: “Does that make sense.” is verbal tic in an otherwise warm yet authoritative speaking style is not really a question but an assertion. Of course his stories—even the most nonsensical—make sense, and for his listeners, including thousands of illustration students who have passed through Arisman’s classrooms over the past 50 years, his tales are not just entertaining but existentially instructive.
While there are many good reasons for inducting Arisman into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, his life as a storyteller in word and image is the glue that holds all his varied accomplishments together. A serial storyteller, Arisman believes that stories are found everywhere, in all forms and expressed in many ways, especially visual. Illustration as Visual Essay, the School of Visual Arts MFA program he founded 30 years ago, was his visionary idea to emphasize word and picture storytelling beyond children’s books and comics, and has resulted in scores of published books and even more successful artists. is incubator for story making was not conceived in an academic vacuum; Arisman is a pioneer of conceptual and narrative illustration. His hauntingly expressive work is a co-mingling of elements of realism and abstraction, symbolism and mysticism, cut with a sly sense of wit. And behind each of his pictures is a story. Here is one:
In 1979 Playboy magazine, who knows why, decided to replace the Playmate of the Month with my painting of Gary Gilmore’s execution. The Playmate, who knows who, would have to wait. Norman Mailer’s book, The Executioner’s Song, was hot o the press and would be serialized in Playboy. e snag was that Mailer’s description of the execution had not yet arrived.
“We’ll have to wing it,” the art director said. “Firing squad eight feet away—jerking body in a chair—blood ying around the room—can’t you see it?”
“Run a color photograph,” I said.
“They don’t exist for publication,” he said. “How much blood do you see in your mind’s eye?” I said.
“About two pints,” he said.
Gary Gilmore was shot by a ring squad on January 17, 1977, at 8:07 AM. He didn’t jerk or bleed. His last words were in Latin: “There will always be a father,” he said.
As it turned out, the execution painting fell into Playboy’s Christmas issue. Hugh Hefner killed the idea. The Playmate ran as usual. My painting ran as a single page.
Arisman appeared on the illustration scene in the late 1960s with a self-published collection of stinging satiric commentaries on gun violence—a theme inspired by his brother’s extreme fascination with rearms when Americans were, like today, standing rm on their Second Amendment right to keep them. The critical mass of these satires earned Arisman a sinecure at The New York Times OpEd page during its formative years, where he was cast as the go-to guy for virtually any article laced with violence (later branching out into war crimes and other despicable acts). He did not like being typecast, but someone had to do the job, and so he did. Here, in an excerpt from Vickie Karp’s Huffington Post blog, he describes the fate of one such illustration:
In 1984 Time magazine commissioned me to paint a cover that would visualize the death penalty. My intent in the painting was to paint an image so horrifc that it would evoke an audible scream on the newsstand.
I took the painting to the Time/Life Building. Carefully unwrapping it I showed it to the art director who carried it into the editor’s office. The editor emerged from his office carrying the painting.
“I’m sorry, we are not going to use it,” he said. “It’s too violent.”
A cognitive dissonance exists between the person who is as mild mannered as anyone who sees auras can be (and he does see auras) and the artist whose work is usually anything but tranquil. When Arisman began doing editorial illustration it was more akin to the heyday of expressionist and surreal graphic work emerging from Western and Eastern Europe in the ’60s and ’70s than the representational painting and drawing then so popular in American magazines. His early inspirations were illustrator André François, and later painter Francis Bacon. As Arisman developed confidence, his work became more raw.
Born in Jamestown, New York (the home of Lucille Ball), Arisman is a home-grown original, whose approach to illustration has never been conventional or fashionable. e job description of Illustrator is not how he self-identifies. Illustration is just one part of a toolkit that includes gallery painting, sculpture, video, printing and lord knows what else he’s hidden away. Some of his work is topical, while his most passionate artistic obsessions have gone from guns to monkeys, from tribal masks to Elvis.
His career took a crooked path from the outset. He attended Pratt Institute (1956-60) to become a graphic designer. A er graduation he worked in Detroit for General Motors in the experimental Graphic Division designing the logo for Delco batteries. Three months later he realized that he hated working with people and solving other people’s problems. at drove him into illustration. His intent at that point was not to manage a freelance business but to explore himself through art. He was twenty-five. “I was window shopping for a direction that reflected me. I found not one direction but many,” he said, and told me about his discovery that parallel lines did indeed intersect: Illustration could be expressive; painting could be illustrative; symbolism could be abstract yet accessible.
I met Arisman in 1969 when I was 19 years old and he was the chairman of SVA undergraduate illustration. I enrolled in SVA but never attended classes because I was working as an “art director” for underground newspapers. During a disciplinary review, Arisman reluctantly kicked me out of school, but we’ve remained close friends for decades since, working together, teaching together, making books together. Arisman taught me many things about art and artistic passion, but what has always struck me is his relentless search for platforms to show and tell stories. Even with his many successes, he still wanders.
“The printed page, the gallery wall, an illustrated book or short film . . . are extensions of my expression,” he says, referring to the need to find vehicles for his ideas to “express themselves.” He adds that because his “primary ego is lodged in the paintings, I can make films, write, etc., without fear. This freeing process has allowed these projects to be a lot more of what I would call ‘serious fun.’”
Speaking of fun, Arisman spent two years painting, drawing and sculpting monkeys—not your run of the mill monkeys but sacred monkeys, which inhabited both his illustration and gallery art. “Saturated in ‘monkeydom,’” he explains, he turned his passion from the visual to the literary with a coming-of-age story about a boy named Marshall who was born with a twin brother that was a monkey.
Initially, the 2010 novel, The Divine Elvis, was only in written form. Then he added over one hundred illustrations. His goal in writing a full-length, illustrated novel was to find out if he could sustain a story for more than one page. “Writing activates a curious stream of consciousness inside me that is different than painting. Writing occurs after the painting and not before it.” The story was inspired by his family. “I have a brother two years older than me, who is from another planet. My mother was a twin with six sets of twins in her family. My grandmother on my father’s side was a noted psychic and Spiritualist minister. My mother’s parents were Pentecostal Holy Rollers. I knew enough family secrets that I could betray in writing now that my parents are dead.”
Prior to The Divine Elvis, Arisman taught himself motion and sound in a project called Cobalt Blue, a DVD of current paintings with a custom-composed soundtrack over which he narrated tales about the work. “ ere is so much pretentious art speak out there I thought it might be refreshing to simply track the stories that surround the art.” He also produced a newspaper, Brief Encounter with Some Very Fine Artists, that combined his and other artists’ work in poking fun at the art world in the Dada and Fluxus tradition. “I was born in upstate New York in a town surrounded by trailers,” he explains. “For those of us lucky enough to live in houses, we called the occupants of the trailers, ‘Trailer Trash.’ Knowing how much they enjoyed reading The National Enquirer, I thought a newspaper about the art world might fill in their cultural gaps. It cost $700 to print 1,000 newspapers. I got my money’s worth from the responses from the art world who felt the paper was not high art.” Arisman does not define himself as low or high, but he is still wandering and looking for the right space and place. He accepts that the audience for what he does is limited, and in recent years his market for illustration has tapered off. Still he will not conform to fashion. In a recent conversation he quipped, “what I do is always surprising but never mainstream.” He added, “I am a bad barometer for what will sell or for what is appealing to my fellow man . . . Does that make sense.”
Co-chair, MFA Design Department, School of Visual Arts, New York