Enter the Nightmarish Realms of an Iconic Illustrator
Marshall Arisman. All photos by Nick Gazin

Enter the Nightmarish Realms of an Iconic Illustrator

No one does darkness quite like Marshall Arisman, an artist whose work explores the macabre in a way that is as emotionally arresting as it is technically impressive.
August 29, 2017, 4:21pm

Marshall Arisman is a towering figure in the world of commercial illustration. He rose to prominence in the 70s, a time when color photographs were making photo-realistic illustrations feel redundant. He was one of the first illustrators of his generation to sell work based on his own emotive, abstract sensibility. His style is both dark and otherworldly, indebted to figurative painters like Francis Bacon and realists like Edward Hopper. He's the man responsible for the infamous cover of TIME magazine's 1981's "The Curse of Violent Crime" issue. The nightmare-inducing image features a ghastly man with red eyes totting a snub-nosed revolver. Like that cryptic cover, much of his art grapples with good and evil, violence and predation, and angels and demons.


Arisman had a pretty unconventional upbringing. Born in 1937, he was raised in Jamestown, New York, a place where he became intimately familiar with wildlife and firearms, two things that are featured in a lot of his work. His grandmother was a famous medium, who helped spark his fascination with the spiritual realm. He went to Pratt for graphic design and got his first job at General Motors in 1960. But it wasn't until after he spent some years abroad and served in the military that he really developed his own signature style. As an educator, Arisman encouraged a new generation of illustrators to make art that only they could make, instead of just providing an interchangeable service.

Arisman is having a retrospective right now at the School of Visual Arts' Chelsea Gallery in New York City until September 16. The show, titled Marshall Arisman: An Artist's Journey from Dark to Light, 1972—2017, shows 45 years of the fine art illustrator's career under one roof. In honor of the retrospective, I spent an hour with him in his studio in Chelsea chatting about his life and career. Here's what Arisman had to say.

VICE: Have you had a retrospective before?
Marshall Arisman: No. It's an interesting process. I've always believed when looking at an artist's work, you have to look at all of it as opposed to fragments. So this retrospective has pushed me into that, kind of looking at it and putting it all together, trying to figure out how it all happened.

Your whole career becomes a big narrative.
Exactly. I think the odd thing that happens is that you look at old work, and then you look at where it went, and it begins to look linear. But the experience of making the art is never linear, at least not for me.


What was Pratt like when you went to school there?
Pratt was funny because we were surrounded by teenage gangs with switchblades, and we were college kids. There's a big fence around Pratt and security guards. But when you left the campus, you were taking your life in your hands. It has gentrified since then.

How'd you get into art?
I had a little ability in art. I had a lot of people in my family, not professional artists, but they all made things. My uncle painted, and my mother made papier-mâché cows. My mother was good.

What was your first job like?
I got to GM, and I realized I hated working there, and I didn't like coming up with concepts to solve client problems. We were in a special unit that only did special projects for the president. I spent a month doing three birthday cards. They said,"Do anything you want, but one has to say, 'Happy Birthday, Tom,' one has to say, 'Happy Birthday, Bill,' and one has to say…" whatever. I fucked around with it for a month, and then they said go down to the garage. There are three Corvettes with bows on them. Put one on each seat. I thought, This is not working. I realized that I was only happy when I was alone and drawing.

How'd you end up in the army?
I was living in Paris, just drawing in the cafes. It was a way to meet women. I was not serious at that time. I don't think I ever went to the Louvre while I was there. I got drafted at a cafe. An MP came up to me and handed me my draft notice and said, "You have two weeks to report to Buffalo for a physical. If you don't show up, we are going to come and get you."

What was basic training like?
It was OK. The weird thing was I was stationed in Augusta, Georgia. I remember getting off the bus and feeling like I was in a Tennessee Williams play. The first thing I saw was a sign that said, "If you are colored, don't even think about drinking out of this fountain." It was a throwback to all that, and it was everywhere. I got to the base, and the barracks were all segregated ,and the sergeants were all African American, and the officers were all white.

Was racial segregation something you were already used to?
Yeah, but I grew up in a town that maybe had 15 African American families, maybe six Jewish families. The big fight in my hometown was between the Swedes and the Italians. They hated each other. My mother is Swedish. When I called her to tell her that I met this woman that I was going to marry, she asked, "Is she Italian?" I said, "No." (My wife is Japanese American.) She said, "Well, bring her home."


What was it like when you started doing art for a living?
When I finally got back to New York, I started trying to freelance. I didn't know what I was doing. I was trying to appease someone else. For three years, I never made more than $3,000 a year. After that, I thought, Maybe it is time to learn how to draw and then start to think about what I am drawing. I made a list of things I knew about. I know a lot about cows, I have never drawn one. I know a lot about deer, never drawn one. I know a lot about guns, never drawn one. So I picked guns as a subject, and that became my portfolio. My experience is that you get work based off what you show people. If you show people highly personal work with your content, you get better assignments. No one gave me any assignments I didn't want to do. In a funny way, I guess you categorize yourself, and I had. I became the gun guy. For 20 years, people would call me and say, "You are going to love this, 15 people just got shot at McDonald's." So that started my career.

Do you ever begrudge being pigeonholed as the gun, cow, or deer guy?
No, because during that time other things began to happen. My grandmother was a very famous psychic in the media, and she lived in a place called Lily Dale. You had to be a medium to buy a house there. It's 80 miles south of Buffalo. It is a well-kept secret. So, as a kid growing up, I would see my grandmother on Sundays. When I got to high school, I would take dates to Lily Dale because you could walk into any house and get a reading. I've had thousands of readings. Mediums have a problem with working on demand, but when you start charging money, you start working on demand. So a lot of times I didn't get much. "You're going to be rich… You're going to be famous…." all that stuff. But, occasionally, something would come through that would be mind-blowing. I realized what I was doing was supporting my intuition by listening to something that wasn't rational, that was coming from another place, whether you believe it or not.

You mentioned that you learned how to draw. What is learning to draw?
It's funny you say that because when I was at Pratt as a graphic designer, drawing was not that important. We had to do layouts and learn tricks. The best class I had was a drawing class by Jack Tworkov; he was an abstract painter. He died about five years ago. I realized looking back that what he had was passion for drawing. But being a graphic designer, I didn't really have to learn how to draw; it wasn't that important. But I drew everything. I never knew why I was doing it. Then suddenly I knew why. [It was a passion.]


What else did you learn from Tworkov?
He had an exercise that I found very helpful. It was that anytime there was an intersection inside or outside the body, with two lines coming together, you had to stop and make an X there. If you do it, there are thousands of them. His point was that no one can draw at the speed art students draw. You can indicate, but you are not drawing. So, in order to slow people down, he made you draw from point to point. You keep starting and stopping. I realized in those little increments that I was actually looking and actually drawing.

You're tricking your mind to slow down and stop focusing on the end product.
Exactly. We both know that when it works, 20 minutes can go by, and you'll be like, My God, 20 minutes have gone by, and I wasn't thinking about tonight or tomorrow. It is a wonderful meditation.

Who were the people you were admiring artistically when you were learning to draw?
Well, two things were happening. This was the late 60s, and the art world was owned by pop art, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. Walking around galleries, I saw a lot of figurative work that was not emotional, like Warhol silkscreens. The figure is there, but it's detached. Then in 1968, I saw my first Francis Bacon retrospective at the Guggenheim. I thought, Whoa, these are emotional, these aren't intellectual paintings, these aren't a game. I can feel these in my nerve endings, not just my eyes. That gave me encouragement that it could be done. You could stay with a figure and try to achieve something emotional out of it where someone could respond to it.


My grandmother was also an artist, so we would make art on Sundays. She would ask me as a teenager, "Do you believe the energy that you put into that art stays there when you leave?"

Is there anything you see as the pinnacle for your editorial illustration career?
I did a cover for TIME magazine on "The Curse of Violent Crime." It's funny because I ran into Walter Bernard, the art director, last year, and he said "You and I lived through the golden age of illustration, and we didn't know it." He was right. The 80s were wide open. I am not sure TIME magazine would print that cover today. A lot of people canceled their subscriptions; they said their kids were scared. TIME didn't care. They said,"Great!"

Because TIME magazine was such a mainstream magazine, other art directors could use me. It was funny, because a year later, TIME asked me to do a painting on the death penalty. I did it and brought it in, and they said, "We can't print this; it is too violent." I said, "Have you opened up a newspaper? They are killing people in electric chairs. It is violent." They said, "You don't understand, people look at photographs and see a reality; people look at paintings to see the art."

How do you feel about this retrospective coming up?
In my generation, if you are an illustrator in the fine art world, there is a wall. Every gallery I have shown in has said to me, "You are ruining your career by illustrating." I said "No one is telling me what to do in illustration." The retrospective will hopefully find some balance or try to show that. It is a combination of the printed work and the gallery work.

With illustration, the stakes are lower because the money's less. But it is more populist. With fine art, you are trying to appeal to a small pool of critics, gallerists, and collectors.
I think Rothko is such a great example. Rothko believed you made a piece of art live by sensitive eyes looking at it, and you could kill it the same way—insensitive eyes would actually kill the art.

When he did the Seagram's building, he was half way through it, and he had lunch there, and he looked around at all the people and thought these are totally insensitive assholes and looking at my art, and they are going to kill it. So, he stopped the commission to his credit. He was a little nuts, but he believed that paintings were like flowers—they needed tending.

Do you think sensitive eyes will be at your retrospective, or are a lot of assholes going to kill your art?
I think they will all be there.

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Check out Marshall Arisman: An Artist's Journey from Dark to Light, 1972—2017 at the School of Visual Arts' Chelsea Gallery in New York City until September 16.