Marshall Arisman’s Retrospective is stunning. If you get to New York City, see it before it closes on Sept 16. If you can’t get there, watch this 10-minute video tour .
I remember the day I met Marshall Arisman. It was 1984. I went to his office at School of Visual Arts after seeing an ad in the NY Times for a new degree program, The MFA in Visual Journalism. The ad showcased in bold headlines a stellar faculty line up: Tom Wicker, Pete Hamill, Robert Weaver, James McMullan, Marshall Arisman.
Marshall sat at a big desk, wearing a camel-colored cashmere sweater. I showed him my cartoons and spot illustrations for The NY Times and Village Voice. He laughed at some. He told me I should apply. I told him I wanted to apply, but had a problem. I’d dropped out college and didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. He laughed harder then. He said I couldn’t enter the MFA program without a bachelor’s degree.
I pointed out the fine print on the SVA MFA application. “Must have 10 slides, a biographical essay, 2 letters of reference, and a transcript of an earned bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution.” Then it said, “Any of the above requirements can be waived by the chairperson.” Marshall waved his hands over his desk as if to say ‘meeting over.’ He told me he might waive a letter of reference, or slides, but he couldn’t waive the undergraduate degree, New York State would take away his program’s accreditation.
I asked if he could let me in conditionally. “If I get a bachelor’s degree before I finish the MFA program, can I get in?” I told him how much I wanted to study with him and the writers and artists in the ad. I kept talking. He was looking at me askance. He asked if I would like a cup of coffee. I said sure, and looked around his office for a coffee maker. He said, “Let’s go outside.” He lit an unfiltered cigarette the moment we hit the sidewalk of 23rd street. We walked across the street to a coffee shop on the corner of Third Ave. He bought me a cup of coffee. He shook my hand and told me he needed to get back to work. I drank my coffee on the street corner. Yes, it did occur to me our the trip to the coffee shop was his way to get me out of his office.
I got in the MFA program. I worked on my bachelor’s degree simultaneously with the SVA night classes. One night of the week we studied with Robert Weaver, next night, Marshall Arisman, then Jim McMullan, then Steve Heller teaching Illustration History. Alas, the heavyweight writers, Wicker and Hamill never showed. Arthur Pincus, a sports editor for the NY Times was our writing coach. He was a good writer. The other students, all better artists than I, didn’t care much about the writing component.
Marshall is one of the word’s great storytellers. His delivery is so dry, it may be an acquired taste. Marshall told us that he could read auras. His grandma was a psychic. The first aura he ever witnessed was during a lecture by Krishnamurti at Carnegie Hall. Great wings of light blasted from Indian mystic’s shoulders to fill the entire stage. I asked Marshall if he read our student auras. He said sometimes. I was rude enough to I ask if I left the room and changed my shirt would my aura change? “Auras change all the time, ” he said with a chuckle.
Marshall told me he once saved a life by reading an aura. A fellow wandered into his SVA office and claimed he needed to contact his girlfriend who was in class somewhere in the building. It was an emergency. “What sort of emergency?” asked Marshall. The guy mumbled something about lost keys. Marshall paused, read the man’s aura and saw mad white-hot flashes flying off his face. Marshall said he could call the Registrar to locate the girl. Instead he phoned SVA security and calmly conveyed that he had an immediate problem in his office. Public Safety arrived just in time to subdue the man as he pulled a gun and revealed his true intentions, “I am gonna murder that b_____!”
I recall a lot of things Marshall said in class. He once told us, “Give me 5 good years, that’s the artist’s prayer. ” Well, this retrospective is called Marshall Arisman: An Artist’s Journey from Dark to Light, 1972—2017. That’s 35 years, right? Seems like Marshall Arisman’s prayers were answered seven times over.
Marshall was mobbed at his opening. He stood in the center of the gallery, backed by a troop of his sacred monkey figures. I got a moment to shake his hand and thank him again for all he did for me. He thanked me for coming. I tried to eavesdrop on what he said to his many other well-wishers. He locked eyes with each of them. His lips moved, his eyes lit up. I was inches away, but I could not hear a single syllable Marshall or his partner of the moment said. It was so very strange. It was if they were enveloped in Marshall’s aura, something I will never quite see, but will always respect.
You can find a proper interview with Marshall Arisman by Nicholas Gazin on Vice.com, entitled, Enter the Nightmarish Realms of an Iconic Illustrator. There are more interviews and talks on his website, MarshallArisman.com. The man is an artist worth knowing.