Marshall Arisman: Facing the Audience

Reviews by Steven Heller
570 words3 min read

Not every illustrator deserves an eighty minute, feature-length documentary film devoted to his or her life and work. For that matter, with the notable exception of Norman Rockwell, what illustrator could hold an audience’s attention for that or any time? The general answer: It depends how well the director tells the artist’s story — a good director can make an unknown come alive. The specific answer is Marshall Arisman

For over forty years, Arisman has married numerous arts as painter, sculptor, illustrator, novelist together in work that is alternately satirical, mystical, conceptual, and journalistic — sometimes all of the above. He has been one of the leading figures of the ‘new illustration’ movement, the expressive conceptualists that in the mid-seventies made an impact and continues to hold sway over the practice of editorial art. He is also one of the foremost illustration teachers in America. Over the course of four decades he has evolved from a painter reminiscent of Francis Bacon into a visionary who, through wry wit and dark humor, conceives spiritual worlds comprised of enthralling characters both dangerous and vulnerable, violent and sublime.

Thanks to director Tony Silver’s deft and dogged film making, what emerges in the soon to be completed Marshall Arisman: Facing the Audience is a powerfully engaging, savagely funny, and emotionally gripping tale, on a par with Terry Zwickoff’s brilliant documentary, R. Crumb.


Yet I must admit to a little bias. I’ve known Arisman for three decades — when I was a late teen he expelled me from The School of Visual Arts, then hired me a couple of years later to teach in his program. I have worked with him as an illustrator. And I also appear briefly in this film in a role that is somewhere between historian and Greek Chorus. Nonetheless — relationship not withstanding — I can honestly say that Silver, who is known for the documentary, Culture Wars about New York’s graffiti subculture, has created an rare portrait of an unheralded cultural figure. While I have known Arisman for many years — and have heard stories about his growing up in Jamestown, New York, the grandson of an honest-to-god medium and clairvoyant — I never actually knew him as deeply as he is portrayed in this film. For a director to reveal the hidden persona so that even I was spellbound for the entire movie, is an extraordinary feat.

In addition to following Arisman to his first exhibition in China (indeed the very first of an American illustrator) and on a rare journey to his grandmother’s home in Lily Dale, New York, established at the turn of the century by and for mediums, the true tour de force is watching him work. I have never seen a film where the process of making art is more absorbing. Clearly, Silver had a great subject to work with for Arisman comes off as so guileless, so honest yet so otherworldly, that one cannot but help be captivated.

Marshall Arisman: Facing the Audience is not totally finished. Silver has devoted the better part of a decade filming, producing, and funding this project, and more money is needed before it can be released. So, I hope the funds are raised soon because after seeing the first screening in New York last December I believe that Arisman deserves this film, and so do the rest of us.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.