Marshall Arisman: Facing the Audience
A film review of director Tony Silver‘s documentary about the life and work of the Amercian illustrator Marshall Arisman.
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 audiences attention for that or any time? The general answer: It depends how well the director tells the artists 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 Silvers 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 Zwickoffs brilliant documentary, R. Crumb.
Yet I must admit to a little bias. Ive 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 Yorks 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 grandmothers 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.
Other Articles By Steven Heller
- The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
- Edward Fella: Letters on America
- R. Crumb: Odds and Ends
- Tomi Ungerer, A Childhood Under the Nazis
- The Swastika: Constructing The Symbol
- Art of the Third Reich
- Design History
- Graphic intervention
- The Small Crit
- Zap Comics
- Quick Cuts, Coarse Letters, Multiple Screens:
- Ladislav Sutnar and Knud Lönberg-Holm
- Otto Bettmann: Father of Retro
- Advertising Arts: America Becomes Modern(istic)
- Erik Nitsche: The Reluctant Modernist
- Old Guns
- Graphic Design Magazines: Das Plakat
- The Object Poster:
- Walter Herdeg, editor and founder of Graphis
- Cult of the Ugly
- Paul Thompson, director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum
- Don Norman, Usablity Expert
- Merrill Berman, Design Connoisseur
- Neal Gabler, media critic
- Ladislav Sutnar, Web Design before the Internet
- Typographica Mea Culpa, Unethical Downloading