The Daily Heller: Arisman’s Assignments

Posted inThe Daily Heller

I have written many stories about Marshall Arisman, who passed away on Friday. While paging through my files I found this forgotten interview that I did for the UK illustration journal VAROOM (2016). I find it is particularly indicative of Marshall’s unique approach to art and illustration—not to mention his wonderful ironic sensibility.

What of your early work was the most significant in terms of your development as an artist?
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.

1979. AD: Kerig Pope.

Norman Mailer’s book “The Executioner’s Song” was hot off the press and would be serialized in Playboy. The 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 flying 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 minds eye?” I said.

“About two pints,” he said.

Gary Gilmore was shot by a firing squad on Jan. 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. 

After years of black-and-white graphic commentary for newspapers (New York Times Op-Ed, The Nation, etc.), this was my first full-color job for a national magazine. In spite of galleries telling me that illustration would ruin my fine arts career, I continued doing it.

What among your recent work demonstrates how you’ve developed your point of view as an artist?
Being an artist, not an archaeologist, I am interested in why cave drawings done 3,500 years ago were drawn on top of each other. Today, when graffiti writers tag over someone else’s mural, they can be killed for it. Tags, the calligraphic writings of one’s name, come under the unwritten rules of graffiti. The manifesto—you want to be known, but you don’t do it over other people’s work. In trying to decipher the numerous theories about why shamans drew on cave walls and why they drew over each other’s drawings, I have come to an unscientific explanation.

Part of the Ayahuasca Series.

The walls of the caves were curtains that separated the material world from the spiritual world. The shamans of the tribe, with the help of animal guides, traveled through the wall into the spirit realm. Upon returning, the shamans illustrated their journey on the walls of the caves. The members of the tribe would enter the cave and place their hands over the paintings to absorb the energy of the trip. While their eyes were being told the story, their bodies were experiencing the story itself. The more drawings done on top of each other, the more energy received.

It is only in looking backwards that I can arrange what appears to be a logical step-by-step progression from dark to light. I know that, in my case, it is misleading to perceive light and dark as opposing forces. Light and dark are two sides of the same coin, not separate activities. You do not evolve from dark into light; you encompass both in equal measure.

What is the single piece of yours that is the quintessence of your approach as an illustrator, and why?
Horrific events captured in a photograph are not the same as when an artist paints them. This has something to do with how we perceive time. The photograph represents a split second. The painting takes longer to complete. We look at the photograph, not the photographer. We look at the painting and wonder why someone painted it.

This cover was published in 1981. I can’t imagine how much more violent Arisman’s 1984 cover could be. AD: Rudy Hoagland.

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 horrific 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.”