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Marshall Arisman, Illustrator Who Found Beauty in Violence, Dies at 83

Marshall Arisman, Illustrator Who Found Beauty in Violence, Dies at 83

Marshall Arisman, an illustrator whose provocative and often violent work appeared in The New York Times, Playboy and other major periodicals from the 1960s onward, died on April 22 in Manhattan. He was 83.

His wife, Diane Ito Arisman, said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Arisman was also the founder of the Illustration as Visual Essay program (formerly Illustration as Visual Journalism) at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He started teaching at the school in 1964, began the program in 1984 and was its chair until his death.

Both Mr. Arisman’s art and his teaching practice were characterized by his capacity for storytelling, his friend and colleague Steven Heller, a former art director at The Times, said in an interview.

He was, Mr. Heller said, “the kind of teacher that people would just lean on to absorb his storytelling technique.” He added: “He was an amazing storyteller. And most of it was true.”

Mr. Arisman mined his personal biography for inspiration, and he encouraged his students to do the same.

His interest in spirituality informed much of his artistic career. His grandmother lived in a community called Lily Dale in upstate New York that billed itself as the state’s “center for mediumship and spiritual healing.” Founded in 1879, Lily Dale was associated with the Spiritualist religion, which holds that the living are able to communicate with the dead via the spirit world.

His grandmother, herself a practicing medium, was a major influence on his life and work: He eventually directed a documentary, along with Francesco Portinari, “A Postcard From Lily Dale” (2014), about her life and the ways in which psychic phenomena shaped his artistic career. He also believed in the concept of reading auras, and completed many paintings of monkeys and bison with glittering auras surrounding them.

Mr. Arisman’s painting style was described as “dark and otherworldly” by Vice, for which he was interviewed in 2017.

In the interview, he recalled one of his most formative — and contentious — pieces, a Time magazine cover in 1981 that carried the headline “The Curse of Violent Crime.” The cover depicts a red-eyed man with metal over his face holding a revolver to his head. Many viewers found it disturbing, but Mr. Arisman saw it as a reflection of real-life violence.

“Have you opened up a newspaper?” he recalled asking Time executives when they found a later image, for an article about the death penalty, too graphic. “They are killing people in electric chairs. It is violent.” 

“He was making those sociopolitical statements and doing it in a way that was somewhat of a cartoon,” Mr. Heller said, “but more a cartoon in the way Goya or George Grosz would do cartoons.”

Mr. Arisman’s art was also a fixture in Playboy, Penthouse, The Nation, and The Times’s Opinion section and Book Review. He designed covers for a limited-edition reissue of Thomas Harris’s novel “The Silence of the Lambs” in 2015 and Bret Easton Ellis’s novel “American Psycho” in 1991 — both of which featured a violent killer as a central character.

Marshall Alexis Arisman was born on Oct. 14, 1938, in Jamestown, N.Y., to Walter Arisman, a dairy worker and farmer, and Helen (Alexis) Arisman.

He grew up in Jamestown, near Lily Dale and his grandmother. He said in the Vice interview that he and she would make art together every Sunday. The hunting culture of rural New York inspired some of his early work on violence in America. He lived in Manhattan at the time of his death.

After graduating from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with a degree in graphic design in 1960, he began working as a designer at General Motors. After three months there, he became a full-time illustrator.

He served six months in the Army in 1962 and remained in the Army Reserve for seven years. He married Dianne Ito in 1964. His wife is his only immediate survivor.

In 2002, the director Tony Silver profiled Mr. Arisman in the documentary film “Arisman: Facing the Audience.” In 2017, Mr. Arisman was the subject of a retrospective at the School of Visual Arts.

His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other prominent institutions.


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