WHETHER OR NOT YOU'RE FAMILIAR WITH THE NAME MARSHALL ARISMAN, CHANCES ARE YOU'VE SEEN HIS WORK. HIS VISCERAL EDITORIAL ILLUSTRATIONS HAVE APPEARED IN NEARLY EVERY MAJOR MAGAZINE IN THE LAST THIRTY YEARS. BUT BEYOND BEING ONE OF THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE ILLUSTRATORS IN THE WORLD, ARISMAN'S MULTI-FACETED CAREER TAKES ON MANY OTHER DIFFERENT AVENUES: FINE ARTIST, STORYTELLER, AND CHAIR OF WHAT IS ARGUABLY THE GRADUATE COURSE ON ILLUSTRATION AT THE SCHOOL OF VISUAL ARTS. NIGHT WATCHMAN HAD THE PRIVILEGE TO TALK SHOP WITH THE LEGEND THAT IS MARSHALL ARISMAN.
Night Watchman: I wanted to thank you for sending me copies of the documentary [Marshall Arisman: Facing The Audience] and your CD of stories [Cobalt Blue]. They were just amazing!
Marshall Arisman: I thought sometimes they raise questions. (laughs)
NW: Yeah. It also helps because there is never much information available about illustrators, as far as interviews and things like that, unless you can find something in an illustration or design trade magazine. Itís a shame. There seems to be a real stigma against illustrators, as far as whether or not they are "real" artists. And yet you have been able to straddle the worlds of illustration and fine arts. Do you see a difference between the two?
MA: Not in outcome, meaning that a bad painting on a printed page is equally bad on a gallery wall. I think the illusion for most people who donít know what illustration is, is that they think it is highly directed by an art director who tells you what to do. And my experience in illustration has not been that at all. Art directors, in essence, call me for what I do. So I see publishing as they are trying to use me, and I am trying to use them. Iím trying to take what I do and get it into print, and it doesnít seem to me that the printed page itself is a bastardization of the art process. But that dilemma is an old fight, and itís not over. Itís just a misinformed perception of something; particularly the fine art world, in terms of what that is and how it operates. The art direction I get is primarily emotional. They send me an article, itís about cancer, and basically say to me, "We donít know how you illustrate this." (laughs) "Our hope is that there would be some feeling in this." And thatís the kind of art direction I get. No one has ever asked me to put a suit on anybody or put anybody behind a desk or anything.
NW: Do you think that is because you carved out a niche for yourself?
MA: Yeah. I think in illustration you get work based on what you show people. And if you go out with a portfolio that is an attempt to please everybody, which is a mistake everybody makes-- including me in the beginning-- then you are a pair of hands, and people are hiring a style. And that style, in essence, is to somehow decorate an article. The alternative to that is to show people exactly what youíre doing, and to do it (laughs) whether they use you or not. This is in hopes that if they do give you a job, that theyíre asking you to do what you do. And thatís been my illustration experience. Every gallery Iíve ever had has told me to quit illustration. Theyíve said, "It will ruin your fine art career."
MA: And I think in some ways it probably has. The irony is that I donít do that much illustration. I mean, I do maybe one illustration a month, and I do it because I like the process. Iíve met a lot of writers, Iíve read a lot of books, and Iíve bumped into a lot of situations through illustration that I found interesting. But what happens is people come into galleries and say, "Oh, I know this guy. Heís an illustrator, but I didnít know he painted." And so, I think thatís changing. I see in younger people less of the gallery concern about that than in my generation. But I think itís still there. Itís a little better now because the gallery world is swinging back to narration and figuration, so there are a lot of my graduate students that are showing in galleries as well as doing graphic novels, and I see those as all positive signs. But I doubt it will ever go away.
NW: Do gallery owners feel that the illustration work cheapens your fine art? Is that the concern?
MA: Yeah, itís a perception phenomenon. Their advice is that it would be better if I was a plumber. (laughs) It romanticizes, and thatís what this is all about, right? I mean, we all have these romantic concepts of artists who starve and paint in their garrets. The best definition of this Iíve ever heard was from David Smith, the American sculptor, who said, "Art that meets the minds and needs of other people is commercial art. Art that meets the minds and needs of the artist is fine art." Under that definition, I know a whole lot of fine artists who are extremely commercial who are doing paintings because the paintings theyíve done have sold, and so they do more of them. If you get into Andy Warhol, here you open up a whole other can of worms. Warholís definition of art was that the best art of all was the business of art. And so at a time when there are so many definitions of what fine art is, it all becomes extremely confusing. I also think there are some illustrators who are under the definition of fine artists. I mean, they are doing work for themselves. But thatís the clearest definition Iíve ever heard.
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NW: I graduated from art school two years ago, and when it came time to decide our majors the heads of the Illustration Department were screaming about the death of illustration and how we would all die penniless if we tried to become illustrators.
NW: Just on and on and on. And that death cry has been going on for a long time now, but yet there is still illustration. Is the death of illustration the longest death in history? What is your take on that?
MA: No, my take on it is that there is no question that illustration, particularly editorial illustration, is undergoing a change. I mean, photography, Photoshop, in-house images, and stock illustration have all impacted illustrators. Having said that, I donít see illustration as a profession. I see it as an outlet for figurative artists who want to tell stories. And so I donít ever see that dying. One of the great ironies, I think, is that the need for stories has been a driving force in every other art form except for illustrators who are, in essence, trained to do this theoretically, right? (laughs) So if you take dance or theater, novels, whatever-- movies, in every single other form everybody is searching for a story. The confusion came because Norman Rockwell-- whether you like his work or not isn't important-- that was his vision of the world on those [Saturday Evening] Post covers. Nobody was telling Rockwell what vision to have. But unfortunately for many other illustrators, their vision doesnít come through in their illustrations-- theyíre kind of at service to the article. So in a society that is predominantly verbal as opposed to visual-- and that the power reigns within the editors and not the art directors-- thatís a driving force. So, consequently, illustrators who are not trying to say anything on their own through their illustrations are left with however many jobs are available, and thatís where the death word comes from.
NW: Itís more of a compromise of vision?
MA: Yeah. I see what is as, in some ways, a very healthy time. What I see in my graduate students is a very clear understanding that they can get some work in editorial, yet they are all working on their own projects, whether those are animated films or graphic novels or whatever. It's pushing the illustrator to become the author of their own work, and I think thatís the crucial turn here. The graduate students are living on this. Theyíre not taking secondary jobs. Theyíre actually making a living freelancing, but the number of freelance jobs you have to do are at least double from what we would call the "good old days". The "good old days" were when illustrations ran a full page; average price on a full page in a national magazine was $2,000. Today, if you do a 4" x 5" illustration for The New Yorker itís $500. So youíre going to have to piece a lot of work together to pay the rent. Having said that, if my one illustration a month pays me $2,000 or so, that pays for my studio rent for a month. That illustration takes approximately a week, so there is a pragmatic part of that. And that gives me three weeks to illustrate my own projects, so that seems fair enough.
NW: Something that struck me while watching Facing The Audience and in watching you work, it seems-- and I donít want to cheapen what you do by calling it spontaneous--
MA: No, no! (laughs)
NW: Some people would take that as a slap in the face.
MA: No, no, no. (laughs)
NW: It really seemed like you were into attacking the canvas and making the piece happen right in that moment. And this goes into areas of concept versus technique, but would you rather do three quick paintings to capture the feeling youíre going after, or would you rather work on one painting for three weeks?
MA: Well, itís an interesting and personal thing for me. I paint with my hands. I do that primarily because my hands work faster than my brain. What Iím after in the painting is an emotion. What I canít do is sketch an emotion. To me, sketches are diagrams. If you are dealing with an idea, you can clearly present it in a sketch. If you are dealing with an emotion you would like the viewer to have, I canít do it in a sketch. I can say these words around it, like "emotional eyes" and whatever. But for me, until ten years ago I never did sketches. The deal I made with art directors was that I would give them a finish on their sketch date. If they didn't like the finish, then they didnít pay me. I knew what I was after in the picture, but until I paint the picture I donít know if itís there. And so I think youíre absolutely right. I mean, the issue of spontaneity is very much a part of my process, and I can talk about it forever. But even I donít know if itís going to be there until I actually paint it. The difference between the illustration stuff and my personal work or fine art work is really time. On a two-week deadline I cannot totally explore that picture, and so what Iím calling on, which I call "The Well", is that experience of having worked on a six-foot painting for six months. I found something in it that I can make conscious, and then take that consciousness and apply a piece of it to the illustration. In Picassoís definition this is called "faking yourself". Picasso always felt that he painted a great number of fakes. Nobody intends to, but we all know that when we make many pictures that many of them donít turn out. Those, to Picasso, were fakes. So without being cynical, many of my illustrations are fakes of my fine art, but thatís not a judgment on my part. Itís me just simply knowing that I donít have the time, so Iíve got to go after stuff that I think I can have some control over to some degree.
NW: As long as you can produce something in that time that lives up to the standard of what youíve done before.
NW: Isnít it strange when pieces that you donít like or donít consider to be your best work are the pieces that people really seem to latch onto? Thatís always a strange thing to get used to.
MA: Oh, of course. (laughs) Well, sometimes thatís confusing. (laughs)
NW: You start to second-guess yourself.
NW: Going along with the spontaneity of what you do, in the film there is a lot information about your background talking about your grandmother who lived in Lilydale, which is a community of psychics. Do you feel there is a connection between that mysticism and art? Is creating art the same process as divining something?
MA: Well, I think we get back to intent here. I have numerous fine artist friends whose intent is certainly not to do mysticism or to make magic, but whose intent is to recreate art itself-- to find a new form. My intent, whether I reach it or not, is to make magic. For me, the process of painting is simply a meditation process, and the meditation is to get out of my rational brain; not stay in it in hopes that Iíll find an intuitive part of myself that Iím not conscious of. And so I donít use my pictures to psychoanalyze myself. My mother does that, but I donít do that.
MA: Sure, I think being brought up with a grandmother that was a spiritualist minister, a psychic-- she saw auras, talked to people on the other side, all that stuff-- is not an issue of whether you believe in that stuff, but itís all intuitive. And thatís my hope in making pictures: that I can touch that intuition in some way, even if I canít explain it. And like everything else in life, the more you do that, the stronger the muscle gets. But when I go into a gallery or even look at an illustration-- but in the gallery itís more apparent-- my first question is, "What is the intent of this artist?" Because if I donít ask that question I will bring to bear my own definition of whatís on the wall, and thatís unhealthy because then I donít look at anything and I get pissed off.
MA: Once you ask yourself the intent, then it becomes much easier to look at the work on the wall. And much of the intent that I see on the wall is to make people rich and famous. There is nothing wrong with that, but you have to understand thatís the intent. And I think that illustrators have never asked themselves this question: What is my intent in making this illustration? Because if your intent is simply to do a job, then there is no question that the work will be driven differently than if you have a clear intent. My problem with a lot of student illustrators is that much of this conversation tends to make them think that they have license to do anything. Illustration does require, and no one has ever given me an illustration without giving me something written. Whether itís a song or an article or whatever, itís not my writing. Itís the art director who has decided that my artwork fits this writing. So my first step in illustration is to actually immerse myself in the writing. Most of the writing takes place in places I havenít been, so I have to do a lot of photo reference up front. I mean, I have to learn what Oklahoma looks like again, I have to learn what a frog looks like again, and Iíve got to take that seriously. I may end up with a painting thatís only a head and shoulders, but thatís at the end of a cycle. I see a lot of students who just do these endless things-- a head and shoulders, no reference, no background, no placement, no environment-- and much of that is laziness. Itís not a search for intuition. (laughs) You can say that stuff when you get old.
NW: So itís like a Zen kind of thing? You do all this research up front, and when itís time to put paint on canvas you let it go off of what you donít need for the good of the piece?
MA: Exactly. Because your body absorbs from your brain any information you put into it, and it will hold it. I used to love it because I had this History of Illustration class at the School of Visual Arts-- these were second-year students I was teaching-- and they had come through the same front door for years. So my final exam was to draw a picture of the front door of the school. Nobody got it.
MA: It was amazing! I mean, there were no doorknobs on that door, but people had doorknobs. (laughs) Iíve got to look at pictures to remind myself what the thing looks like. So if people look at their portfolios and you are always ten feet away from the subject matter-- in other words, youíre never going in, youíre never going out, youíre never looking down, youíre never looking up-- somethingís wrong. And an emotional conversation never works with an art director. In other words, if you take in a picture and show it to them and you think this picture clearly expresses the emotion of rape, and the art director says, "I donít feel that at all," youíre in a dead situation. You canít win that argument. You can stomp out, you can think theyíre assholes, but you canít win that argument. In my own paintings the difference is I start a painting wanting to not know where itís going, but I always start with some element that I have photo reference on-- whether itís of a pig or a frog or whatever-- that then can go anywhere in a painting. Thatís not true in illustration. I canít wander like that in an illustration, and thatís why I do all that reference work up front.
NW: You have to have a clearer idea of where youíre going.
MA: Yeah. I have a clearer idea. I canít let the frog become a pig.
MA: Iím not going to win that argument, either.
NW: I wanted to ask you a little about how your life experiences have informed the subject matter of your work. Iím thinking especially about your animal pieces. I know that your brother is a hunter. Is your attraction to animals as subject matter a reaction to that?
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MA: Well, I think it started there. Itís funny, Iím a slow learner. When I was thirty years old I had tried to be a successful illustrator for the previous three years. I had never made over $3,000 in any of those given years, and consequently failed. Now Iím thirty, now Iím looking at my portfolio and thinking, "You know, Iíve been making pictures for other people here. Iíve not been making pictures for me." So I made a list of the things that I actually know something about, and what came up on that list was cows. I grew up on a dairy farm and I had never drawn a cow. (laughs) Deer-- we hunted them, we ate them-- never drew one. Psychic phenomena-- I didnít know where to put that. And guns-- been around guns, whatever. That was my list. Thatís what I had knowledge of. And Iím now sixty-six still working on that list of four. The animal component came in, and Iím still fascinated by it. I actually think that we are animals with a sense of spirituality, so Iím fascinated by animals carrying certain kinds of knowledge. I see auras, so I painted them around people. And then I thought, "Well, animals can be equally sacred." So I painted monkeys with the idea that monkeys carry the knowledge of Asia. Then I painted the cat to carry the knowledge of the Middle East. And then I went on to paint the buffalo to carry the knowledge of Native America. So they are, in my own brain, metaphors, if you will. As time goes on this gets more complicated. At the moment Iím doing a series of what I call "cave paintings", and all the shamans in the caves-- the people who did these drawings-- were trying to move from the material world to the spiritual world, and they all had animal helpers. So Iím now doing a series of humans transforming into animals. Thatís basically what it is.
NW: You mentioned that you can see auras. In the documentary you mentioned that everyone always comes up to you and wants to know what color their aura is.
MA: (laughs) Right. Well, the question usually is, "Is my aura black?"
NW: Thatís art school for you.
NW: When you first discovered that you could see auras did you try to hide it?
MA: Oh, I was terrified. This was over thirty years ago. My grandmother saw auras, so Iíd heard about auras. My grandmother was very good at it. She could see, which I canít, discolorations in your aura, which meant that you had physical problems. So as a game every Sunday my grandmother would say to me, "Does it hurt you if I poke you here?" And I would double up in pain, so I knew about auras. I had a background, but Iíd never seen one. And suddenly, over thirty years ago I saw a man named Krishna Murdi, who was an Indian teacher speaking at Carnegie Hall, and out of nowhere his aura appeared. Itís the only gold aura Iíve ever seen and it scared the shit out of me. I mean, I thought I was having a breakdown. I thought I needed glasses-- whatever. Then another psychic friend said, "Well, now that youíve opened this door, do you want to pursue it?" So he gave me these little exercises to do. It took six months for me to get comfortable with it, and what I realized, because weíre talking about intuition here, is that it is not a metaphysical thing to see auras. I mean, every painting youíve ever seen from every religion depicts auras, and that was not a graphic design idea. In other words, somebody saw an aura and then it got symbolized, but it started in reality like everything else. Every morning I get up and I ask myself how much energy I have, and then I take a bath and put my foot up against the bathtub and look at my aura, and all it tells me is what I already know. In other words, on a low-energy day my aura probably surrounds my foot about a half inch. On a high-energy day itíll go up to six inches. So it really is simply a yardstick for your energy. When people give a speech their heads are a different color than their bodies. All thatís happening there is that the energy in the body has gone into the head because youíre giving a speech. When marathon runners start a race I can see their heads are a different color than their bodies, even on television. In the middle of a race, when runners hit what they call a "zone", their color turns into one color. In other words, they are no longer in their heads; theyíre now in what runners call "just running". So weíve all had these experiences, and seeing auras simply verifies them. And there is something nice about verification. (laughs) Itís a checkpoint of some kind. I didnít use it in my work for many years because I was afraid that they were going to look like bad Indian art paintings on velvet-- those kind of New Age whatever. I did a few and they did look like that. So all those lines in my illustrations that people thought were style driven, to me, they were the secret. They were auras. And then later I actually just started painting them. I thought, "Fuck it."
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MA: The real truth is that I knew if I started talking about it I would bring in a whole group of New Age people, and that I am more afraid of than redneck killers.
MA: I mean, if I do a drawing about somebody in prison, I donít mind getting the letters saying, "Iím going to kill your ass." But I donít want those New Age people on me.
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NW: You said that with your earlier work you would just indicate things like auras with stylistic flourishes. Iím thinking about the Time cover you did about violence with a Francis Bacon style melting of features overlapping.
MA: Right, forms.
NW: Is that something similar?
MA: Yeah, itís an attempt at saying that when you put a gun in your hand it is not you with a gun-- you are actually violence itself. Itís like a runner saying when they hit a zone that they are running itself. Theyíre no longer just Harry running. So the attempt on the Time cover was to simply make the face and the gun the same phenomenon. And Bacon was a major influence on me. In the late Sixties, figurative art-- the fine arts, particularly-- was dominated with no emotion. If you think about Andy Warholís silkscreens of Elizabeth Taylor, there were figurative elements floating around, but they were not intentionally emotional. Bacon was one of the few painters that was living that I could find who was purely emotional to me. I didnít care what they were about. I could feel them, so I kind of read them through my stomach instead of my eyes. And like any influence, if you look at anything itís got to influence you. And when you do that, you are aware. Everyone is aware. That influence is showing up, and then youíve just got to live with the idea that I am not Francis Bacon. Weíve lived different lives, so Iíve got to believe that influence will eventually meld into every other influence, and that whatever jumps out of me will be a composite of all of it. But itís hard, particularly in the illustration world, because people want to categorize. There is nothing worse, as we all know, than to bring in a portfolio and have someone say, "Oh, you must have been a student of Brad Holland or C.F. Payne." Because what thatís saying is that youíre copying them. I mean, we all know examples of people who have copied those people, and itís blatant. Theyíve been doing it for years, and they make money from it. But that and influence are different things, and thatís hard because when you go out with a portfolio youíre right on the front line. Because people donít see subtlety, and they do want to categorize. The easiest way to categorize somebody is to say, "Oh, yeah. Youíre like whatever." So part of that idea, or part of the advice here, is to try and find influences from dead people.
NW: So that nobody knows.
MA: Exactly! Theyíre dead! Shit! So even if they know them itís not the same. (laughs)
NW: As the head of the graduate program at SVA, how do you go about teaching the mysticism of creating art out of nothing to other people?
MA: Well, I go about it by asking everybody to make a list of their knowledge, and I define knowledge as something. In order to have knowledge of something you have to have lived with it, smelled it, experienced it emotionally, seen it visually. And so I ask people to make a list. The problem with that list for most people is that they censor it. For instance, I drink coffee, and it sounds pretentious, but I actually have knowledge of coffee. I shop around for coffee shops, whatever. So if somebody said to me, "Make a picture of a beverage," thatís the beverage I should make, because I feel something for coffee. And so I think thatís where it all starts. It doesnít matter that nothing on your list looks important. I say to people, "Come on, youíve seen things Iíve never seen. Youíve been places I havenít been. Youíve experienced things I havenít. Use that as your subject matter." The hardest thing in the world for any artist, fine or commercial, is to find their subject matter. The only way I know how to find it is to actually make a list of the knowledge that you do have and then try to visualize it. So I might let a drawing of a cup of tea go if it wasnít right, but I ainít gonna do that with a cup of coffee. (laughs) So the pictures get better automatically. I also encourage people to work in series, which is why the graduate program Iím the Chair of is called Visual Essay. Thatís simply saying to someone, "Okay, you like to bowl. Go to the bowling alley and make twelve pictures." The first picture of a bowling alley, youíre probably going to make the obvious one, right? The lines, the lanes, whatever. The second picture, youíre going to start to look around. You canít make that same picture again. So then you may find the shoe store in the bowling alley, and you may drift into the bar of the bowling alley, or you may start to talk to somebody. What youíre doing there is giving some art director a very clear view of how you approach subject matter, and thatís what art directors are trying to find. Itís like, you canít be everything, so who are you? And Iíve found that people call and say, "Well, I donít have anything on a bowling alley, but Iíd like you to take that approach on a baseball game." When David Hockney moved from London to L.A. he made himself the artist of L.A .-- the illustrator of L.A. "Iím going to document L.A. because this is such a foreign country to me. Iíve come out of rain and dark, and Iíve come to this place where everything is clear." I mean, that generated years of work for him. There is no question if you hired Hockney during that period as an illustrator of what you were going to get back. And so to me that seems to be the only place to start. The other issue here is technical. It took me to thirty to admit to myself that I couldnít draw. I was a graphic design major in school, and I realized I didnít like working with people when I got my first graphic design job. (laughs) And so all I knew was that when I was alone and making pictures I was happier than when I was doing anything else. That got me into illustration, but I couldnít really draw. So I developed a style that hid the fact that I couldnít draw. Quasi-cartoony... whatever. I spent a lot of time and energy hiding the fact I couldnít draw. I would put desks in front of people because I didnít draw feet well. I would do all this shit. At thirty I finally admitted that I couldnít draw, so I took a year off just to learn how to draw. But I understood why I was learning at that point. So I drew my room, I drew whatever. I just drew, and in a year I could draw. I still donít draw great, but I could draw a lot better than I could the year before. So then I could start my list and make a whole bunch of pictures about guns, which is what I chose out of my list first. And then it all made sense.
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NW: That was the drawings on violence series?
NW: I read that you had approached Kurt Vonnegut to write the introduction to that book?
MA: Yeah. Itís interesting to me-- Iím one of those people who works on positive energy, in terms of creating. If you beat me, meaning you heavily criticize me or try to demean me or whatever, I donít respond well to that. I want to punch you in the mouth, but I donít want to do better work. The thing about Vonnegut and the thing about illustration is that it's not the illustration itself, itís the side things that pop up. So I did this book, I had forty-five drawings of basically guns, but it was about violence, and everybody said to me, "Youíve got a book." So I went to publishers, and they said, "Oh my God. We canít print this book. Itís too violent." And then they said to me, "If you get somebody famous, maybe, maybe weíd consider printing the book." So I sat down and said, "Okay, of all the people in the world, who would I like to write about what Iím doing?" I had been reading a lot of Vonnegut, and I liked his dark humor. So I got his address from somebody, and I sent him a note with a bunch of Xeroxes of the drawings. So one night the phone rang, and my wife said, "Itís Kurt Vonnegut!"
MA: And he was great. He said, "What do you need? I loved the drawings." So I said, "Well, people are telling me...." He said, "It doesnít need an introduction. But if thatís whatís stopping it, Iíll write an introduction that says it doesnít need one. So go back and tell them that Iíll do the introduction." I did that, and no one wanted to publish it anyway. But for two years I would sent Vonnegut a case of gin, and heíd send me a case of Scotch. It was great! The point of that was I got a great deal of energy from that phone call, so Iím somebody who needs to get energy from things. I donít need... well, Iíd like to make money, but I donít need the money as much as I need the energy. There are times when I need that energy to come from the outside. Those are those little hits, where if I do something for the op-ed page of the Times, on Monday I buy three newspapers. Itís a kick. It doesnít last long, but I need those kicks. I think everybody does. I donít know too many artists who are willing to put all of it under the bed and not show it. Itís about communication. My assumption is that anything I communicate, there may only be two people out there who understand it, but that there are two people out there. I donít see this as being self-examining. It occurs to me that if I felt it other people have also felt it, and thatís the kick. I donít know why anybody buys my paintings. I really donít. I wouldnít want to live with these goddamn things.
MA: I like them in my studio because I donít have to live with it every day. Theyíre not in my living room. I can avoid them. Thatís why I like books, because there are some days I want to look at Hieronymus Bosch, and other days I want to look at Diane Arbus photographs, but not every day. So the problem in painting, particularly when you do seven-foot paintings, is that when somebody buys these damn things you canít avoid them. And so Iím always amazed that anybody buys them. Itís funny, because most of the people who buy my work are shrinks.
MA: Yeah, psychoanalysts. There is one in San Francisco who has three of my huge paintings in his waiting room, and I said to him, "Whatís that about?" And he said, "Oh, itís fascinating. When I have a new patient I leave them out there an extra ten minutes, and then I can start a conversation when they come in by saying, 'Did you look at those paintings out there? What did you think?'"
NW: You know who Joel-Peter Witkin is?
MA: Oh, yeah.
NW: I read that Richard Gere has a nice collection of his photos, and he would test prospective girlfriends by leaving them in a room with several of Witkinís pieces. If they ran out of the room screaming, he knew it probably wouldnít work out.
MA: (laughs) Sure, exactly. Thatís good. Thatís a good use of it. (laughs) One thing that never did occur to me when I was younger was that I would end up spending my life in three different ways. It never occurred to me that I would teach. I thought, "Well, maybe I could teach to make a little income." And then I thought, "Well, this dilemma I seem to have between illustration and fine art will resolve itself, and I will be able to do just one thing." And I realized that over the years the best thing that ever happened to me was to be spread in three different forms. And itís between all those forms that it gets much healthier, that Iíve been able to find different parts of me to go to work in different ways. Thatís been good for me, because I have a tendency to be a hermit. If I wasnít married Iíd never go out. And Iím a workaholic, so if I wasnít married and my wife didnít make me go to dinner parties I would never go to one. In the beginning I blamed her, "I gotta work, I gotta work!" When my wife goes away I work days, I work nights-- I lose my schedule. And I think that rather than that being a good thing for me, itís unhealthy. Itís almost as if Iím so afraid of failure-- but I canít even define to you what failure is, which makes it even stupider-- that Iím willing to work myself to death to prove it. And when I work like that my body goes on much longer, in terms of work, than my capacity to think does, and I get destructive. Iíll paint over paintings, Iíll destroy stuff. I should not be painting. And so the other thing Iíve found that is useful for me is that when I come into my studio on any given day, there are six different things I could do because I work on more than one thing at the same time. So there is a wet painting, there is a dry painting... and part of this is back to the energy, so Iím asking myself, "How much energy do I have today? Do I have enough energy to start a painting, or do I have enough energy to just chill out and paint in a background?" And when I really get stuck I shift mediums. Iíll go do an etching, or Iíll do a woodcut. Iíve found that working on one piece is dangerous, because at three in the morning when you think youíre going to start working on it again you probably shouldnít be. But the alternative is to just keep painting it into oblivion. I donít know if thatís of use to anybody, but work on more than one thing at a time.
NW: The illustrations that you became known for were primarily these dark or violent images, but you donít strike me as the type of person that would ask someone if their aura was black. You seem to have this balance and great sense of humor, and you donít seem to dwell in that darkness. Is the creation of your darker work an exorcism?
MA: Thatís a good question. I think in a way it is. I think in a way there were moments in those dark paintings where I had dug a hole very deep, and it was very black down there and I knew that I had to come out of that hole. But looking back on it I think it was an exploration of my dark side, without question. I mean, these arenít pictures about other people. Theyíre pictures about me, and I think once I had gotten the dark side out I could explore the light side, but I couldnít do them at the same time. And then I began to understand that there is actually a compatibility between the two, and that you donít get one without the other. So in the middle of it there were moments when I was much darker in conversation, and Iím sure even action. The other part of it is [Gustave] Flaubert [French novelist] said something like, "Eat like the bourgeois, dress like the bourgeois, and save your anger for your work." When you get into your intuition the most accessible emotion that any of us have is, unfortunately, anger. It is much more difficult to access love, for lack of a better word. So accessing the dark is easier than accessing the light, and I think during that whole period thatís where I was. In other words, there was an emotion in me that I kept trying to depict, and I did it over and over and over again. In terms of the illustration world, it didn't bother me because I put myself there. It was the drawing book that was my portfolio. I didn't know that at the time, but that's what it was. So it wasn't that they put me in that category. I put me in that category. So for all those assignments that still continue-- the last thing I did was for Texas Monthly a couple months ago, and it was on all those Mexicans who had been trapped in a van with no ventilation, and they died migrating up to America. So people are not going to call me up to paint auras. I know that. So the commercial work I get still tends to go back to that portfolio on violence. People have said to me, "Isn't it weird for you? I mean, here you are painting these animal transitions. Does it bother you to go back? Isn't that going back?" And I said, "This is not a progress idea." It's not like you take a step, take the next step, and you finally reach enlightenment. It's a byproduct. I haven't lost those emotions. I'm less driven by them, but I haven't lost them. So to tap into that thirty years later doesn't seem weird to me at all. It's like going back to an old friend. Because I suppose that's all we're all trying to do, is make friends out of these emotions. Once you make a friend out of it, then it's not as terrifying.
NW: And once you understand one emotion it seems like it's easier--
MA: --to understand another. Absolutely.
NW: You spoke earlier about getting energy from other places. Is that another draw for teaching?
MA: Absolutely. I used to be the Chair of the undergraduate, which is a little more frustrating because there were a lot of people there who didn't know why they were there. But in the graduate school we only take twenty students a year, so it's a small program, but everybody there is positive about giving themselves a chance to explore their own knowledge. That's a positive commune, for lack of a better word. That's a positive atmosphere, at a time when we all know the world is falling apart. We all know that making pictures in the middle of subway bombings is stupid, but having said that, to be in an atmosphere of people who are searching for their own knowledge and trying to say it, that's very energizing to me. So I'm not teaching anybody anything, I'm simply trying to share this. Like everything else in life, there are times when just having a group of artists around you that are interesting and that you trust and are interested in what you're doing is very healthy. It's one of the problems of getting out of art school, which is why I commend you with going on with this magazine. Because most people get out of art school and you suddenly are out of a community and are isolated back home in your bedroom with your parents, rightfully saying they don't understand this. "When are you going to get a job?"
MA: "We want to support you, kid, but Jesus Christ, you're forty now!" That's a lot of pressure, and they can't converse with you about the art no matter how much they want to be supportive. It's like, "Uncle Harry is a nice guy, but he doesn't know shit about design." I think that's why I keep teaching. It doesn't drain me; it's not a source of negativity. It's in fact the opposite, and it's fun. It's fun seeing people make breakthroughs, and we all get energized by it. So that's why I keep doing it. I figure when the day comes when that's not happening, then I'll get out of it.
NW: You donít see that coming anytime soon?
MA: Not yet. I keep waiting, but not yet.
MA: Itíll come... maybe.
NW: Okay, just one last question. This has nothing to do with what weíve talked about today, but itís what we ask everyone. In your professional opinion, do dogs have lips?
MA: Without doubt.
MA: Iíve kissed many dogs. Theyíve all got lips.