Arneson, Robert Carston

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Arneson, Robert Carston

(b. 4 September 1930 in Benicia, California; d. 2 November 1992 in Benicia, California), ceramic sculptor and leader of the 1960s San Francisco Bay Area “funk art” movement.

Arneson was born to Arthur and Helena Arneson in Benicia, a small town approximately twenty-five miles northeast of San Francisco. Encouraged by his father, who was a draftsman, Arneson began drawing at an early age. As a teenager, he sketched comics that often featured super-heroes or football players in heroic roles. At age seventeen Ameson’s cartoons, which depicted highlights from local sports events, were published in the local weekly newspaper, the Benicia Herald.

After graduating from Benicia High School, Arneson attended the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. He studied art and, ironically, received a grade of “D” in his ceramics class. By the spring of 1951 Arneson had transferred to California College of Arts and Crafts in nearby Oakland, where he received a partial scholarship to study commercial art. Although he took a brief hiatus from his art studies for a semester, Arneson returned and graduated in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in art education.

Arneson soon began teaching high school art just outside of San Francisco. In 1955 he married Jeanette Jensen; they had four sons. Because ceramics was required for the high school class curriculum, Arneson enrolled in a local pottery class and started reading ceramics magazines. By the spring of 1956, his skills in clay had improved and Arneson was confident enough to take ceramics classes at San Jose State College and at California College of Arts and Crafts.

As his abilities developed, Arneson began to think of ceramic art as “sculpture” rather than just pottery. Excited by the nonutilitarian potential for the craft, in 1957 Arneson enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Mills College in Oakland. Arneson received his M.FA. degree one year later and in 1959 began teaching high school students again while also devoting time to his art. Influenced by the ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos, who also rejected the traditional notion of making craft objects from clay, Arneson produced works with no functional design. He was invited in 1960 to show his work at the Oakland Museum.

By the early 1960s many American artists were using elements from popular culture as inspiration for their art. Artists like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol incorporated commercial images and techniques to reflect the rise of mass media’s dominance in American culture. In 1961 Arneson sculpted the work No Deposit, No Return, a clay bottle topped with an actual bottle cap, relating his work to this contemporary movement.

In 1962 Arneson had a one-man show at the M. H. De Young Museum in San Francisco and began teaching at the University of California, Davis, as assistant professor of art and design. At the university Arneson taught with other important contemporary artists such as William T. Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud. For his next significant exhibition in 1963, “California Sculpture,” at the Kaiser Center in Oakland, he contributed a ceramic sculpture in the form of a toilet, entitled Fun John. The sculpture was rejected by the museum’s administration. This piece was emblematic of the fledgling San Francisco Bay Area “funk art” movement, which rebelled against traditional good taste with wit and satire. By the mid-1960s “funk” functioned as a reaction to the predominant abstract expressionist and pop art movements by incorporating lively colors and imagery with humor and narrative content. Arneson also introduced technical innovations, such as new glazing methods, into the vocabulary of his work.

Upon receiving a grant from the Institute of Creative Arts at the University of California, Arneson spent 1967 in New York working on paintings. One year later his sculpture Typewriter was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s show “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage.” In 1968 he received a teaching promotion at the University of California, Davis, and his work was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York in 1970. While Arneson’s professional career was thriving, his personal life was experiencing major changes. In 1969 a fire nearly burned down his house, and in 1970 Arneson and his wife divorced, with Arneson receiving custody of their four sons. Hence, Arneson decided to take a sabbatical leave from teaching in 1970. He then switched his focus to ceramic portraits and employed different mold-making techniques. In 1971 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and in 1973 he wed Sandra Shan-nonhouse, a sculptor; they had one daughter. In 1974 Arneson received artistic recognition when his career was highlighted in a retrospective exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.

After being diagnosed with cancer in 1975, Arneson moved back to his hometown of Benicia, where he continued to develop self-portrait sculptures and portrait busts of artists. He received another grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978, which allowed him to travel to France, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland.

In 1981 Arneson was selected to create a portrait bust of the assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone. The resulting commission featured a colorful ceramic bust on top of a pedestal inscribed with text and images that referred to the deceased politician’s life. Because some of this mentioned specifics of the mayor’s murder (including a Twinkie that referred to the murderer’s “Twinkie defense,” mock bullet holes, and drips of red paint that implied blood), the sculpture was rejected and Arneson was criticized for his artistic choices. After this incident Arneson began to explore the social and political potential of his art.

In the 1980s Arneson became concerned with the threat of nuclear holocaust and produced sculptures that addressed the horrors of such a war. These pieces led to other works that dealt with Americans’ fears regarding military power. At the same time, he also fabricated drawings that appropriated colorful stylistic elements from Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock. Arneson received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1985, and another from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1987. In 1986 Arneson’s career was again recognized in a retrospective exhibition compiled by the Des Moines Art Museum in Iowa. This show traveled to Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon.

Throughout the 1980s Arneson intermittently battled cancer, a struggle that was examined in several of his last series. Working in bronze, the artist fashioned images of spiritual waste and bodily decay. Although these works caustically depict the trials of chemotherapy, the sculptures maintain Arneson’s signature element of humor and retain a witty, rebellious quality. Arneson succumbed to liver cancer at his home in Benicia on 2 November 1992.

From early in his career, Arneson overturned traditional methods of working in clay. His ceramic sculptures proved to the art establishment that clay was a medium worthy of fine art discussion. A major figure in the San Francisco-based funk art movement, Arneson remained somewhat of an iconoclast in later years, never following current art world trends. Through his many creative investigations, he always asserted the importance of subject matter in art. His sculptures proved to be some of the most significant contributions to the field of ceramics in the twentieth century.

Many catalogs of Arneson’s work have been published in conjunction with museum exhibitions of his art. Neal Benezra, Robert Arneson: A Retrospective (1986), features an in-depth review of Arneson’s life and career. Robert Arneson (1986), which accompanied an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., also features examples of his work. Tom E. Hinson, Robert Ameson: Portrait Sculptures (1987), and Steven A. Nash, Arneson and Politics: A Commemorative Exhibition (1993), focus on important aspects of his work. Nancy Moore, California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media (1998), devotes a section to the San Francisco funk art movement and Arneson’s role in the history of California art. Many articles highlight Arneson’s career and discuss his artistic choices, including Donald Kuspit, “Arneson’s Outrage,” Art in America (May 1985): 134–139. An account of Arneson’s work with emphasis on his last series of sculptures is Robert C. Hobbs, “Robert Arneson: Critical Clay,” Sculpture Magazine (Nov.—Dec. 1993): 20. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (4 Nov. 1992) and London Guardian (10 Nov. 1992).

Renee Coppola