Robert Arneson

                                                       Docent Researcher Sabra Feldstein

Artist: Robert Arneson                                            


Date of birth September 4, 1930 – November 2, 1992

Place of birth Benicia, California. Died in Benicia of liver cancer at 62

EducationCalifornia College of Arts in Oakland, California, MFA Mills College 1958

Teaching Career

Arneson studied art education at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, he taught in a local high school, where he became interested in ceramics. He went on to receive an MFA from Mills College in 1958 becoming head of the ceramics department at the University of California at Davis, where he was a professor for four decades.


Major Shows/Galleries        

Arneson's fame is far-reaching, and his works can be found in public and private collections around the world, including the Chicago Art Institute, The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, D.C.), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Kyoto, Japan), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City) and the U.S. Embassy in Yeravan, Armenia. His creations are also at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Florida.

The Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, where Arneson was a faculty member, owns 70 of the artist's works, including The Palace at 9 a.m., the 70-square-foot (6.5 m2) earthenware sculpture, a depiction of his former Davis residence, is considered among his most famous sculptures. Several of his etchings and lithographs also are on display in the library.

Media Sculptor/Painter, clay, bronze and other media

Contextual information

Robert Arneson almost singlehandedly transformed ceramics into a major contemporary medium.  In the early 1960s, he became a member of the Funk Art movement, a California style of Pop-Art Fusing offbeat humor and irreverence with Pop-inspired subject matter, he used everyday objects to create biting satire. By the 1970s, he began using humorous portraits as subjects, and his memorial portrait of San Francisco's assassinated Mayor George Moscone was very controversial because it included references to the assassin.


Arneson was greatly influenced by the expressionist work of fellow Californian Peter Voulkos, who had studied Pablo Picasso's works in clay. This influence stimulated Arneson to be more adventurous and to break through previously established sculptural boundaries. Arneson rejected the idea that ceramic artists produce only utilitarian or decorative items. He began creating non-functional clay pieces, contradicting the more formal traditions previously associated with this medium. He created a number of self-portraits using photographs, mirrors, and drawings; each one seemed to reveal a new identity. Although by definition self-referential, the ironic and humorous self-portraits were used as vehicles to present universal concepts and feelings.


After Arneson became ill with liver cancer in the early 1980s, his work became progressively more somber in tone. Arneson's own confrontation with death made him aware of society's flirtation with mass destruction. Two decades before he died, Mr. Arneson wrote about what he wanted to happen when his end came. He said he wanted his body glazed, fired up to 2,000 degrees ``and when it's cool, roll me over and shake out my ashes. . . . Make a glaze and color it bright.''


In 1981, Mr. Arneson -- who loved to outrage and amuse people and to ``reveal the human condition'' -- was involved in the biggest furor of his career when he created a ceramic bust of Moscone, which was to be the artistic centerpiece of the then-new Moscone Convention Center.


The city's Art Commission rejected the piece after a controversy erupted over the sculpture, which depicted the assassinated mayor's grinning head on a pedestal. Mr. Arneson covered the pedestal with words and images, including some of Moscone's favorite sayings -- ``Duck Soup'' and ``Is Everyone Having Fun?'' -- and phrases dealing with Supervisor Dan White's 1978 City Hall assassination of Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.


San Francisco art dealer John Berggruen, whose gallery represented Mr. Arneson, said the artist ``had a sense of whimsy. There was always something mischievous about his art. People said he liked to poke fun.'' He added that Mr. Arneson's work, which was his consuming passion, demonstrated ``an almost humanistic vulnerability'' toward the world.



Often Mr. Arneson used his own face as the subject of his art.

Barbara Gibbs, director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacarmento, said that ``by primarily using his own image as the subject of his work, he was able to express a frustration with the human condition in behalf of all of us.


``He felt that human beings don't seem to make much progress on Earth. His was a protest born out of love,'' Gibbs added.

Although plagued since 1974 with cancer, friends said Mr. Arneson worked actively until his death. In 1991, he did a painting entitled ``Wimp Dip'' which showed a cringing George Bush doused with crude oil.


“Bob Arneson believed that art should interact with everyday life. He wanted art that regular people would understand and enjoy.”