Robert Arneson (1930-1992) was born and raised in Benicia, CA, where he lived and worked for most of his life. An interest in cartooning led him to enroll at the nearby College of Marin and after, the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he earned his BFA. After a few years teaching art at local high schools, Arneson became increasingly interested in ceramics and enrolled at Mills College to study with sculptor Tony Prieto. By the time he graduated with his MFA, traditional ideas on the relationship of ceramics and art were changing. The work of artists like Peter Voulkos was challenging the limitations of the medium and while Arneson had trained as a potter, he soon began experimenting with sculpture. His first solo exhibition in 1960, at the Oakland Museum featured organic, expressionistic forms, however the work that followed became more figurative and grounded in ideas rather than aesthetics.
In 1962, Arneson was invited to start a ceramics program at the University of California, Davis, where artists such as Roy De Forest, William T Wiley, Manuel Neri and Wayne Thiebaud would become his colleagues and in many cases, close friends. The program at Davis was experimental, the art department having been created only a few years previously and there was a sense of collaboration between the professors and students, who included David Gilhooly, Bruce Nauman, Richard Shaw and Deborah Butterfield. It was in 1963 that Arneson began a series of sculptures of toilets, crude and often vulgarly satirical renderings of, what he later referred to as, the “ultimate ceramic.” At that point he already had begun moving away from abstraction and was experimenting with the pop object. Bottles, later trophies and plates, typewriters and toasters, were given similar treatment to the “johns” and sported fingers and toes, breasts and penises along with inscriptions and decorations which subverted the idea of traditional and utilitarian ceramics.
With his appointment at UC Davis, Arneson moved to the town, where he lived in a tract house near the campus on Alice St. The house itself eventually became a source of inspiration, leading him to produce a series of drawings, models, plates and eventually a several-foot long model of his home and the plot it was set on. Besides the monumental scale of the piece, its vivid and naturalistic colors echoed his shift towards more ambitious and figurative sculpture. Though his work continued to be experimental and his subject matter wide-ranging through the end of the 1960s, inclusion in a number of critical exhibitions, the Funk show at the Berkeley Art Museum and the ICA Boston in 1967-68; Objects: USA which toured nationally from 1969-1971; and the Whitney Museum of American Art Annual Exhibition in 1970, began to garner him national attention as an artist at the forefront of California ceramics. The crude humor of the earlier “funk” works was becoming more serious and refined, morphing into the incisive verbal and visual puns which became an enduring and defining theme of his work for the rest of his career.
By 1970, Arneson had begun to experiment with self-portraiture as a vehicle to examine the human condition. He recognized that he had the freedom to “poke fun at myself,” and his own image was as much a medium of his work as the clay itself. As a mark of his growing success, Arneson’s first retrospective was held in 1974, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Art. The next year however, he was diagnosed for the first time with bladder cancer, prompting surgery and an on-going struggle with the disease which would plague him the rest of his life. This in part prompted a shift Arneson’s work, as he branched out into portraiture more generally, including of friends and family but also crucially, of other artists. A growing consideration of his own place in art history lead him to pull from the life and work of Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Philip Guston and ultimately Jackson Pollock for subject matter. He eventually completed multiple portraits of each artist, however Pollock in particular was a source of fascination for Arneson and in a reversal of his own self-portraits, Pollock eventually became a subject through which he could in turn examine his own identity as an artist.
In 1981, a series of negative critiques forced Arneson to re-evaluate his work, yet actually emboldened him to engage with highly charged subjects such as politics and race relations. Always a fine draftsman, drawing was part of Arneson’s practice throughout his career; but following his return to Benicia in 1976, and especially after 1982, his two-dimensional work had gained the complexity and sophistication of his sculptures. He had begun working with the Walla Walla Foundry to produce bronzes in 1980 and going forward, worked equally between all three mediums. The first such series is a searing indictment of nuclear proliferation, and bodies of work critical of Reagan, racial inequality and the Gulf War occupied him for the next ten years. Arneson retired from teaching at UC Davis in 1991, only to discover soon after that his cancer had returned. Faced with his own mortality, he returned to self-portraiture in what is some of his most poignant and introspective work before his death in 1992.
Arneson exhibited widely throughout his career and is recognized as a key figure in the re-consideration of ceramics as a sculptural medium. His work can be found in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Cleveland Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan; and the Australian National Gallery, Canberra. He has been the subject of several traveling retrospectives, in 1974, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; in 1986-87, organized by the Des Moines Art Center and posthumously in 1993, at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.