A Tribute to
Robert Carston Arneson

1930-1992

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Robert Arneson Park in Davis

Born in Benicia, California in 1930, Robert Arneson was encouraged by his father to draw. He became a proficient draftsman early in life and drew cartoons for a local newspaper as a teenager. After 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. Arneson became head of the ceramics department at the University of California at Davis in 1962 and became a full professor of art in 1973.

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. Arneson was part of the dynamic group of irreverent California Pop artists whose work has come to be known as "Funk Art." After the artist 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.

THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

November 4, 1992

Column: OBITUARIES

Sculptor Robert Arneson Dies of Cancer

Author: Susan Sward, Chronicle Staff Writer

Robert Arneson, an internationally known sculptor whose controversial bust of Mayor George Moscone was rejected by the San Francisco Art Commission more than 10 years ago, died Monday of cancer in Benicia. He was 62.

Born in Benicia, Mr. Arneson attended public schools there. He received a bachelor's degree at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1954 and a master's degree in art from Mills College in Oakland in 1958.

In 1962, he began teaching art at the University of California at Davis and continued in that position until he retired last year to work full-time in his studio.

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.

CARICATURE

At the time, Thomas Albright, the late Chronicle art critic, wrote that in a general way Mr. Arneson was aligned ``with contemporary writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Robbins or William Burroughs, who present a view of life that often resembles a caricature or cartoon. This is basically what Arneson has done in his representation'' of Moscone.

Rene di Rosa, a Napa Valley grape grower and friend of Mr. Arneson, recalled that Mr. Arneson felt that the controversy around the Moscone bust ``was politicized. In that piece, Bob was setting out to state the facts of politics in a work of art.''

Talking about Mr. Arneson's impact on the art world, friends and acquaintances praised the humanity and humor in his work.

Di Rosa, who owns 39 of Mr. Arneson's works, said, ``I saw Bob emerge from an artist reviewed in craft magazines because he was working in ceramics to an artist who could work in whatever idiom he wished. He was capable of amusement and humor in art, and that is rare. Bob would be ever so pleased if a person burst out laughing when they saw a piece of his.''

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.

HIS OWN IMAGE

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.

With the passage of time, Mr. Arneson built a reputation that was international in scope. In recent times, some of his medium- size bronze busts have sold to museums and private collectors for between $60,000 and $65,000.

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

In the past few months, Mr. Arneson was working on a series of bronze egg heads, some of them upside down. When his friend di Rosa remarked to Mr. Arneson that the figures were upside down, di Rosa said Mr. Arneson replied: ``That's the world. Isn't it upside down?'' Two of those egg head sculptures are now at UC Davis.

VISION OF DEATH

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.''

Mr. Arneson is survived by his wife, Sandra Shannonhouse, of Benicia, and five children -- Leif, Kreg, Derek and Kirk by his first wife, Jeanette Jensen, and a daughter, Tenaya, by his second wife.

A private memorial service is planned.

The family asked that donations in Mr. Arneson's memory be made to either the Benicia Public Library Art Book Fund, 144 East G St., Benicia, Ca. 94510, or the Robert C. Arneson Graduate Student Fellowship, c/o UC Foundation, 540 Mrak Hall, UC Davis, Davis, Ca. 95816.

 

 

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