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
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
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.
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
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.