The work of one of America’s great sculptors, Benicia’s Robert Arneson, comes to Saint Mary’s College.
Photograph by Kurt Fishback
It was the biggest scandal ever to strike the Bay Area art scene. In 1980, the San Francisco Art Commission had hired renowned ceramist Robert Arneson to sculpt a bust of the late mayor George Moscone for the lobby of the newly opened Moscone Center, and the piece was making a lot of people unhappy. The image of the mayor was cartoonish, featuring a crooked-toothed politician’s grin—but that wasn’t the problem.
Most of the uproar swirled around the pedestal supporting the bust. It was decorated with bullet holes, a reference to Moscone’s 1978 assassination. It also displayed provocative references to Harvey Milk—the openly gay supervisor who was killed with Moscone—and Dan White, the former supervisor turned assassin.
The sculpture enraged the city’s political establishment, including Moscone’s successor, Dianne Feinstein, who said the bust was inappropriate and ordered the commission to reject it. The incident made headlines across the nation, and the bust was removed. The people who commissioned the piece from Arneson, an East Bay artist known for irreverent and sometimes controversial work, shouldn’t have expected anything less.
“He did not strive to upset people,” says Arneson’s widow, Sandra Shannonhouse. “He did think it was the place of art to pose questions, be they formal, social, whatever. He often said that he used wit and humor to draw the viewer into his work, and then, for those who bothered to look, there was the second punch.”
This month, Arneson’s works are featured at Saint Mary’s Hearst Art Gallery in Moraga as part of UC Davis’s traveling You See exhibit. The show focuses on art created by UC Davis faculty members, including Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, and Wayne Thiebaud, as well as Benicia-born Arneson.
Arneson, who was born on September 4, 1930, started drawing at the age of six, learning from cartoons and comic books. He later drew cartoons for the Benicia Herald while attending Benicia High.
He went on to get a degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and then took a job teaching art at Menlo-Atherton High. The curriculum at Menlo-Atherton included two ceramics classes, a medium in which he had little experience—he had received a D in the lone pottery class he took in junior college.
Teaching piqued Arneson’s interest in pottery, and he enrolled in the graduate program at Mills College. He studied with Antonio Prieto, a highly regarded Spanish potter, and also began to notice the work of Peter Voulkos, the founder of the ceramics department at UC Berkeley and the first sculptor credited with elevating ceramics and pottery to the level of fine art (before, it had mainly been considered a craft).
Arneson went on to teach at Fremont High in Oakland and then at Mills. During his free time, he often hung out at Voulkos’s ceramics workshop in Berkeley, and his work began to take on more abstract, surrealist qualities.
In 1961, Arneson made a breakthrough while putting on a demonstration at the California State Fair in Sacramento. Instead of doing the usual bowls and vases, he made a clay beer bottle. He attached a clay bottle cap to it and labeled the piece No Deposit No Return. He put the work in a show the following year, and it was, in his words, “lacerated by the critics.”
|Courtesy of Sixth Street Studio|
Despite the work’s reception, No Deposit No Return marked a shift for Arneson. It was his first exploration into a new genre, funk art, which came out of the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and the pop art of Andy Warhol.
“Funk celebrates the lowbrow and sneers at highbrow A-list stuff, but in a sloppy way,” says David Gilhooly, who was a student and later a colleague of Arneson’s at UC Davis. “Pop celebrated the [lowbrow], but in a very neat and refined and well-done way. They abandoned traditional subject matter, but we abandoned the craft, too.”
Funk art pieces referred to items from everyday life and often illustrated a self-deprecating humor. They were, in essence, funky. It was the perfect art form for Arneson, the former cartoonist. His sense of humor is evident in his description of the creative process behind Funk John, a ceramic toilet complete with clay feces in the bowl, created for a 1963 exhibit at the Kaiser Center in Oakland. (It was subsequently removed from the exhibit because it offended the vice president of Kaiser Industries.)
“I was thinking about [ceramics in Western culture] one day while I was taking a crap in TB-9, and my old knuckles knocked on the pot and I said, ‘Hey man, you’re on it. This is it,’ ” Arneson told the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. (TB-9 refers to the building that housed his studio and classroom at UC Davis, where Arneson was hired to teach in 1962.) “So, I actually pursued that, and I made a toilet. I cut myself loose and let every scatological notation from my mind flow freely across the surface of that toilet. … I had finally made Bob Arneson.”
After Funk John, Arneson would end up exerting a huge influence on the art world as a teacher. A number of talented artists came to study and work with him at TB-9, including Gilhooly, Peter Vandenberge, Chris Unterseher, and Margaret Dodd.
“We started working from very early in the morning until late at night, making things and all sharing our experiences,” says Gilhooly. “This happened pretty much every day and continued on until the mid-’70s, when Arneson started mainly working in his Benicia studio.”
Arneson also met Shannonhouse at TB-9. They married in 1972 and moved back to Benicia in 1976, in part because Arneson wanted his children (he had four sons from a previous marriage, and in 1986 he had a daughter with Shannonhouse) to grow up in the small-town setting that he did.
“He wanted his sons to experience a small town, to have the opportunity to walk on the shoreline, build forts in the anise weed–covered lots, and daydream,” says Shannonhouse, who still lives in Benicia.
This environment also influenced Arneson’s work. Living in the university town of Davis, he had been part of a politically aware community. According to Shannonhouse, when Arneson returned to Benicia, he was “appalled” by the lack of awareness in his hometown, and he set out to change things, often using the human form to convey his message.
“Bob’s studio interests solidified to the use of self-portraiture, and sometimes portraiture, to probe the human condition and its comedy and tragedy,” she says.
During this period, Arneson’s work became increasingly political, and he created what are arguably his two most famous works, the Moscone bust in 1980 and California Artist in 1982. California Artist is a self-portrait, from the waist up, of Arneson in sunglasses and an unbuttoned denim jacket. Once again, he made a statement with the statue’s pedestal, which he decorated with clay beer bottles and a painted marijuana plant.
“He made it in response to an East Coast art critic who said, in response to an exhibition called Ceramic Sculpture: Six Artists, that ‘nothing interesting was going on under the California sun,’ ” says Janet Bishop, the curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where California Artist is part of the permanent collection. “He was being utterly audacious in calling the piece California Artist and putting forth all of the stereotypes of West Coast life.”
Arneson continued to live and work in Benicia until his death from cancer in 1992. He created many more works in those years, including his Desert Storm series, a set of politically charged drawings inspired by the first Iraq War, which included Oily Bush, a portrait of then-president George Bush soaked in oil, and his Egghead sculptures, a series of large white sculpted heads installed on the UC Davis campus. Still, in a way, California Artist sums up his career: Funk was a true California art form, and Robert Arneson was a true California artist.
You See: The Early Years of the UC Davis Art Faculty, May 3–June 22, Hearst Art Gallery, Saint Mary’s College of California, 1928 Saint Mary’s Rd., Moraga, $3, (925) 631-4379, www.stmarys-ca.edu/arts.