Robert Carston Arneson

(American, 1930–1992)


, 1982
Glazed ceramic, 48 x 31 x 15 in.
Museum purchase, 1984.27


Although he worked in many media (including painting and printmaking), Robert Arneson is perhaps best known as the most important ceramic sculptor in the field. He mixed a sense of humor and a strong, political point of view in his body of work. Robert Arneson began his career as a cartoonist for the Benicia (California) Herald newspaper while he was a high school student. He was a student of ceramics in the middle of the twentieth century, when artists working in clay were rejecting the limitations of making strictly functional pottery forms; artists such as Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner were exploring the possibilities of making sculptural form out of clay, instead of stone, bronze, wood, or the materials traditionally used to create sculpture. Arneson jumped right into this new approach to ceramics, but he avoided the purely formal, Modernist concerns favored by Voulkos and introduced figurative traditions and political commentary into his work.

Minuteman was Arneson’s commentary on America’s militaristic agenda during the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan. Arneson gives a very critical assessment of the enormous amounts of money being spent on military hardware at the expense of other social imperatives and obligations. He very cleverly presents this message in famously and infamously patriotic symbols: the cross is reminiscent of the purity of the white cross grave markers in Arlington National Cemetery, but charred; the burned appearance loudly proclaims the very real consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. The title Minuteman refers to the soldiers during the Revolutionary War, but it was also the name of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (which is shown in this work). The cross has implications derived from Christianity regarding martyrdom and self-sacrifice, and the severed head on the cross recounts a very brutal tradition used to intimidate and demoralize the enemy throughout history and across cultures. A brief side note: Arneson’s studio was covered in mirrors and he often modeled for self-portraits, casting himself in the role of subject in his commentaries. While this work is actually a self-portrait, it is meant to stand for “every man” and their possible role as victims of Minuteman missiles.

Arneson manipulates clay to create a three-dimensional form by using additive and subtractive techniques. The cross form is constructed using slab construction, and then the Minuteman missile is incised into the surface. The plasticity of the medium allows the head to be easily formed and altered, portraying the physical trauma associated with violence. Words and phrases are incised into the head as well, the text driving home the anti-war message of the work. The painterly approach Arneson takes in the surface decoration of the head on Minuteman is characteristic of his work and clearly demonstrates his skill as a colorist.

Arneson’s career as a ceramic artist had an erratic beginning: as an undergraduate student at the California College of Arts and Crafts, he received low grades in his ceramic studies and critic Elena Natherby called his early attempts at ceramic sculpture in the abstract expressionist mode “mastodon droppings.” After becoming a high school teacher, his appreciation for wheel-thrown ceramics increased as he provided his students with instruction in the form. His skill increased significantly and he studied with Anthony Prieto at Mills College, receiving his Masters of Fine Arts degree in ceramics in 1958. From the start of his career, Arneson had an awareness of the importance of the work of Peter Voulkos and the abstract expressionist influence on the world of ceramics, but his attempts to fit into this mold were unproductive. He began teaching ceramics at University of California-Davis in 1962, remaining there until his death in 1992.

In 1961, while demonstrating the potter’s wheel at the California State Fair, Arneson threw an unremarkable bottle form. He capped it with a bottle lid and stamped “No Deposit, No Return” on the sideand the first seminal moment in his career occurred. He infused traditional ceramic form with a high art “Pop” sensibility that elevated the dialogue regarding ceramics. This was seen as an inevitable next step in development of ceramics and an immeasurable leap in Arneson’s career. What followed were three decades of work that were definitive California Postmodernism. Arneson displayed a funk art sensibility in his "John" series, based on what he called the “ultimate ceramic”the toilet, which were ceramic, but without art historical precedents other than Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist Fountain of 1917: Arneson insisted he created a toilet, while Duchamp “unmade” a toilet, and this semantic conundrum strikes at the heart of much debate about the nature of art in the twentieth century. He incorporated touches of Surrealism in his work, such as Typewriter, where the keys are made a woman’s fingers, complete with erotically-charged, red-enameled fingernails.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Arneson began working predominately in portraiture and referencing art history. He created portrait busts of Picasso, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston, Francis Bacon, and, of course, himself. He did this without losing his satirical edge although his irreverence was saved for himself; he treated other artists with humility, while using his own countenance for commenting on the role of the artist as anti-heroic. Politically, Arneson’s themes became darker and carried an air of gravitas that they were perceived to be lacking earlier in his career. This apparent change in tone is sociopolitical and personal: much of Arneson’s work of this time deals with themes of nuclear war and American militarism, and he was dealing with the life-threatening cancer that would eventually be the cause of his death. As his health declined and the physical exertions of working in clay became too challenging, Arneson’s long-standing gift as a draftsman resurfaced and he produced a large body of paintings, drawings, and prints of such outstanding quality that they threatened to overshadow his achievements as a sculptor.

Iconoclastic from the start, Arneson stubbornly clung to his satirical themes when the prevailing current of the art world was towards a formalist approach. Considered immature and a provincial for years by many critics in the New York art world as an artist of great promise but without intellectual mein and vision to be truly great, clever but not profound, Arneson and the art world eventually reached an uneasy accommodation of each other. Arneson said: “… 'humor is a problem in art' and whenever you get involved with humor, people take it personally and become offended. But you can’t not offend anyone in dealing with tragedy. I am willing to do it, and take a lot of horseshit from the critics for doing it. Yes, it is sophomoric, but I am sure much of our young culture is sophomoric. Should I be beyond that?”