Born in Benicia, California, Robert Arneson almost singlehandedly transformed ceramics into a major contemporary medium. In the early 1960s, he became a member of the Funk Art movement, a California style of Pop-Art focusing on absurd images of everyday objects. In the 1970s, he began using humorous portraits as subjects, and his memorial portrait of San Francisco’s assassinated Mayor George Moscone was very controversial because it included references to the assassin.
As a young man, he was a high school art teacher, who was assigned the teaching of pottery making and, becoming intrigued by its possibilities, he stayed just a step ahead of his students. Within a few years, he realized that clay was his medium, but he did not view it in the conventional way of making pots. He wanted to explore the organic and functional qualities of the material itself, and in this approach, was influenced by Peter Voulkos.
He gave his pieces ironic titles and incorporated graffiti, giving him an opportunity to play whimsical games with the work. In the 1970s, he began using humorous portraits as subject matter, sculpting his friends, heroes, and himself–all with ironic comments on the human condition. His works also became increasingly larger, making them a combination of sculpture and ceramics, and with his introduction of colored glazes, he was part of a generation that integrated painting and sculpture.
For many years, Arneson taught at the University of California-Davis, where he influenced many young artists. He died in 1992 from a long battle with cancer that had begun in 1975. This ill health darkened the tone of his clay works, and many of them took on issues such as nuclear war, assassins, and society’s victims.
Selected Solo Exhibitions
1960 Oakland Art Museum
1962 M.H. De Young Memorial Museum
1962 Barrios Gallery, Sacaramento, CA
1963 Richmond Art Center
1964,1969 Allan Stone Gallery, NY
1964 University of California at Davis
1964 Cellini Gallery, San Francisco
1967 San Francisco Museum of Art
1968-77 Hansen-Fuller Gallery, San Francisco
1969,70,71,72, 74,75 Candy Store Gallery, Folsom. CA
1970 Fresno State College Art Gallery