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Luce Foundation Center for American Art

Sculpture: 20th century: 35 Year Portrait
Robert Arneson

Robert Arneson

(born Benicia, CA 1930 -- died Benicia, CA 1992)

“Busts are always so proper . . . too idealized, just so dull looking. I want [the bust] . . . to get you right back and make you stay your distance.” Robert Arneson, The Oakland Museum, January/February, 1987

As a child, Robert Arneson aspired to become a sports cartoonist, and when he was seventeen, contributed a weekly cartoon to the local newspaper. Arneson studied to become an art teacher and worked in watercolor until he discovered the ceramics of Peter Voulkos. Arneson began working in clay, making comic self-portraits in which he showed himself smoking a cigar, dressed as Santa Claus, or with his fingers up his nose; he also made portraits of friends, fellow artists, and politicians. In the 1960s and 1970s, Arneson was a leader of the funk art movement of Bay Area artists who focused on the absurdity of everyday objects. Many of his sculptures offer visual puns and sarcastic observations, and depict toasters, urinals, and bottles of soda. Late in his career, Arneson applied his dark humor and biting sarcasm to address political issues. With titles like Holy War Head and General Nuke, his sculptures of devastation and human carnage warn us about the consequences of nuclear war and the arms race.

Image Credits: © 1982 Mimi Jacobs; Courtesy Mimi Jacobs Papers, Archives of American Art.