Robert Arneson: Serious ideas behind that humor

By Mike Sintetos

His instantly recognizable Egghead sculptures dot the campus. But the man behind the art is known for much more than a few bald heads.

Robert Arneson, a UC Davis faculty member for four decades, was also at the forefront of a movement that took ceramic art in a new direction.

When Arneson came to campus in 1962, ceramic art forms were mainly "art" versions of traditional pottery shapes — pots, vases, plates and tiles.

But starting in the 1960s, Arneson and several other California artists abandoned the manufacture of functional wares in favor of using everyday objects to make confrontational — and to some, offensive — statements. The new movement was dubbed "Funk Art," and Arneson is considered the "father of the ceramic Funk movement."

Arneson, who died in 1992 after a long battle with cancer, used toilets, typewriters, soda bottles and other common objects in his work, which included both ceramic sculptures and drawings. Autobiography also played an important role in Arneson's art. He appeared in many of his own pieces — as a chef, a man picking his nose, a jean-jacketed hipster in sunglasses. Even his Eggheads bear a self-resemblance.

Autobiography in clay

"Bob's work was autobiography," said Seymour Howard, an art history professor emeritus who wrote a book on autobiography in art. "That's how he talked, that's how he looked, that's how he was."

Arneson's widow, Sandra Shannonhouse, invites people viewing any Arneson work to look beyond what seems to be "edgy, naughty or funny."

"He used humor to draw the viewer into the piece, but there was usually much more going on," she says.

Consider George and Mona in the Baths of Coloma, 1976, an Arneson work now found in the Stedelijk Museum collection in Amsterdam.

"It was made to celebrate the American Bicentennial," Shannonhouse says. "It is a portrait of George Washington as seen on the dollar bill with Mona Lisa and comments on a number of political, social and economic issues."

In collections across the country and world

Arneson's fame is far-reaching, and his works can be found in public and private collections around the world.

The public can find his work in, to name just a few places, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Chicago Art Institute; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kyoto, Japan; the U.S. Embassy in Yeravan, Armenia; and closer to home, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

At UC Davis, of course, there is plenty of Arneson art to enjoy. The Nelson Gallery owns 70 of the artist's works, including The Palace at 9 a.m., which can be found on the lower level of Shields Library near the government documents. The 70-square-foot earthenware sculpture, a depiction of his former Davis residence, is considered among his most famous sculptures. Several of his etchings and lithographs are also on display in the library.

And then there are the Eggheads — seven of them in all — that invite deeper thinking than first impressions might yield.

"I've been surprised by how people think they're so much fun, because I've always seen them as a very sardonic view of the university," said UC Davis art historian Jeff Ruda.

Eggheads among his last works

The Eggheads were among the last works Arneson completed before his death. The last of the Eggheads were installed on campus in 1994.

Shannonhouse said the campus Eggheads are "editions" — that is, you may see the same pieces reproduced elsewhere, since they are actually owned by the Arneson estate.

"Bob had been asked by Chancellor Ted Hullar to propose a public work for campus," Shannonhouse said. "When the committee wanted to do all five of the proposals, but did not have nearly enough money to pay for them, Bob proposed that he sell them to UC Davis for the cost of making them, with his estate able to edition the pieces and so make other castings. That is why there is a Yin & Yang piece on the Embarcadero in San Francisco."

The piece that caused an uproar

Arneson has also garnered his share of infamy. He was thrust into the national spotlight in 1981 when he was commissioned to make a commemorative bust of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who had been assassinated, for the new Moscone Convention Center.

Arneson titled the work Portrait of George. On the pedestal supporting the bust, Arneson added five bloody bullet holes and other references to the mayor's 1978 assassination. The piece caused an uproar in a city that was still grieving the loss of its popular politician. Ultimately, the city arts council rejected it, and a private collector later purchased it.[Portrait of George is now owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.]

Art historian Howard, a professor on campus at the same time as Arneson, described his work as "naughty," and with a "very sharp edge."

"It could be kind of raw," he said.

Arneson was born in 1930 in Benicia, Calif., and grew up in a working-class family. He studied art education at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and received a master's degree from Mills College in 1958. Much of his early inspiration came from fellow California artist Peter Voulkos.

When Arneson came to UC Davis in 1962, he was hired as an art teacher, beginning part time in the design program in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and part time in the art department in the fledgling College of Letters and Science.

Also teaching drawing and graduate seminars

In a few years, he became a full-time teacher in the Department of Art, mostly teaching ceramic sculpture but also giving classes in drawing and the graduate seminar on art. He became a full professor in 1973.

Art history professor Ruda, who crossed paths with Arneson occasionally, said the artist was a complex man.

"I thought he had two different levels," Ruda said. "On one, he was obviously bluff, frank, outspoken, totally unpretentious. A fairly sociable kind of guy. But I also had the feeling that he kept his mouth shut about deeper things and didn't just say the first thing that came into his head."

An endowed chair in ceramic sculpture, created to honor Arneson in 1997, is held by art professor Annabeth Rosen.

This story was written in 2006 by Mike Sintetos, a former University Communications intern, who graduated in June 2006 with a major in psychology. As of spring 2013, Mike was the renewable energy program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Sacramento.

Supplemental content

Robert Arneson: Eggheads artist

See Arneson at work during his 30-year tenure at UC Davis.