Born in Benicia, California in 1930, Robert Arneson resided for many years in his beloved home city on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. From an early age, Arneson showed great promise as an artist with pencil drawings and he also excelled painting watercolors. Initially, Arneson hoped to become a cartoonist focusing on sports, and his comics were published on a weekly basis while he was still in high school.
Yet after earning a BFA at California College of the Arts and an MFA from Mills College, both in Oakland, Arneson began working as a high school ceramics teacher and went on to spend 30 years as a professor of ceramics at UC Davis near Sacramento. In the 1960s, inspired by modern ceramicists such as Peter Voulkos, Arneson established his identity as an artist by making non-functional, clay sculptures of everyday objects. These early works include colorful plates, trophies, toasters, typewriters, bottles, and even toilets.
A Master of Self-Portraiture
By the 1970s, Arneson’s subject matter shifted and he became heavily devoted to the self-portraits for which he is most famous today. These self-referential sculptures and paintings were often humorous, irreverent, and even vulgar on the surface, but, above all, they express Arneson’s interest in the alternately poignant and absurd human condition. Along with such California artists as Ken Price, William T. Wiley, and Roy de Forest, Arneson is considered one of the progenitors of the Funk Art Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout the 1980s, Arneson shifted his artistic focus in a more politically satirical direction.
After a long battle with cancer, Arneson died in 1992 at home in Benicia. Arneson’s ceramic sculptures and other artwork regularly achieve high prices at auction and can be found in museums and private collections all over the country, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.Contact a Specialist View all Artists/Makers