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Robert Arneson’s propensity for questioning tactics and breaking rules are distinguishing characteristics in postwar American art. A central figure of the California Funk Art movement, Arneson and his peers were eager to distance themselves from the non-objectivity of Abstract Expressionism, and to embrace an unorthodox and sometimes rudimentary formalism that was both strange and refreshing. Inspired by Peter Voulkos’ unrepentant approach to clay, Arneson rejected the idea that it was a medium of only the utilitarian or decorative. Instead he chose to pioneer a new and unpracticed approach to what was a stalwart of functionality.
Arneson created facetious renditions of household wares, such as his irreverently modified and sexualized teapots, anthropomorphic trophies, surrealist self-portrait-busts, and non-utilitarian pots and bricks. The artist not only advanced the medium of clay—a hero for young and experimentally-inclined clay sculptors—he changed our system of value for what is the humblest of mediums. Arneson was responsible for generating a pivotal impact on one of art’s central roles, that of raising questions in order to change the way we view the world.
Arneson was born in Benicia, California, in 1930. He studied at the California College of the Arts (then the California College of Arts and Crafts) receiving his BA in 1954 and his MFA in 1958 from Mills College. Arneson became head of the ceramics department at the University of California at Davis in 1962 and a full professor of art in 1973. He received honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Art Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design, and awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the American Craft Council. Arneson has had numerous gallery and museum exhibitions including solo-shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, both in 1974, and a 1992 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. The artist is in the collections of many august institutions, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The artist died in Benicia, California in 1992.