Robert Arneson, American, 1930 - 1992
63 1/4 x 17 1/4 x 18 in. (160.7 x 43.8 x 45.7 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Art Today and Robert Fogelman, Dr. Tom Gettelfinger, Wil and Sally Hergenrader, Carla Hubbard, Mickey Laukhuff, Marjorie Liebman, Jan Singer and Zeno Yeates
Object Number: 85.7
Copyright: © Estate of Robert Arneson / VAGA , New York, NY
During his tenure at the University of California at Davis from 1962 until his death of cancer in 1992, Robert Arneson developed one of the most important fine art programs in the world devoted to ceramics. He was greatly influenced by the Expressionist work of fellow Californian Peter Voulkos, who had studied Pablo Picasso’s works in clay. Growing more adventurous from this exposure, Arneson rejected the idea that ceramic art should be only utilitarian or decorative, and began breaking previously established sculptural boundaries by creating nonfunctional clay pieces. Along with his UC Davis students, Arneson shaped a dynamic variation of Pop Art that came to be known as Funk Art. Marked by a spontaneous, experimental treatment of clay, Funk embodied an irreverent, earthy, and carefree style.
Throughout his career Arneson was a prolific producer of self-portraits, each one seeming to reveal another dimension of his identity. Brick Self-Portrait is an abstraction comprised of a column of ceramic bricks, each handcrafted and stamped “Arneson,” at once identifying the artist while using a brick mason’s branding technique to parody the more ornate maker’s marks found on fine china. At the top of the column several bricks balance precariously in a playful progression. The highest brick is the most elaborate, depicting the artist’s eyebrows, eyes and nose. Arneson’s use of brick accents his desire to push clay beyond its traditional ceramic limits, emphasizing rustic strength rather than delicate beauty.
One of America’s most original sculptors, Arneson is often credited with reinventing American figurative ceramics by integrating elements of sculpture and painting within his large-scale, iconoclastic pieces. By fashioning visual puns regarding clay as a fine art medium, Arneson challenged the hierarchies of East Coast art traditions and allowed his followers greater freedom of expression. Brick Self-Portrait exemplifies the attempt to constantly reinvent his practice and defy expectations of what ceramics, and art in general, could do and become.