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Robert Arneson (1930-1992) is known as one of the pre-eminent American sculptors of his generation. Among a wave of ceramic artists in Northern California who bucked the confines of traditional craft techniques in favor of “content,” Arneson transformed the medium, setting a precedent with the complex, figurative ceramic sculptures that define his legacy. Though best known for his work in ceramic and bronze, he also made many works in two-dimensional media, including drawings, prints and paintings.

Arneson was born in Benicia, CA, the Bay Area city where he would later settle. While studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts, he became interested in ceramics, eventually earning an MFA under Antonio Prieto at Mills College in 1958. Arneson took a teaching position at the University of California, Davis in 1962, where he was a highly respected as a professor and community activist; he would remain on the faculty for nearly thirty years. By 1963, he had begun developing the irreverent approach to sculpture which characterized his early work, soon after dubbed: “Funk.” Arneson began using self-portraiture as a vehicle to examine the human condition in the 1970’s and his own image would be a recurring theme for the rest of his life. Other portraits – of friends and artists – followed, culminating in a monumental series around the life and work of Jackson Pollock that constitutes a significant part of his oeuvre. After 1981, Arneson’s output was increasingly politically charged, touching on issues such as nuclear proliferation and race relations. However, near the end of his life his work became more introspective and he eventually returned to self-portraiture in contemplation of his impending death.

Robert Arneson has been the subject of multiple museum retrospectives, and a survey of twenty-seven years of self portraits.  His works can be found in most major public and private collections both nationally and internationally.

Arneson holding Self-Portrait at his 440 First Street studio in Benicia, CA, 1980. Photo: Ira Nowinski.
Arneson in front of salt kiln at TB-9, Davis, CA, 1991.
Arneson in front of salt kiln at TB-9, Davis, CA, 1991. Photo: James Woodson.