A Troublesome Subject: The Art of Robert Arneson
By Jonathan Fineberg: University of California Press, 2013
Hardcover, 270 pages. 11.25 x 8.75 inches
Two artists in California transformed ceramic art in post-WW2 America, Peter Voulkos did this for the vessel and Robert Arneson for figuration. Arneson was the father of the clay Funk Movement of the late 1960s, which launched a scatological assault on the ceramic figure that most, in art as well as craft (where ceramics was usually consigned at that time), found shocking and tasteless. Like Voulkos, Arneson’s work has long deserved a great book and this, finally, is it.
Jonathan Fineberg enters this minefield by explaining 20th century American culture through a meticulous look at Arneson’s career and not vice versa. The lavishly illustrated book makes a compelling argument that Robert Arneson is an artist of international importance, not “merely” an important ceramic artist, but Fineberg takes care to detail Arneson’s ceramic techniques in relation to specific works and exhibitions.
In five chronological chapters, which have titles like On Narcissism, 1970-1981 and On the Outskirts of Self, 1981-1986, Fineberg takes us through Arneson’s rise from high school pottery teacher to professor of ceramics in the art department at UC Davis in California to international art figure and his engagement with Funk Art, Pop Art, and Abstract Expressionism. Fineberg explores the controversial and political nature of Arneson’s work and emphasizes that those threads weren’t dropped when Arneson found his subject: self-portraiture. For Arneson, self-portraiture included his own psychology but also the crisis of narcissism that emerged in America in the 1970s, which hasn’t shown any sign of abating. In the introduction to the book, Fineberg defines the overarching “Troublesome Subject” in this way,
Robert Arneson articulated in his work the disorganizing plenitude of the unconscious, his unconsciousness, and simultaneously exposed both the remembered past and the world. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we live in a “society of the spectacle,” [Guy Debord’s concept] inclined to see the world in terms of the constructs of culture rather than as givens of nature. It is not that people, generally speaking, no longer recognize the distinction between illusion and reality, but rather than they are indifferent to it…Arneson is among the first artists to parse, in form, the ironic detachment that characterizes this world view.
Amy Albracht is a General Editor at CFile.
Cover of Robert Arneson: A Troublesome Subject by Jonathan Fineberg
Spread of Robert Arneson: A Troublesome Subject by Jonathan Fineberg
For more work by Robert Arneson Visit George Adams Gallery