CLEVELAND, Ohio — Playing Dirty was the title of the exhibition held at the Allan Stone Gallery, New York (November 1 – December 21, 2012). Many of the exceptional works from show of early work by Robert Arneson are in an auction coming up at Cowan’s (October 28, 10 a.m., Cleveland). This week cfile.library published the Playing Dirty catalog courtesy of Allan Stone Projects. You can see all the lots for the exhibition (which includes early David Gilhooly, Akio Takamori and Lucie Rie) in Cowan’s online catalog.
Above image: Robert Arneson, series of bricks, 1965 and 1969, stoneware. Estimates: $6,000 – $10,000 each
In full disclosure, I have a role in this exhibition in that I authored the essay for the auction catalog and what follows is an edited version. Mark Del Vecchio curated the auction itself:
This rare collection of Funk and post-Funk ceramics, with the most significant group of Arneson works to be offered at auction are from the collection of legendary New York art dealer Allan Stone (1932-2006). He was perhaps more of a collector than he was a merchant and when shows did not sell, he usually bought all the work himself.
Allan Stone was considered an expert on the work of the Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman and Franz Kline as well as their contemporaries John Graham and Joseph Cornell. His gallery was especially known for imposing exhibitions of their work, often accompanied by catalogs for which he wrote essays filled with personal reminiscences and unusual insights. At one point he owned untold numbers of de Koonings and nearly 30 Bugatti automobiles.
While he was an expert on Abstract Expressionism, Stone was increasingly drawn to outsider art, tribal artifacts and was an early champion of the junk aesthetic and super-realist painters. Given his interest in the margins, it was only a matter of time before he was drawn to the Bay Area in Southern California, the rebellious Funk Art movement and, via Wayne Thiebaud, to Robert Arneson.
In the catalog Stone is quoted asking Arneson, during a visit to his home, why was Arneson’s interest then in bronze. Pointing to the toilets, vases and other ceramic objects stored in the garage he said, “forget the bronzes, this is your stuff.” Arneson later agreed. In 1964 he gave Arneson his first solo show in New York, drawn from objects he had seen in the garage and exhibited his art for the next 28 years.
The mawkish, yet erotic mid-60’s vessels are a form of exorcism. Arneson is expelling the pottery tradition and abstract expressionism at the same time, two elements that were powerful influences when he was beginning his career and against which he rebelled. It also suggests a flushing out of certain European Modernism as well, such as the fluid art of Jean Arp, leading to an all-American vision of inverted Pop.
These vessel/sculptures are profound and important works, his Rosetta Stones in a sense, and are necessary for understanding Arneson’s later oeuvre. It captures his approach to clay, an aesthetic that so deliberately lacked overt refinement that many, wrongly, described his style as amateurish. Indeed its squishy fecundity was carefully developed and remained with him through the 1960’s even with his figurative work, until he began his portraits, to exhibit more “conventional” skill with his superb large-scale modeling of busts and other works.
In 1965, in a search for new form and content, he began to make “bricks.” Jonathan Fineberg writes of this in his book A Troublesome Subject: The Art of Robert Arneson (University of California Press, 2013 p.65), noting “The bricks were a burlesque of conventional ceramics; like the toilet it is an ordinary ceramic object that was not normally a subject for art.” The “brick” was the basis for one of his masterpieces and largest works, Fragment of Western Civilization (1972). He worked with this format on and off, sometimes using bricks as a plinth for larger figurative work, into the 1980’s.
Some of the lots on this auction are from his earliest work of this subject, a suite of ten “plain” bricks he made for Stone in 1965 (see above). The largest is Brick Bricks (1965), which is 37 inches in length. In 1969 they begin to change and like zombies from a grave “things” emerge; dead fingers push their way out, a delicate penis appears like mushrooms growing from fertile soil, he makes a mountain of a brick, and a brick out of little bricks.
Arneson’s teapots are extraordinary, their rampant spouts (with roughly carved pubic hair) and other orifices leave nothing to the imagination and they pushed the pornographic button even then. Today they are startlingly lewd.
Their genesis is more profound than one might think given the domestic cliché of the teapot and the coy “naughtiness” of the spout. Teapots were a basis of rebirth. Arneson had become somewhat rudderless, he was taking on everything and yet concerned about a real direction. Amongst other things he wanted to “reacquaint myself with the material” and as Fineberg explains:
“decided to ‘do some of the of the disciplinary projects I was unable to do when I went to art school. One of the problems was to do a teapot and I could never do it. So I tried to redeem myself.’ He made ‘thirty eight teapots in celebration of my thirty eight years… ‘I adorned them with some of my personal styles, testicles or mouth, tongues. I mean just a lot of dumb stuff.’ He finished them up in 1969 and showed them at Allan Stone Gallery in 1969.”
For serious collectors of his art this is a singular opportunity with three early and critical genres of Arneson’s work. Stone did not only deal with Arneson.
He was captivated by the ceramics scene centered at University of California, Davis, where Arneson ran the ceramics department (known to the inner circle as T8-9). Included in the auction are works by those who studied with or were influenced by him. This collection was particularly the David Gilhooly works , early, and charmingly modeled. His Last Supper is particular charming and has no relationship to the Alt-Right meme now circulating.
The second part of the action comes from various collections and is also star-studded with work by Akio Takamori, Anne Kraus, Michael Lucero, Beatrice Wood, Lucie Rie, Bodil Manz, Jerry Rothman, Phil Cornelius, Adrian Saxe, Peter Voulkos and others.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.