David Zwirner’s recent exhibition of early work by American ceramist Robert Arneson (July 8 – August 9, 2013 at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location) was remarkable in that it felt so fresh and raw though it harkened back to the counter cultural California Funk movement of the 1960s. The work in the show may be more relevant now than in the noisy clamor of its own time. Arneson was integral to elevating ceramics as a valid form of aesthetic expression and this show brought together a grouping of Arneson’s seldom seen early works. The show simultaneously demonstrated the genesis of his unique artistic vocabulary and underscored his tremendous influence on generations of artists working in clay.
Arneson, having made his living as a high school (and sometimes college) ceramics teacher, accepted a teaching position in the spring of 1962 at the University of California’s Davis campus with its anti-formalist faculty. The newly established art program quickly gained a reputation for being a hotbed of experimental and conceptual work. Arneson’s ceramics studio in particular became a focal point of artistic exchange and his students, including Bruce Nauman, would often stay there late into the night.
It was during this developmentally fertile period that Arneson began to experiment with subject matter and to develop his own distinctive iconography with overtly grotesque and often humorous works. His ceramic sculptures possessed a distinctly Funk aesthetic; expressed through an insistence on figurative imagery, non-traditional techniques and materials, and low brow cultural subject matter that was grafted on to the forms of quotidian objects— a West coast modulation of the Pop aesthetic. Arneson’s deliberately taboo and vulgar visual puns challenged accepted notions of what constituted appropriate subject matter both for art and for the medium of ceramics, which at the time was primarily relegated to the realm of crafts.
Throughout the 1960s, Arneson produced highly charged and highly sexualized work that stood in stark contrast to the Minimalist constructions made by his contemporaries in New York. Drawn from public and private collections, the exhibition includes roughly 20 works that clearly show Arneson’s artistic development and also prefigure his later work, which delves even further into the topics of identity and the self, as well as political upheaval and war.
Highlights from the exhibition include several “Trophies,” Arneson’s first cohesive body of work made between 1963 and 1965. These debauched accolades, such as Jack and John (Trophy) (1964) and Sex-Life Trophy (1965), explicitly embody his turning against convention by introducing incongruous and shocking elements such as phallic forms, breasts, and human excrement onto trophies. The toilet series, his next, both expands and literalizes even further this strand of inquiry. In works like Throne (1964), he playfully suggests a double entendre between a toilet (colloquially referred to as a “throne”) and a ceramic object (which is “thrown” on a wheel).
Toaster (1965), which depicts a human hand reaching out of a conventional toaster, represents one of Arneson’s earliest engagements with politics. A swastika emblazoned on the side of the object alludes grimly to Nazi ovens and the inescapable legacy of that horror in our day-to-day lives. Also on view was Arneson’s seminal work Self Portrait of the Artist Losing His Marbles (1965; Collection of the Museum of Art and Design, New York), his first full-scale ceramic self-portrait and a breakthrough in his career. The genre of self- portraiture, which is rife with art historical implications, would preoccupy Arneson for the majority of the 1970s and come to constitute some of his most-known work.
The New York Times review of the show was a tad prissy. It was clear that Karen Rosenburg never got the import of this work, not just in ceramics but more broadly:
Arneson’s Trophies, for instance, corrupt a celebratory object by adorning it with phalluses, orifices and other, more scatological, details. Miniature legs and other body parts sprout from “Sex-Life Trophy,” while “Flush Trophy” (1965) has a tiny squatting figure visible through an aperture in its base. Puerile as they may seem to be, these works have a sly counter cultural agenda; they revel in the baseness and messiness of clay, implicitly rejecting sleeker, shinier and more commercialized art forms.
Bathroom humor becomes even more explicit in “Toilets,” although more cerebral Duchampian pranks are also afoot. The gender-bending “Herinal” (1965-71) has a pair of breasts growing from its pink-glazed interior and generates a playful confusion of inside and outside space (along the lines of Duchamp’s “Female Fig Leaf”).
Also in the show were small sculptures that seem intent on debasing Pop Art. “Pee Cola”(1964) and “Twelve Ounce” (1967) offer unsavory and erotic reinterpretations of Warhol’s Coke bottles. Some, like “Dish With Penis,“ enjoy the vulgarity a little too much. But others, akin to Claes Oldenburg’s papier-mâché sculptures, find moral authority in championing the coarse and the handmade. (published August 1, 2013)
It is does not “debase Pop,” it is anti-Pop, taking everything about the latter that was clean and making it dirty, everything that was slick and making it, not just grubby and handmade, but crudely hobbyist rather than manufactured. Stylistically, Pop took a high road and Funk the low one.
Born in 1930 in Benicia, California, Robert Arneson received his B.A. from the California College of Arts & Crafts (1954) and his M.F.A. from Mills College in Oakland, California (1958). Arneson remained on faculty at U.C. Davis until 1991— just one year before his death. He has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1974); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1974); the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1991); and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (1992). His work has also been shown in seminal group exhibitions including Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1968) and the Whitney Biennial (1979).
Garth Clark is the Curator and Chief Editor of Cfile.
Installation view of Robert Arneson’s early work at David Zwirner Gallery, New York, July 8- August 9, 2013 at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location
Robert Arneson, Goldfinger Trophy, 1965
Robert Arneson. Left: Love Trophy, 1965. Right: Flush Trophy, 1965
Robert Arneson, Herinal, 1965-71
Robert Arneson, Call Me Lover, 1965
Robert Arneson, Toaster, 1964
Robert Arneson, Dish with Penis, 1970. Glazed ceramic mounted on board.
Robert Arneson. Left: Love Trophy, 1965. Right: Flush Trophy, 1965
Video about Arneson at David Zwirner
For more work by Robert Arneson Visit George Adams Gallery