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Robert Arneson 1969
Robert Arneson


While putting up the pages for David Gilhooly's site I (Camille Chang, David Gilhooly's wife) thought it would be a "good thing" to put up pages for each of the artists who worked in TB-9 during the so called Funk Ceramics years. I wanted to have an accurate site on what was happening in TB-9 from about 1960 to about 1976. I felt that this information should be available for students writing papers and maybe teachers who needed to see images.

I have researched books, several websites, catalogs from different shows, magazine and newspaper articles and talked extensively with David, emailed the artists about those years at TB-9 and I thought that at least the information in the books would correlate. Except for vital statistics and dates of certain pieces, they don't. I understand that interpretation of work will vary from source to source, but I had no idea that certain "facts" could be so subjective. In talking with David, I would occassionally challenge him and ask, "Were you actually there? Because this book, here, says something completely different." And I secretly wondered if it was just a memory lapse. We would then consult slides, catalogs of the shows, newspaper articles and David's CV materials and come up with a dated and chronological order of discoveries (such as clay formulas) or work. David would often say, "I was working on piece X at the same time Bob was working on piece Z." We would find the slide of David's work and then be able to date Bob's. Or he would say this piece was in such and such a show and we'd consult the show's catalog and then try to find a picture of the piece with the date. But it bothered me that printed materials (books) contained erroneous material or did not correlate.

Even when doing original research by writing, calling, or emailing people who were actually there in TB-9 during the 1960's and 1970's, facts didn't always agree, but I expected that. I didn't expect printed, often scholarly writing to be incorrect.

So, why am I telling you this? Because even if a book has an extensive bibliography you shouldn't take the information too seriously. If you don't have a chance of being accurate by doing original research, how can you hope to do any better using a library or the Internet? This is only going to get worse as time goes on. And really, what do we actually know about the life of Bach or Michelangelo or even John Lennon? Who did the authors of their biographies talk to when they were doing their research? Biographies are subjectivebecause people are subjective and by people, I mean the authors, the subjects of their biographies, papers, articles, websites and the people they interview to find out about their subjects. People carry with them their own pasts, their own likes and dislikes, and their own interpretations of cause and effect. It's all about viewpoint!

I'm resonably sure about the dates on these pages. The chronological order of images is accurate to the year. No attempt was made to place pieces within a certain year in order by month, so you won't really know which pieces came first within a given year. Interpretation is mine, I'm people too. Mostly, look at the images. Think of the text as filler; something to do while you're waiting for the images to download and as way of getting a very shallow impression of what the work may be about. Notice the dates of the work and try to understand what was happening during that time period in the United States. Most of this happens in the mid-1960's to mid-'70's where shock value and anti-establishment seemed important, the Vietnam War, The Beatles, New Wave Music, Punk were all happening. Get some other resources together and mainly look at the images of the work. It's the work that counts, so find as many images as you can. If you can see some of the work in person, that's even better.

For what it's worth

Robert Arneson (1930-1992) was born in Benicia, California, northeast of San Francisco. In high school, he seriously began to consider a career as a cartoonist and contributed a weekly sports cartoon to a local newspaper. He studied at the College of Marin, Kentfield, California, from 1949 to 1951 and received a B.A. in Art Education from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in 1954. While teaching art in a Bay Area high school he became a proficient potter (He signed his pottery "Arne"), keeping at least one step ahead of his students so that he could teach them. He enrolled at Mills College where he earned his M.F.A. in 1958. After extensive experience as a teacher in several California high schools, working as an assistant to Tony Prieto at Mills College, and teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College (1959), Bob accepted a teaching position at the University of California at Davis in 1962.

During a demonstration at the California State Fair in the summer of 1962, Boblink to image set 01 threw a stoneware clay bottle, capped it with a clay bottle cap, and labeled the bottle No Deposit, No Return. It looked like a short, fat, old Canadian beer bottle, about 12 inches high. Although he would occasionally return to the functional form, this gesture closed the door to functional ceramics and transformed clay from a crafts media to an aesthetic one while emphasizing a shift from the influence of his teacher, Tony Prieto, to the artistic sensibilities of Peter Voulkos and John Mason. He would do a number of versions of this piece including bottles in six-packs.

Emil Mrak (yes, Mrak, not Mark), the chancellor of the University of California at Davis at the time, happened to see one of these demonstrations and the budding art department gained a huge supporter. Davis was primarily an agricultural college with an art department that was spread out in a number of buildings around campus under the direction of the Department Chairman, Richard Nelson. With too few art students to support the entire Art Department staff, many of the staff were officially teaching in the College of Agriculture in the Design Department which was in the Home Economics program. Through careful planning and direction, Nelson was able to build an innovative art department year by year and bring together a group of largely unknown teachers and students who would later become well known artists.

Thus, Bob was added to the roster of teachers at Davis which by this time included Wayne Thiebaud, William Wiley and Roland Petersen who was considered the most well known of the faculty at that time.

When he first came to Davis, the now famous TB-9 (temporary building-9) had only one room for clay. A small part of the building was for sculpture which included Ralph Johnson's traditional sculpting classes and Tio Giambruni's bronze casting facility. The rest of the building was the police department, the sign painting department and most of all a storage area for experimentally canned peaches and tomatoes. Bob worked at his Alice Street home until the sign painters moved out.

Bob's first important works at UCD were female torsos wearing bras and girdles which were cast in bronze. Influenced by Abstract Expressionism and in an effort to become distanced from the traditional vessel form, he used stoneware for making pots which, when taken off the wheel, were rolled on the floor, beaten, pushed in or otherwise abstracted. These led to the stoneware trophies, his first funk ceramics at UCD. It is important to remember that akin to wood with it's link to image set 02alluring grain and warmth of color, high fire stoneware has its own almost classical beauty. The medium is inherently anti-funk. Stoneware has a high iron content which bleaches out bright colors like red, yellow, and orange. Obscenely bright colors are achieved at low fire temperatures. Bob's desire to use color in his work led to the refiring of the high fire stoneware at low fire temperatures using low fire glazes thickly applied on the clay body. Enamel paints were also applied to add color to the work.

The use of stoneware posed other problems. Bob made some stepping stones only to have them blow up in the kiln. He added vermiculite to the clay which also blew up. It wasn't until 1965 that he would use low fire earthenware. Low fire earthenware didn't have the classic beauty that stoneware had and the formula that was developed had a white body (half kaolin and half talc with 30 mesh silica sand added for "roughage"). It looked cheap even after firing and was difficult to throw. It was common, like funk, but a vast pallete of color was now available because of the commercial craft glazes that could be purchased at any ceramic hobby store. With Peter VandenBerge's suggestion of adding perlite to the clay body, it became possible to make absolutely anything as thick as desired without having the piece blow up. (Note: Clay was also used as a craft medium. People could go to a store and buy a cast animal or object already made. They would smooth off the casting marks (fettles), have the piece fired and then glaze the piece with ready made glazes. Commercial glazes made life easier in TB-9. Prior to being able to use these, glazes were had to be made by the artists for the stoneware body using highly toxic chemicals.)

The subject matter of Bob's work drew from Pop Art during the mid-1960's. Common, almost banal objects were formed from clay in the lumpy, organic,link to image set 03 sexual, style that had become Bob's. These objects were often anthropo-morphed with body parts as in the typewriter and the series of toilets. Armed with punning titles, the humorous veneer of his work often wore thin to reveal hostile, sneering comments on everyday life and the objects and people in it. This attitude would become more pronounced in the work toward the end of his life.

Some of the first pieces Bob made with the new clay were large, cabbage-sized roses that sat on the floor. These later evolved into large press molded pots of flowers in 1967. Sometimes the pots would be three-dimensional with flattened flowers. The visual pun, a pot with the flowers painted on the side of the pot came from this series. After the roses, came a series of large coins that hung on the wall which featured the artist's head rather than an eagle. From there it was an easy transition to the plate form. (Note: The plate form is interesting in that plates have always been a time honored form for clay and while the potter had the opportunity to show case his draftsmanship by painting or scratching into the plate, it always remained functional.) At UCD, the plate form was used as a way to frame a painting in glaze or sculpture if it hung on the wall or to make the sculpture presentational if it sat on a table. The plate form had the limitation of being fairly flat so many of the TB-9 artists turned to the the lidded pot which lifted the piece while still celebrating the traditional functional role of clay. The cup form was also used, but as a more or less casual exercise in the use of a traditional form for artistic purposes.)

In 1968, Bob went on sabbatical for a year in New York. He came back with paintings of 1303 Alice Street. This was the address of the house he and his family lived in in Davis and was the subject of a series of pieces prior to his year in New York. He appeared to have lost his creative way while in New York and retraced his steps by going back to stoneware to produce a series of sexual teapots and by recreating objects familiar from his past such as the bricks and teapots. He made his way back to the plate form in 1970 to produce a series of plates of food in his new studio in Benicia while in tandem making cast porcelain pieces in TB-9.

The Funk years of Bob's career mark a spontaneous, almost careless use of the medium. link to image set 04His use of shocking, almost insulting imagery, grabs the viewer's attention and contributed to the re-evaluation of clay as an artistic medium. By 1971, the mature pieces Kiln Man, George and Mona in the Bathes of Cologne and The Cook, a self-portrait (later to be renamed Smorga-Bob) were being produced. The work had became very carefully crafted, often monumental and realistic with a classical approach; very un-funk, while retaining its sneering and cynical aspect.



Bob 1974

Revised 22 January 2008