Old Chinese Proverb, 1969. Glazed ceramic, 4 x 3.5 x 4.5 in.

Robert Arneson in the ’60s

The early sculpture of Robert Arneson was the very essence of Funk, a term disdained by most of the artists. But the maker of these irreverent, sarcastic ceramics was indeed the King of Funk. Funk has been compared to Dada, but Dada assaulted traditional art by attacking hypocritical bourgeois values, whereas Funk was not engaged in critical debate. Funk also differs from contemporaneous Pop art because it despised the commercial products accepted, if not glorified, by Pop artists. And, whereas artists like Lichtenstein and Rosenquist made use of traditional high art mediums, many of the Funk artists worked in lowly ceramics. Funk was certainly on the opposite pole of Minimalism, which was the leading art movement at the time. I also believe that Funk art, centered in Northern California, was the last regional manifestation in American art.

In 1961, Arneson threw a bottle on the potter’s wheel, placed a cap on it, called it NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN, and proclaimed that a ceramist could make a non-utilitarian vessel, breaking down, as Peter Voulkos did at the same time, the artificial separation between art and craft. In Sinking Brick (1966), Arneson printed his name on a brick that was made to disappear into a piece of Astroturf. Did he imply that ceramics was sinking?
The earliest piece in a recent show of Arneson’s ceramics (“From the ’60s,” at Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco) was She-Horse and Daughter (1962), which, by resembling the definitely high art of Joan Miró, again questioned the ranking of ceramics. But while Miró had a fine craftsman, José Lloréns Artigas, fire his fabulous clay personages, birds, and exotic plants, Arneson, his colleagues, and his students did all the work at TB-9, their open studio on the UC Davis campus. There, he produced the wildly baroque, black-glazed She Horse. In this sculptural pun, he equips the mythical creature with a horse’s face, human breasts, and a twirling tail. On the creature’s arm, we find a tiny naked fat lady, presumably the goblin’s daughter.