mr. robert arneson, california artist

“california artist” robert arneson

 

This is a story about a double murder and the artist Robert Arneson (among many other things) and Arneson’s evolution as an artist and his big moment of fame. It’s one for the ages. On November 27, 1978 Dan White, a disgruntled former San Francisco city Supervisor (akin to a city council person), entered San Francisco City Hall through a side window. White intentionally avoided the main entrance and the metal detectors there because he was carrying a .38 with ten rounds of ammunition. He made his way to the office of Mayor George Moscone. They had an argument. The Mayor had recently refused to reinstate White to his seat as a city Supervisor. White asked the Mayor again to be reinstated. Again, the Mayor refused — mainly for political reasons. They argued some more. (White had resigned his seat in frustration over perceived corruption and due to financial pressures. His supporters lobbied him to change his mind and to seek Moscone’s appointment.)

White then shot the mayor in the shoulder and in the head twice, killing him. White then went directly to the office of Supervisor Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay elected official. White shot Milk five times, the last two shots with the gun touching Harvey Milk’s skull. Milk had often clashed with White when they were both on the Board of Supervisors.

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US, seen in front of his camera store on Castro Street in San Francisco, CA

 

George Moscone, Mayor of San Francisco, January 1976 - November 1978
George Moscone, Mayor of San Francisco, January 1976 – November 1978

Subsequently, White confessed he had intended to kill four people that day, Milk, Moscone, Willie Brown and Carol Ruth Silver. In the hours after the tragedy, the president of the Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein, (now Senator Feinstein) became Mayor of San Francisco.

Dan White was a former police officer and he was sentenced to only seven years under a defense strategy that became widely known as the “Twinkie Defense.” In the hours after the verdict, the city erupted in violence. Those nights are known as the White Night riots. Police cars were overturned and torched, and city hall was attacked. Dan White served only five years. Less than two years after his release from prison, he committed suicide.

It was during this period of time that the Benecia, CA born sculptor and ceramacist, Robert Arneson was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission to create a bust of the deceased former mayor, George Moscone. The bust would be unveiled at the grand opening of the new civic center – The Moscone Center. (Where Apple often holds keynote presentations.) A key section of the piece that Arneson delivered was draped in red — the pedestal. Opening night was a grande affair attended by thousands including San Francisco royalty and Moscone’s widow. So much was hidden from view until it wasn’t. See the piece below.

“portrait of george, 1981” robert arneson

What you can’t see on the pedestal, pressed right into the actual base material, is the impression of a gun — among other types of marks, like blood stained bullets, the words, “Smith and Wesson” and the words BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, that reflected on the mayor’s life and tragic ending. It was the pedestal that unleashed howls of pain and outrage. Many were absolutely shocked at Arneson’s piece, but they really should have known better. (Look at his self-portrait at the top of this page.) Robert Arneson was a serious artist peaking creatively and he was a supreme ironist. He couldn’t possibly have executed a “heroic” sculpture which is almost certainly what many were expecting from him. In the ensuing shitstorm, Robert Arneson became hugely famous overnight. The Arts Commission in a craven act of cowardice, refused the work and returned it to the artist. It is now in the permanent collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In the period that followed, Arneson began to think about moral responsibility and political commitment as primary artistic considerations. At the height of his fame, Arneson traveled to the University of New Mexico, where I was a studying art and photography. During his talk he spoke eloquently about his overnight fame and that he now felt a responsibility as an artist to use that fame to tell a different kind of story. An anti-war story. See some of the images below to get a sense of what he wanted to talk about.

 

robert arneson
Robert Arneson is perhaps best known for his work in ceramic, but in the 1980s he produced some of his most powerful work in bronze.  'Nuke News', a witty if gruesome commentary on nuclear war, is inscribed with the names of the physicists responsible for creating the atom bomb as well as epithets, colloquial phrases and the nicknames of the bombs deployed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Robert Arneson is perhaps best known for his work in ceramic, but in the 1980s he produced some of his most powerful work in bronze. ‘Nuke News’, a witty if gruesome commentary on nuclear war, is inscribed with the names of the physicists responsible for creating the atom bomb as well as epithets, colloquial phrases and the nicknames of the bombs deployed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Robert Arneson, “General Nuke”

The first piece is meant to depict a human head that’s been incinerated by a nuclear blast. On the piece above, it’s a little hard to tell, but the pedestal is made up of tiny bodies, again, incinerated from a nuclear blast. Our general needs no explanation.