Copper in the Arts

March 2012

Robert Arneson: Self-Portraits in Bronze

bronze self portrait A-Head with Little Pain, 1991

Photograph courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art

Robert Arneson's Self-Portraits in Bronze opened on on March 1 in San Francisco's Brian Gross Fine Art Gallery. Known for his profound influence on American art in the second half of the 20th century, this exhibition features a rare look at Arneson's self-portraiture in bronze. Working in ceramic, bronze, and paper throughout his career, Robert Arneson (1930-1992) worked extensively in bronze for the last twelve years of his life. Using his own image as a means to explore the human condition, Arneson's bronzes are imbued with his signature wit, satire, and irony. The exhibition will be on view through April 28.

Gary Garrels, in his preface for Robert Arneson: Self-Reflections, SFMOMA (1997), states, "As one of Arneson's great obsessions, self-portraiture reveals the coherence and the tension of his work. In portrayal of self, Arneson often reached his most playful and inventive forms while opening up the starkest appraisal of his subject." Creating hundreds of self-portraits throughout his career, the works included in Self-Portraits in Bronze represent his examination of everyday life, art history, politics, and his own mortality.

In Bowee Wowee, 1982, Arneson placed his head on the body of a dog, putting himself "in the dog house" surrounded by his own excrement. Bowee Wowee is a tongue-in-cheek response to the rejection of Arneson's tour-de-force, Portrait of George, 1981, a commissioned portrait bust of Mayor George Moscone, that was ultimately rejected by the San Francisco Arts Commission. Bowee Wowee is a witty, self-effacing, and bitingly funny self-portrayal.

Starting in the 1990's, Arneson shifted his focus inward, dealing with issues of mortality. Diagnosed with cancer in 1975, the work produced in the last two years of his life reflects his contemplation of illness, aging, and death. Portrait at 62 Years, 1992, made in the last year of his life, exudes timeless immortality. Placing a ghostly white self-portrait bust on a black column, Portrait at 62 Years is reminiscent of Greek and Roman portraiture. Arneson counted the 62 years of his life with hatch marks on the column in sober precision and simplicity.

In the words of Robert Arneson, "I want to make 'high' art that is outrageous while revealing the human condition which is not always so high."


Brian Gross Fine Art, 49 Geary St. , 5th Floor, San Francisco, CA, (415) 788-1050

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