The Ugly Humors of Robert Arneson


Robert Arneson (1930–92) was an incorrigible provocateur. You might recall his notorious 1981 memorial for slain San Francisco mayor George Moscone: all proud teeth and wavy hair, the larger-than-life bust brilliantly parodies an adman’s dream of affable electability, while the pedestal bears the impression of the type of handgun used to murder Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. Arneson also referenced Twinkies, the copious consumption of which the killer infamously (and successfully) claimed had driven him to kill.

The sculpture was promptly rejected by city officials and now resides in a San Francisco museum, but this mini-retrospective at George Adams affirms that Arneson was a profound knucklehead. On one wall, a brick bearing his name bonks his own life-size ceramic noggin; nearby, the artist pokes his finger into his nose in a four-foot-high drawing. Still, like the underground comics that were surfacing in the Bay Area during the 1960s, Arneson sometimes trained his bristling id on weightier targets. A massive, charred human head rests on a pedestal incised with scurrying rats—Arneson implying the vermin may be the only survivors of nuclear war—in a 1983 sculpture that dominates the middle of the gallery.

Arneson taught at UC Davis, and his repeated use of the phrase “Yasuh” in conversation triggered a clash with an African-American teaching colleague in 1985. Arneson’s apologies went unheeded, and in 1989 he exhibited a series of large drawings, which he described as “hard looking—looking hard—confronting our perceptual awareness and attitudes toward the national dilemma. Racism.” Thus, a black man staring contemptuously through roiling red and yellow scribbles in the five-foot-high painting Yus White and Ugly Man. As usual with Arneson, the image can be perceived in contradictory ways: the oversensitivity of a colleague who wouldn’t accept his apology, or Arneson’s realization that his words could have a truly ugly impact? When the series was first exhibited, Arneson said, “It’s the only thing I can do, and I have to do something. Otherwise, life is hopeless, eh?” The rift was patched up only when Arneson lay dying of cancer.

An aesthete to the tip of his pugnacious nose, Arneson loved sending up art history. A gape-jawed, pointy-eared beast emerges from squiggly shadows in a 1987 charcoal drawing of Jackson Pollock. Arneson clearly identified with the older rebel: A 1986 drawing depicts an overturned car above the lines “JACK SLOW DOWN”/”FUG YOU RUTHHH,” a bit of dialog that conflates two bad boys, Pollock and Norman Mailer. The alcoholic painter was famously killed in a car crash survived by his gorgeous squeeze, Ruth Kligman (“Death Car Girl,” in poet Frank O’Hara’s memorable phrase); the line can also be seen as a jab at Mailer’s decision to allow the publishers of The Naked and the Dead to substitute “Fug!” for the all-hallowed F-word.

Simultaneously sophomoric and sophisticated, Arneson’s still-startling creations offer a wake-up call to any young artist seeking the conceptual sweet spot of offensive beauty.

As in Robert Rauschenberg’s laborious erasure of a de Kooning drawing, passages of structure and decay are preeminent in Linda Matalon’s elementally spare compositions. One untitled piece, roughly two feet across, joins images on three sheets of paper—a pod of heavy black graphite and two pages of tenuous gray lines—with a wax splatter on a fourth, larger sheet. The shift in scale emphasizes the visceral energy, the time elapsed and dimensions traversed, radiating from each of Matalon’s heavily worked-over components. In a diptych featuring a pair of shapes that seemingly converse across the cosmos in the manner of the Big and Little Dippers, erased and scraped-away forms hover indistinctly behind the nebulous subjects, while wax droplets trap light as if in amber. Matalon gets right, in the hard-won magnitude of her smudges, blots, and palimpsests, what Cy Twombly’s flailings never fully achieved: evocative marks that provide both deadfall and fresh seed for generative, expansive abstraction.

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