San Francisco

Robert Arneson

Fuller Goldeen Gallery

Robert Arneson’s sculptures and large color drawings about nuclear war are direct statements of a private orientation toward the subject. He is dealing with his understanding, as a citizen, of a probability that society seems to cherish as ardently as it denies. The subject is vulgar and no fun; it is ugly. Its symmetries—the symmetry, for instance, of a cloud from a nuclear blast—a redull. But the projected spectacle of a world totaled in its own karmic knot is endlessly enticing; it’s the media barrage par excellence (a “bomb,” in common parlance, being both high and low on the scale of public outreach). Gertrude Stein concluded her essay “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” (1946 ) with the prescient remarks that “everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural” As Stein perceived, the machinery itself isn’t interesting, but a common sense about its capability is (or would be if we had it).

Arneson’s approach is natural; he is neither oracular nor shrewd. His conceit—that of registering nuclear catastrophe in memoriam, in an ironically predated hindsight—is a plausible naturalism that he delivers in a lowball, high-affect style with impeccable technique. The works, particularly the bronzes and drawings, are gorgeous, but their sting is no less real. The gallery installation made plain their discreteness; each work had plenty of elbow room and there was no impression of manifesto, no noise to drown out the face-to -faceness of singular address. The show could be seen as an extension of what Arneson had been doing all along. I’m thinking of his early ceramic “toilet” pieces, of his more recent portraits of other artists enmeshed in their own handiwork, and of the astonishing and right memorial bust of San Francisco mayor George Moscone, the rejection of which by the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1981 was a significant denial of the place of accurate personal witness in a public occasion. Arneson has insisted regularly on pulling the wool from the eyes of a public that arguably needs a less obstructed world view. In War Memorial, 1983, a drawing of a severed head amid a whirl of slogans, acronyms, and tabulations, occurs a line that could stand as the motto for Arneson’s work as a whole: “BETTER SAID THAN DEAD.” That feeling of social urgency, to which anyone is accountable, is Arneson’s public message.

As a kind of posthistory history artist, Arneson sees his subject partly in terms of salient, communicable facts and partly as fable, with villains and victims and no heroes save the dead, who even when represented as fragments—bronze-blasted skulls with maelstromlike eye sockets and glyphs of scientific/political slang fossilized in their crowns—retain the inherent dignity of their former wholeness. The most celling of the bronzes is Minuteman, 1983, a head impaled on a cross that doubles as a missile shaft, a self-likeness squished on one side as if struck full force by the logic of the artist’s own contemplations.

As for the hapless villains, the managerial agents of this fix, they are the military men who accept, and conceivably relish, their fate of deploying lethal nuclear commodities, to whatever end. Riveted to this task these guys scream “Fuck! ” to the upper air. General Nuke, 1985, heaves a gut-wrenching grunt to deliver his pay load, the issue of which has already settled beneath him: a column of black, squirmy corpses, mounted like commemorative cannon balls on a granite base. Conversely, the heavily glazed, bestial chiefs of staff in Coo Coo and Dead Serious, both 1984, and Sarcophagus, 1984–85, for all the fierce detailing of their essential natures, are conceptually thin; they can’t be that “other,” that remote. Oddly enough, in the painted version of this motif (Joint, 1984) they appear more accurate and lifelike. The bright, bloody tones of all the drawings recall those of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, 1827 (which might be reexamined as an emblem of millennial necrosis). In the gallery, while peering at Arneson’s hand-drawn “printout” of Nuclear Weapons Effects, 1984, a nice old lady muttered, “Look at all the harm it does!” (I think she’d gotten to the line about how many sheep and cattle would be killed within 700 miles of the hypocenter.)

What if this project of Arneson’s were no big deal—in the microclimates of art and nuclear politics, it both is and isn’t—but a beautiful, honest piece of work? By positing a form of sensible behavior for an artist citizen, and by making it stick with the best language at his disposal, Arneson has done a brave and important thing. At this level, at least, his message is bound to resonate.

Bill Berkson