New York

Robert Arneson


Robert Arneson’s late bronzes erase any lingering doubts that he may have been nothing but a glorified ceramist. Testaments to the cancer that eventually destroyed him, all of them are remarkable for their courage as well as for their artistic power. Most explicitly recalling the photographs by which Hannah Wilke bore witness to a similar illness and early death, they also possess the resonance of Ross Bleckner’s more oblique homages to those lost to AIDS, though melancholy never gets the upper hand in Arneson’s work—no matter how wasted his body, his famous wit and humor never fail him.

As is his usual practice, in these late works Arneson plays hard and fast with traditional sculptural models, taking on the portrait bust in Chemo 1 and Chemo 2 (both 1992). These works are major expressionistic statements, as innovative and moving as Willem de Kooning’s figurative sculptures from 1972. The bases are adorned with Arneson’s familiar graffiti, which in these works stoically document his case history. The small work Offering, 1992, shows Arneson manipulating the heroically freestanding figure to brilliant effect—it is stretched to its ironic limit. A maquette for a larger sculpture, Offering is tragic in more ways than one: it not only shows Arneson in his physical and emotional nakedness but testifies to the artist’s resolution to make nothing but life-sized, full-figured cast sculptures until his death.

In A-Head with Little Pain, 1991, Arneson is at his punning best, while Wolf Head, 1989, reflects his fascination and identification with Jackson Pollock, to whom he devoted numerous works and drawings, which were at times intimate, at times heroic in scale. It is as if, for Arneson in California, Pollock became a point of emotional reference and idealization, a model from which Arneson constructed his own heroic stance. These works, with their peculiar mix of unflinching self-recognition and violent rebellion against fate, set a new standard for figurative sculpture.

Donald Kuspit