Spotlight: Robert Arneson (American, 1930-1992), Floating Brick (Landfall Press), c. 1970.

Robert Arneson (American, 1930-1992), Floating Brick (Landfall Press), c. 1970. Lithograph (Edition: 500), 8 ¾ x 11 ½ inches, Franco Collection, Auburn University at Montgomery.

Catalogue entry by Ron Blaesing

Floating Brick, c.1970 is by American artist Robert Arneson (1930-1992). Arneson was born in Benicia, CA and educated at the California College of the Arts, where he received a BFA in Arts Education, and Mills College, where he received his MFA. Arneson is best known as a sculptor and ceramicist, as well as being one of the originators of what came to be known as “Funk Art.” This style of art was born out of a technical proficiency in ceramics joined by found objects and an irreverent flair that first manifested while working as a cartoonist before attending college. 

In 1962, Arneson was hired by the University of California at Davis to develop a sculptural ceramics department where he aimed to establish ceramics as a legitimate form of fine art and not just craft. It was during this period that Arneson attempted to break from his usual style and work on more serious art which, due to a kiln accident, led to a promising breakthrough. Using glue and found materials to fix a cracked ceramic bust, he had strayed from what was considered to be acceptable practice by traditional ceramicists. This became a regular practice for Arneson to the extent that he “would regularly insist that his students build something, destroy it, and then rework it in order to free them from a sense of preciousness about the materials.” (Fineberg, 275)

Robert Arneson, Self-Portrait, 1975. Terra cotta, 2 3/4 x 8 11/16 x 4 1/4 inches, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; the Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection

Arneson’s Bricks were part of an evolution in his sculptural works that took the form of everyday objects, but instead of repurposing them, as many had done before, he recreated them in clay with an absurd and surrealist twist. In the mid 1970s the terra cotta bricks that Arneson was producing, first as single pieces and essentially three-dimensional sketches, grew into larger and more complex sculptures built out of numerous combinations of his own constructed bricks.

Floating Brick is a lithograph printed made on handmade paper at Chicago’s Landfall Press in an edition size of five hundred. The work measures approximately 8 3/4 x 11 1/2 inches. It is a two-dimensional representation of one of his own terra cotta bricks, labeled “BRICK,” and floating in a river current with an industrial scene in the background. Though known primarily as a sculptor, Arneson’s roots were in illustration and he had taken great care in developing his skills with ceramic glazes, as if it were paint. In using such delicate handmade paper for this lithograph series, Arneson draws a stark contrast between the nature of each incarnation of this ubiquitous object.

Sources:

“Brick,” https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.2002.191

“Robert Carston Arneson, 1930 – 1992,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Arneson

Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, by J. Fineberg, (3rd ed., Prentice Hall/Pearson, 2011), 275.

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