Robert Arneson was born in Benicia, California, in 1930. He studied at the California College of the Arts (then the California College of Arts and Crafts) receiving his BA in 1954 and his MFA in 1958 from Mills College. Arneson became head of the ceramics department at the University of California at Davis in 1962 and a full professor of art in 1973. He received honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Art Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design, and awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the American Craft Council. Arneson has had numerous gallery and museum exhibitions including solo-shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, both in 1974, and a 1992 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. The artist is in the collections of many august institutions, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The artist died in Benicia, CA in 1992.
Arneson's work rejects the idea that ceramic artists produce only utilitarian or decorative items. He began creating non-functional clay pieces, contradicting the more formal traditions previously associated with this medium. He created a number of self-portraits using photographs, mirrors, and drawings; each one seemed to reveal a new identity. Although by definition self-referential, the ironic and humorous self-portraits were used as vehicles to present universal concepts and feelings. Arneson was part of the dynamic group of irreverent California Pop artists whose work has come to be known as "Funk Art." After the artist became ill with liver cancer in the early 1980s, his work became progressively more somber in tone. Arneson's own confrontation with death made him aware of society's flirtation with mass destruction.
Arneson's paintings and sculptures are in collections around the world including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Chicago Art Institute, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Kyoto, Japan, The U.S. Embassy in Yeravan, Armenia, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.