Robert Arneson (1930–1992)
Minuteman, 1983
Gift of Sandra Shannonhouse, in memory of her husband, Robert Arneson

The California-based artist Robert Arneson, a ceramics professor at UC Davis, is best known for his pioneering role in the Bay Area Funk Art movement, which reacted to the Abstract Expressionist style then predominant in the art-world establishment with a sensual, “funky” return to figuration. In addition to ceramics, he also worked in paper and, almost exclusively for the last twelve years of his life, in bronze. Minuteman (1983) is a bronze sculpture from this later period and is, like many of his pieces, a self-portrait. It depicts a deformed, mutilated head mounted on a cross, which is engraved vertically with the outline of a missile. The rendering of the head incorporates three circular wounds at left, gashes that might signify the effects of blunt trauma at right, and a shooting target engraved just above the forehead. On the back of the head Arneson forcefully carved words such as “kill,” “butcher,” “slaughter,” human beings,” and “indiscriminately,” as well as a gruesome and chaotic pile of human bodies.

Known for incorporating satire and irony in his work, Arneson explored with this piece the darker aspects of the human condition engendered by war. The cross evokes images of military grave markers, frequently hung with the deceased soldiers’ helmets. Arneson has replaced the helmet with his own wounded head. A product of the World War II and Vietnam War eras, Arneson appears to have been critiquing the role of the United States in perpetuating wartime horrors; the missile engraved on front of the cross and the title may refer to the LGM-30 Minuteman, one of the nation’s nuclear missiles, and the word “minuteman” also recalls the militia of the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps the most arresting element of the piece is the battered head and the emotionally-charged words inscribed on its skull, whose textured surfaces invite the viewer to more closely examine the piece. Arneson discussed his use of words in an interview stating:

I’ve been using words for a long time. It sort of came from early Dada . . . [and] Duchamp. Sometimes there are multiple meanings. Sometimes it’s like a newspaper headline dealing with atrocity. I get a kind of layered effect of the words—it intensifies it. Certain words are universal, maybe “kill” is one of them. If the words aren’t read, then it becomes a texture, adding scarring to the surface. . . . It’s sort of like Oriental painting, with the marks along the perimeter giving it borders. The words then are just graphic elements . . . but it adds a layer of mystery. [1]

[1] Quoted in Robert Carleton Hobbs, Human Rights, Human Wrongs: Art and Social Change (Solon, IA: Museum of Art, Univ. of Iowa, 1986), p. 179.




Listen to Emma Acker, Assistant Curator of American Art, provide her perspective on Robert Arneson’s Minuteman.