Vital Piece of San Francisco History Finally Returns Home
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) announced today the acquisition of noted artist Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George (Moscone), 1981, a large-scale commemorative bust of former San Francisco Mayor George Moscone that incited great controversy when first commissioned and unveiled by the city more than 30 years ago.
One of the most powerful works of political art ever created in the Bay Area, Portrait of George (Moscone) represents an important moment in the city’s cultural and social history, as well as a turning point in the evolution of Arneson’s art practice. SFMOMA’s acquisition of the sculpture adds to the museum’s significant holdings of California art and finally brings this masterpiece back to the city for which it was created.
The bust will go on view at SFMOMA on Friday, June 1, as part of an entire gallery devoted to Arneson’s work.
Portrait of George (Moscone) was purchased through SFMOMA’s Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions; it comes from a private collection, in coordination with the artist’s estate, which is represented by George Adams Gallery in New York and Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco.
“Since becoming director at the museum in 2002, I have sought to acquire this important sculpture for San Francisco,” says SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra, who organized the exhibition Robert Arneson: A Retrospective in 1986 during his tenure as curator at the Des Moines Art Center and who has a longstanding commitment to supporting the artist’s work. “I could not be more pleased to finally share this cultural icon with the public and ensure its safekeeping in SFMOMA’s collection.”
“SFMOMA is proud to have one of the best representations of Arneson’s work of any major museum,” says Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. “Portrait of George (Moscone) joins 18 other sculptures and drawings by Arneson in the collection, adding great strength and distinction to the stories we’re able to tell about his work and the legacy of California art.”
Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George (Moscone)
Running time: 4 min. 35 sec.
Bay Area native Robert Arneson (1930-1992) was among the pioneering artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s who embraced the potential of ceramics, moving it from the sidelines of modern art—where it was categorized as a functional craft concerned primarily with technical virtuosity—to a full-fledged, independent art form in which artistic expression and content were paramount. Arneson also challenged perceptions of the medium by working in a grand scale more traditional to materials like bronze and marble. His early work of the 1960s parallels that of Pop artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein, who transformed objects of everyday life into iconic and often humorous subjects of art.
Arneson achieved his most inventive forms in the genre of self-portraiture, a subject he would return to for the rest of his career, often portraying himself as various parodic stereotypes. He also made portraits of other artists such as Francis Bacon, Joan Brown, Roy DeForest, Jackson Pollock, and William T. Wiley, and often referenced their best-known works. Fusing offbeat humor and pop-inspired satire, his later pieces became increasingly focused on social commentary, politics, war, and the existential condition of humanity.
Portrait of George (Moscone)—A Sculpture’s Complex History
In the summer of 1981, Arneson won a commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission to create a commemorative bust portrait of the city’s late mayor George Moscone, who, alongside Harvey Milk, was shot and killed by former Supervisor Dan White on November 17, 1978. The sculpture would be permanently displayed in San Francisco’s new Moscone Convention Center.
Early sketches of the work were well received, showing a realistic likeness, but also a tendency toward caricature and the unusual conception of portraiture consistent with Arneson’s style. It was at once a naturalistic rendering of Moscone and a caricature of a politician. When the finished sculpture was unveiled at the Moscone Center inauguration on December 2, 1981, it struck a nerve with the public and became a huge subject of controversy—not for the bust itself but the pedestal it was mounted on.
Arneson conceived the pedestal as part of the sculpture, and, as the piece developed, he decided that rather than leaving it a neutral supporting element it should come alive with words and images chronicling Moscone’s life. Biographical references (“Hastings Law School” and “State Senate”) and some of Moscone’s favorite expressions (“Trust me on this one.” and “Are you having any fun?”) were unobjectionable. Other inscriptions specific to events surrounding his assassination provoked controversy, such as references to Dan White’s murder weapon (“Smith and Wesson”), the dual slaying of the city’s first openly gay official (“Harvey Milk, too.”), and White’s famous defense plea based on his penchant for junk food (“Twinkies”), as well as depictions of blood-stained bullets.
By incorporating these elements Arneson had enriched the work to become more than just a personal memorial but a distillation of an unprecedented and intense moment in the city’s history. The killings of two popular civic officials stunned a community that was still reeling from the Jonestown tragedy only two weeks earlier, when 900 members of the San Francisco–founded cult Peoples Temple committed mass suicide in Guyana. Even for a city accustomed to political upheaval and violence, the deaths of Moscone and Milk were unrivaled civic blows.
“Portrait of George (Moscone) marks a pivotal moment in Arneson’s career,” says Garrels. “After that, he began to fundamentally reassess his attitude toward his previous work and the purpose of art in general. Rather than finding a way to include wit and humor as essential components of his work, he began to think increasingly in terms of moral responsibility and political commitment as primary to his choice and treatment of subjects.”
Prior to unveiling the bust, city leaders and the Arts Commission grew worried about how the work would be received, believing some of the pedestal inscriptions were simply too raw. The decision was made to drape the pedestal during the center’s opening ceremonies out of respect for the mayor’s widow. But curiosity and growing rumors of censorship led to the removal of the drape later in the day. A firestorm of adverse reactions immediately made front-page news, and the developing debate over the next few days revealed clashing opinions within the community about the role of public art and importance of social commentary.
From the very beginning, SFMOMA voiced support for the artwork. The museum’s associate director at the time, George Neubert, stated publicly his belief in the importance of trusting artists once commissions are granted, pointing out that even Auguste Rodin’s now-revered monument to French author Honoré de Balzac was also rejected when first displayed. Neubert advised that the uproar would subside if the work continued to be shown and that its meaning would certainly be very different as time passed.
The controversy escalated and Portrait of George (Moscone) was removed from the Moscone Center’s lobby and taken to SFMOMA’s art storage for safekeeping against numerous threats of vandalism. Then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein called a series of meetings with Arneson and the Arts Commission. Arneson refused to alter the work, and after a week of lively public debate, the Arts Commission voted to reject the sculpture and return it to the artist.
Portrait of George (Moscone) eventually went into private hands and has been seen publicly only on occasion, the first of which was at SFMOMA briefly in March of 1982 and again at the museum later that spring as part of a traveling exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art focusing on six pioneering ceramic artists. Roughly ten years later, in both 1992 and 1993, the bust went on display at the M.H de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. Most recently it was included in the 2011 exhibition Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where it was a cornerstone of that show.
“The Arneson family is delighted and thankful the piece has finally found a home in San Francisco at SFMOMA,” said the artist’s widow Sandra Shannonhouse on behalf of the estate. “As the museum’s collection continues to grow in anticipation of its expanded building, we’re gratified to know Portrait of George (Moscone) will benefit from such incredible exhibition opportunities and will be seen in this international context.”
An interactive feature about Arneson’s life and work—with audio and video clips, archival photographs, and documentation of the original Moscone bust controversy—is available on SFMOMA’s website.