Robert Arneson
California Artist, 1982

One of Arneson’s great obsessions, self-portraiture is the genre in which he achieved his most playful and inventive forms. California Artist was completed in 1982 in response to an attack by a New York art critic, who cited the “impoverished sensibility of the provincial cultural life of California” and depicted Arneson’s work as the “mark of a mind that is too easily pleased
with his own jokes.”

The broken-away facade on the corner of the pedestal reveals ceramic bricks mechanically imprinted with the artist’s name — a challenge to the idea that clay is for making dinnerware and bricks but not fine art. Marijuana grows against a base littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts, all mockingly emblematic of a degenerate California lifestyle. Finally, the artist has represented himself atop the pedestal as a shirtless, aging hippie, whose sunglasses are actually gaping holes that allow us to peer directly into his empty head.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
California Artist
Artist name
Robert Arneson
Date created
stoneware with glazes
68 1/4 in. × 27 1/2 in. × 20 1/4 in. (173.36 cm × 69.85 cm × 51.44 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Gift of the Modern Art Council
© Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York, NY
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.

Audio Stories

Why is Arneson making fun of California art?

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In this sharply humorous self-portrait from 1982, Bay Area sculptor Robert Arneson pokes fun at what he saw as the New York art establishment’s stereotypical image of a true California artist. Notice the gaping holes framed by this figure’s sunglasses, as well as his almost belligerently casual pose and attire. Now study the classically-inspired pedestal beneath him. The marijuana plant, beer bottles and cigarette butts which decorate it add an ironic finishing touch, completing a picture of California decadence and empty-headedness. 


For over twenty years, Arneson explored the possibilities of self-portraiture as a vehicle for his ideas, often lampooning avant-garde developments in the art world. Gary Garrels, Curator at the Museum. 



He’s talking about all the clichés of artists on the East Coast who had a kind of seriousness, an intellectual rigor about their work, a lot of theoretical statements, and I think Arneson was saying that art is intuitive, it’s experiential, it can be fun, and yet he’s absolutely serious about the kind of craft involved in his art, exploring the notion of identity, of what it means to be alive in contemporary society, how to give meaning and value to that– and yet, not taking himself too seriously. 



California Artist is one of over 100 self-portraits Arneson made during his lifetime.  

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Audio Description

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You’re standing in front of Robert Arneson’s California Artist. Made in 1982, this life-size ceramic sculpture shows a scruffy, bearded Caucasian man wearing sunglasses, with his arms folded across his chest. The top half of the sculpture is just his torso and head. The bottom half is a rectangular pedestal decorated with marijuana plants and littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts. The sculpture stands over 5 ½ feet high – so the average height of an adult woman. In both width and depth, it measures 2 feet across.

The man’s posture is relaxed and self-assured. His head is cocked slightly to his right, as if he were the one taking us in. He is shirtless, but wears a rumpled, unbuttoned denim jacket, exposing his chest and hairy belly. He gazes straight at us with a faint smile. He is bald, with shaggy gray hair ringing his head and curling up over his ears. His beard is neat and trim. His sunglasses have silver frames, but there are no lenses, and there are gaping, dark blue holes where the eyes would normally be. His head is hollow.

The man’s torso is mounted on a gray pedestal that appears weathered and worn. The lower right side of the pedestal looks like it’s been chipped away, revealing bricks imprinted with the artist’s name, Arneson. Below the bricks, a small ledge juts out, about 12 inches off the ground. A stubbed-out, ceramic cigarette butt sits on that ledge at the center of the pedestal.

Around the back are the words “California Artist” printed in black letters on the back of the man’s jacket. At the bottom of the pedestal, a squirrel sits holding a nut. He looks up at a cracked hole, just a few inches above his head. Another small nut rests in the hole, and behind it, the first three letters of the artist’s name, A – R – N, can be seen.

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Other Works by Robert Arneson

See other works by Robert Arneson

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