How is Art Connected to Nuclear War?

Kathryn Olmsted
Kathryn Olmsted with the catalog published for a Robert Arneson exhibition on his war-related art. The UC Davis history professor wrote an essay in the catalog. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Historian Kathryn Olmsted was a graduate student at University of California, Davis, when the Robert Arneson's Egghead Series of sculptures began being installed throughout campus. That was the first she had heard of the first-generation art faculty known for his clay works and who is often dubbed the father of the California Funk movement.

But a few months ago, she learned much more about the artist’s story than the iconic white heads that dot  campus.

Olmsted, who has been a history professor at UC Davis since 2001, has written an essay in a newly published catalog for New York’s George Adams Gallery exhibition of Arneson’s work. Robert Arneson/The Anti-War Works: 1982-1986 is on view at the Manhattan gallery through Oct. 26.

Like many people, Olmsted had never known of his war works, which were completed at a time when he and his wife, Sandra Shannonhouse, who wrote the introduction to the catalog, became politically active in their hometown of Benicia. That’s the town where Arneson — one of the original UC Davis art faculty who taught at the university from the 1960s to the 1990s — grew up. It is also where in later life he became actively concerned about national and international proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Arneson, true to form, took his political feelings and activism to his clay, paint and paper, creating what is often painful, crushing commentary on the 1980s arms race.

“I didn’t know much about him, and what he did toward the end of his life,” said Olmsted, who visited with the Arneson family at the Arneson archives in Benicia to research the essay.

 “He created art about a bleak subject — nuclear war —  and that really was a bold move on his part.” — Kathryn Olmsted

A history with art

This was not the first time Olmsted has written about art. In 2018, she wrote for a New York Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog on a show called Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy. She also engaged in a panel discussion on that exhibition.

That was very much in line with her research, as she is known in media, political and academic circles as a historian who specializes in conspiracy theories, particularly those that are anti-government. She has written numerous books and commentaries on conspiracies throughout history.

A ‘Nuclear War Head’ and other in-the-face art

Her essay in the latest catalog is titled, ‘“We’re in Serious Trouble Now,’: Robert Arneson’s Anti-Nuclear Politics.”

About the place and time Arneson created this art, Olmsted wrote: “All around him, Robert Arneson could see his fellow Californians working to force government officials to stop the arms race. He shared their outrage and chose to express it through his art.”

“Perhaps it is time to recommit to the principles that Arneson fought for in his art.”  — Olmsted in her essay

Read the full Arts Blog story and see photos from the New York exhibition.

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