It all started in 1960, far from the east coast establishment, when founding chair of the UC Davis Art Department Richard Nelson assembled a “team of rivals” as professors. As they worked day and night in relative isolation, the nascent department became a hotbed of maverick artmaking. Two, Robert Arneson and Wayne Thiebaud, would achieve stardom by bringing art back down to earth — though in different directions.
The work of ceramic artist Robert Arneson — in sharp contrast to the abstract expressionism of the 40s and 50s — was satirical, exaggerated and whimsical, especially his trademark oversized self-portraits. Arneson would go on to become known as the father of the ceramic Funk movement. Today, his iconic “Egghead” sculptures dot the Davis landscape and remain part of student lore.
Though a contemporary of Arneson, painter Wayne Thiebaud wielded a different aesthetic and became known for the heavy pigment and exaggerated colors he used depicting lushly painted pies and cakes and imaginative landscapes and cityscapes. His interest in objects of mass culture was a precursor of the coming pop art movement.
Some artists are known to downplay their “day jobs” as university faculty, but when Thiebaud had exhibitions, gave talks and received honors — including the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton — he always made his affiliation clear. If someone viewed his art in San Francisco, New York, Dubuque, Italy or the Netherlands, they would also learn about UC Davis.