The 10 Shocking Toilets That Helped Put UC Davis on the Art World Map

Three of 10 ceramic toilet sculptures by American artist Robert Arneson on display as part of the inaugural show at UC Davis' Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. From left to right: 'John Figure'; 'His and Hers'; 'Toilet: Life Size'. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Eleven year-old Monica Vernon of Vacaville is not amused. Her face screws into a serious frown as she stares at a collection of different takes on the throne, the pisser, the john. You get the idea.

"I don’t think that’s what art is supposed to be for," Vernon says, surveying 10 ceramic toilet sculptures (and a sketch of the destroyed 11th) created by the late sculptor Robert Arneson. The works are part of the inaugural exhibition at the University of California at Davis' new art museum, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

"I wouldn’t call that beautiful," she says.

But Arneson, who died in 1992 and taught at UC Davis for close to three decades, wasn't going for "beautiful" with these sculptures, which are brought together for the first time from museums, galleries and private collections around the globe.

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"Most of the lenders know what they have when it comes to Arneson’s work," says exhibition curator Arielle Hardy. "They recognize the importance of the toilets. But people were surprised that this was our first gesture as a museum, that we were going to show 10 ceramic toilets with very graphic imagery, in some cases."

Some owners are so uncomfortable with the toilets they’ve never shown them. That isn't the case for contributors like Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, owner of one of the most graphic sculptures, His and Hers.

Robert Arneson, 'His and Hers,' 1964.
Robert Arneson, 'His and Hers,' 1964. (Photo: Courtesy of Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.)

One toilet is obviously male, sporting a bright red penis as a flush handle, and a seat that looks like poop. The female sports a pair of humongous breasts with erect nipples in lieu of a water tank. Her seat is a pair of red, labial lips.

"Typically, university art museums are a little more subtle when they debut," Hardy says. "We didn’t want to be subtle. We wanted to be Davis."

Defining UC Davis through art

Arneson epitomized Hardy's definition of “Davis." The Benicia-born artist was a little wild and inclined to poke a thumb in the eye of the establishment, even though his work is now shown in major art institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.

The toilets also one-up the original infamous art toilet, Fountain, a standard-issue urinal presented as art by Marcel Duchamp in 1917. "This is Bob Arneson going mano a mano with Marcel Duchamp," says Rachel Teagle, director of the Manetti Shrem Museum. "All of these toilets, at the same time that they’re crude and lewd, they’re wrestling with the biggies of art history."

The museum's inaugural show, Out Our Way, features more than 200 works collected from the first 12 artists hired to teach at the university’s arts department when it was founded in 1958. Other "biggies" include Wayne Thiebaud, Roy DeForest, and Manuel Neri. It's fair to say they were also wrestling with art history, but with less of the "crude and lewd" approach Arneson employed.

A flash of insight

In 1962, Arneson was under pressure to come up with something for an upcoming show in Oakland when he had an epiphany in a bathroom at UC Davis.

"What am I going to make?" recalls Arneson's widow, Sandra Shannonhouse, of the incident. "Oh, well, I’m sitting on it!"

Robert Arneson, Untitled (Urinal), is on loan from the San Jose Museum of Art. In some ways, it's the most demure, understated of Arneson's toilets.
Robert Arneson's 'Untitled (Urinal)' is on loan from the San Jose Museum of Art. In some ways, it's the most demure and understated of Arneson's toilets. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Thus, Arneson began a series that would cement his reputation as a potty-minded provocateur while laying the foundation for what later became the movement known as "Funk Art" -- a reaction to abstract expressionism and its lack of human figures doing human things. "It was just kind of counter to the cool, impersonal pop art of the East Coast," Shannonhouse says.

Today, Arneson is probably best known on the UC Davis campus for Eggheads, a series of five giant bald male heads made of bronze that dot the campus.

Robert Arneson, 'See No Evil/Hear No Evil.'
Robert Arneson, 'See No Evil/Hear No Evil.' (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The studio where Arneson and his colleagues produced the bulk of their work, called "Temporary Building 9," is ironically now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can imagine Robert Arneson laughing at that turn of events.

"All my art has a sense of humor about it," Arneson said in a 1984 documentary called A Good Time To Be West. "I think the humor is a witty response, but a serious response, to the absurdities of life in general and the notion of being a creative artist."

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'Out Our Way' runs through March 26, 2017 at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis. More info here.

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