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Visualizing Mortality: Robert Arneson’s Chemo Portraits

Mary Drach McInnes


My body is infested with worms,
my skin is cracked and discharging.
(Job 7: 5)1

Beginning a talk on Arneson with a biblical passage is, at best, unorthodox. He was not personally religious, and his professional reputation lies in the profane. Yet in his final months Robert Arneson created two self-portraits – Chemo I (1992) and Chemo 2 (1992) – depicting himself as a contemporary Job (figure 1, figure 2, figure 3). They are startling portraits of affliction and despair. These terracotta busts offer us memorable images of rupture: torn skin, twisted organs, and tormented expression.



Arneson’s vision of mortality is a record of his own long struggle with cancer. After almost two decades of ‘managing’ cancer, he had a kidney removed and began a gruelling course of chemotherapy treatment. Shortly thereafter he created the Chemo portraits, recording the deterioration of his body ravaged by disease and, ironically, by its treatment. The radical deformation and fragmentation of these self-portraits lie in direct conflict with traditional sculptural conventions. All qualities of classicism – order and restraint, clarity and austerity – are banished. In their place we are given the drama of the scream and the high rhetoric of pain.

In confronting his affliction the artist departed from convention and his own celebrated ‘funk’ vocabulary. 2 With the Chemo portraits, Arneson aggressively roamed outside the perimeters of figurative sculpture into the fields of modern painting and medical literature.3 In particular, there are correspondences with Francis Bacon’s portraiture. Arneson’s intense interest in Bacon, especially the painter’s anatomical disintegration and psychological escape of the body, seems to have provided the ceramic sculptor with a new set of ideas for portraying mortality.

Portraiture, its nature and limitations, is a central concern for Arneson in these late sculptures. In Chemo I and Chemo 2 the artist uses language to augment his attack on the portrait. Text plays an important part in the artist’s sculptures, and the 1992 self-portraits display a type of vocabulary that is new in his work. Chemo I and Chemo 2 are each encircled with text sequences drawn from his cancer treatment. These stamped, fractured lines effectively extend the formal fragmentation of the figure and break the conceit of mimetic representation.

Arneson’s dismantling of representation is seen in the Chemo sculptures. Like his other self-portraits these busts began with casts of his head, which endow the work with an initial mimetic quality. Those familiar with Arneson’s self-portraits instantly recognize the artist’s features.4 Even those new to this body of work sense the particularity of the fleshy nose, the distinctiveness of the chin. The features are specific and represent an actual person. Mimesis, however, is immediately compromised here by a breaking apart and a tearing down of the body. Arneson gives us an open, flayed torso. In place of clarity we have formal chaos; in place of moral elevation we have the baseness of physical decay.


Arneson’s deformation of the figure pulls us into a new emotive reality. 5 In Chemo 2 the artist depicts himself contorted in pain (figure 4, figure 5). His neck curves in convulsion, his head is thrown back and lies horizontally on the spine.6 The sealed eyes give a sense of profound exhaustion; the mouth is open in agony. We sense pain escaping the body. Other openings – in the base of the neck and in the chest – are cut into the body adding to the frantic release.

Material, bodily violence abounds in the Chemo portraits. Clay, or flesh, is not merely cut or broken, but ripped apart. The entire identity of the body is compromised. The back is ribbed in alternating lumps and hollows; the shoulder is amputated; the chest cavity is opened, exposing a twisting, folded spinal column. The surface forms a new topography of pain, a geography defined by the dry pitting and muddy abrasion of terracotta. A mouldy film of white and irradiated green on the surface adds to the palpable physical decay. The ‘exhilarated despair’ of the Chemo portraits is indebted to Francis Bacon’s material assault on portraiture. 7

Arneson’s engagement with Bacon is witnessed in the number of images that the sculptor made of the British painter. Beginning in the early 1980s Arneson did a series of portraits ranging from drawings, masks, and a large sculpture entitled A Likeness of Francis B. (1981). The maquettes of this work, like Arneson’s other depictions of artists (Pollock, Picasso, and Duchamp, for example), are a combination of homage and caricature. Three maquettes from 1981 show the artist’s close attention to Bacon’s paintings (figure 6). Commenting on Arneson’s use of pedestals in his Model for ‘A Likeness of Francis B.’ and Model for ‘Francis Bacon’, Signe Mayfield finds that each ‘wittily condenses Bacon’s foreshortened, windowless rooms into a base detail’. 8 There is also a deformation of form and a wilful play of colour across the body, imitating the painter’s own methods. Arneson transformed his own sculptural practice by carefully appropriating Bacon’s pictorial strategies of representation.


Francis Bacon’s distortion of the portrait and its overwhelming assault on our senses are the hallmarks of his work. In any number of images we see the painter’s play with representation, his disruption of mimesis through jarring colour, displaced form, and unconventional space. His formal liberties are evident in the pigmented screens that break down his subject’s face, while the subject itself seems to secrete its own dense shadow. While Bacon’s formal slippage moves away from mimesis, the effect of his distortion invokes an intense emotional response from us. In place of documentation we receive an unsettling psychological reality beneath the material surface.

Bacon (and later Arneson) used distortion to get closer to the ‘real’ appearance of his subject. As the scholar Ernst Van Alphen observes, the painter insisted on the seemingly paradoxical need for distortion to both move away from a stereotypical representation and to move toward a more precise documentation. 9 Bacon’s remarks in his interview with David Sylvester detail this very act:

FB: What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.

DS: Are you saying that painting is almost a way of bringing somebody back, that the process of painting is almost like the process of recalling?

FB: I am saying it.10

Van Alphen, citing this exchange, remarks: ‘Bacon talks about his portrayals as conflicts between the artificiality of representation and the resistance of the model to that artificiality.’ 11 In this battle between subject and representation, fragmentation is the inevitable outcome.

Bacon’s paintings deny the conceptual unity and formal cohesion of mimesis. His subjects are marked by a distinctive erosion of the boundary between the figure’s interior and exterior. His signature elision of facial planes, where one plane glides over another, allows us to look onto, around, and through the face. Similarly, his use of shadows – strong, flat, negative shapes that float beside recognizable features – disrupts traditional modelling of the human figure.

Bacon’s figures also devolve taxonomically, visually sliding from ‘human’ to ‘creature’ to ‘meat’. In Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/ site/artist_work_md_10_1_2_3.html we scan the triptych (one of the artist’s favourite formats) and read this shift from man to carcass. The two figures on the left, while distorted, maintain their essential human identity. That is, we discern ‘head’, ‘eyes’, ‘nose’, and ‘mouth’. This identity is compromised as we visually move to the central section. Here a grotesque figure reclines on a divan. The body is a set of rhythmic black lines splattered with paint, defying any definition. The grizzly head hovers over this formlessness. This bloodied figure transitions to a hanging carcass on the far right. In the final panel a flayed form hangs from the ceiling, its vertebrae exposed and its haunches red with blood. In this painting Bacon’s subject shifts identity from portraiture to genre to still life.

Similarly, Arneson’s self-portraits shift identity from the organic to the inorganic. The body’s skin becomes a vast topography in which the surface changes from cracked to pitted, while the external membrane is pulled open to reveal internal organs or empty caverns. The chest is cracked open for our inspection. Thus, the broken carapace of Chemo I evokes caves and plateaus; the torn stomach of Chemo 2 connotes rotten fruit. The human identity – as in Bacon’s Crucifixion – is compromised. This metamorphic quality is apparent on the back as well. Here the artist aggressively manipulates the clay, his fingers dragging vertically across the skull and then down the torso as the vertebrae shift and form rivulets. Again we lose the human subject. Instead of portraiture we have landscape.12 Parched ground and pitted earth, rivulets of clay and fissures of baked earth, replace ‘man’. In Arneson’s work the materiality of the surface becomes the critical text. At this moment, material is elemental. The portrait evolves from clay into being, then devolves back to material. This strategy uses clay’s inherent malleability and its biblical associations with creation and death.


To this primal language of materiality the artist adds the contemporary lexicon of pharmacology. One of the critical aspects of both Chemo portraits is Arneson’s use of text to complement his manipulation of clay. Encircling the lower bust and base of the self-portraits are broken text sequences naming medicines and pronunciations, special warnings and precautions, possible side effects and emergency procedures. 13 Typical of the stamped text is the section at the base of Chemo 2 (figure 7). Outlined in a floating ‘thought balloon’, it states, in fragmented form, the following:


The dispassionate yet imperative language of the medical establishment (familiar to all of us who have read a prescription bottle) dramatically underscores the daily, impersonal brutality of chemotherapy. Arneson creates a schism between the objective cautionary text and the subjective torn topography of his self-portraits. The text highlights the mortal irony of the cure destroying the body. But what does it really tell us of Arneson’s own affliction, the decay of his own body? Ultimately, this litany of side effects tells us little. When confronted with narrating the reality of pain, language is simply impoverished.

The very poverty of language underlies Arneson’s portrayal of mortality. This ‘shattering’ of language in the face of pain is the particular interest of anthropologist Elaine Scarry. In The Body in Pain Scarry theorizes that pain, unlike any other sensation, has no referential content – it is simply without an object outside of itself. Pain ‘is not of or for anything . . . more than any other phenomenon, [it] resists objectification in language’.14 Pain is not only resistant to language, it actively destroys it. This view is echoed by Virginia Woolf in her 1930 essay entitled ‘On Being Ill’. Here she wryly notes the inability of language to communicate even simple physical phenomena: ‘English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.’ 15 Language, concludes Woolf, ‘runs dry’ in the face of pain.

Arneson’s text passages reveal the inability of language to adequately describe a prolonged, debilitating, terminal disease. He forces upon us a new text for pain, one that is grounded in the materiality of clay and that embraces the abject and, at times, the comic. In Chemo I the language is a mixture of the grotesque and the farcical. Like its cousin, this self-portrait offers us an astounding inversion of interior and exterior: the front bulges out and rips open, the side erodes and deposits clay, the back undulates and forms rivulets, the base cracks and opens large fault lines. In the midst of this deformation is the grizzly and near-comic handling of the head. The cranium is cut open around the eyes – the glossy, glassy eyes are preposterously pinned to the cheekbone, appearing like bad props in a horror show. When we look inside the cranium we see it repeatedly pierced. Visual puns abound: ‘hole in the head’, ‘mind like a sieve’, ‘riddled with cancer’. Arneson’s funk vocabulary makes a brief yet potent contribution.

The contemporary sculptor’s material rhetoric seems anticipated by Virginia Woolf. She imagines someone taking a lump of sound and fashioning a new language, one startlingly close to Arneson’s ceramic formlessness:

[T]aking . . . pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable . . . Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more primitive, more sensual, more obscene, but a new hierarchy of passion; love must be disposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica.16

Further, she suggests that the English will not take the necessary liberties with language, but help may come from the Americans, ‘whose genius is so much happier in the making of new words than in the disposition of the old’. 17 The ironic smile of Chemo I suggests that Arneson accepted the task.


In place of the ‘babble’ of language or the clarity of mimetic representation, Arneson creates a new rhetoric in the clay itself. The artist’s manipulation of clay – using its essential malleability – creates a responsive text that refers directly to the body’s breakdown (figure 8, figure 9). In fragmenting the body, in breaking down the tissue, in compromising the membrane, Arneson creates a language of pain, a way of visualizing mortality.


  1. New English Bible, New York, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, quoted in James Elkins, Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999, p.108n.back to text
  2. Arneson, as leader of the California-based movement called ‘funk’, made a name for himself through a series of sculptures – toilets and toasters – that mocked both fine art and the field of ceramic art. His work is marked by an overtly crude voice and transgressive vulgarity. For an overview of the artist’s oeuvre, see Neal Benezra, Robert Arneson, a Retrospective, Des Moines, Des Moines Art Center, 1986, and Gary Garrels, Robert Arneson, Self Reflections, San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997.back to text
  3. For Chemo I Arneson went back to a small study, Trophy Bust (1978). This glazed ceramic maquette features the torn skull and convoluted chest cavity of the 1992 self-portrait. back to text
  4. This genre formed the mainstay of the artist’s prolific production. More than half of his over 2000 works were in the form of self-portraits.back to text
  5. I am indebted to the writings of Ernst Van Alphen on Francis Bacon for his reading of that painter’s intentions and, more broadly, to the writings of Michel Leiris on this artist. back to text
  6. According to his widow, Sandra Shannonhouse, Arneson drew this image from a Second World War photograph, brought back from Europe by her family, of allies freeing Jews from the concentration camps (author’s interview with Sandra Shannonhouse, April 2005). back to text
  7. Leiris ends his text on Bacon describing the painter’s work with this Nietzschean formula. See Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Full Face and Profile, NY, Rizzoli, 1983, p.47. back to text
  8. Signe Mayfield, ‘Big Idea: the Maquettes of Robert Arneson’ in Big Idea: the Maquettes of Robert Arneson, Palo Alto, Palo Alto Cultural Center, 2002, pp.31-2.back to text
  9. Ernst Van Alphen, ‘The Portrait’s Dispersal: Concepts of Representation and Subjectivity in Contemporary Portraiture’ in Joanna Woodall (ed.), Portraiture: Facing the Subject, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996, p.246. back to text
  10. Van Alphen, ‘Portrait’s Dispersal’. back to text
  11. Van Alphen, ‘Portrait’s Dispersal’. back to text
  12. In both Chemo portraits, the portrait is further compromised by Arneson’s unconventional manipulation of the base. In place of the traditional separation of ‘figure’ and ‘pedestal’ Arneson links these two elements formally through a dissolution of bodily parts that extends down and over the base. Further, Arneson uses text that spills out from its perimeter of the base and into the regions of the body. This further complicates our reading of the ‘bust’. back to text
  13. According to his widow, Arneson took most of the text from a publication of the National Institute of Health entitled Chemotherapy and You (author’s interview with Sandra Shannonhouse, April 2005). back to text
  14. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985, p.4. back to text
  15. Virginia Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’ in Collected Essays, vol. 4, London, Hogarth Press, 1967, p.194, cited in Scarry, Body in Pain, p.4. back to text
  16. Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’, pp.194-5. back to text
  17. Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’, p.194. back to text

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Visualizing Mortality • Issue 8