Robert Arneson. Five Times for Harvey: From Personal to Political

Robert Arneson, Five Times for Harvey, 1982. Mixed media on paper, five sheets: each 30 x 24 inches.
Five portraits of Harvey Milk's face that tell the story of his life through color and texture
Robert Arneson, Five Times for Harvey, 1982. Mixed media on paper, five sheets: each 30 x 24 inches. San José Museum of Art. Gift of J. Michael Bewley, 2015.07.01a–e. Photograph by Douglas Sandberg.

In 1981 Robert Arneson was selected by the San Francisco Arts Commission to create a memorial bust of the city’s late mayor, George Moscone, who was shot and killed on November 17, 1978, alongside its first openly gay elected official, Supervisor Harvey Milk. However, when the sculpture, Portrait of George (1981), was unveiled, the public decried it for the graffiti-like inscriptions, the blood, the bullets, and the outline of Moscone’s slain body depicted on its pedestal, and then-mayor Diane Feinstein rejected it.1 Art critic Thomas Albright, an advocate of Arneson, wrote: “It is a work that actually prompted a broad segment of the public to think and debate, as distinct from the mildly approving but basically indifferent reaction to the more innocuous sort of embellishments generally found in public edifices.”2 The controversy marked a turn in Arneson’s work from self-portraiture to darker and aggressively political subject matter and deepened the artist’s skepticism toward the public’s understanding of his work. The following year, he created a series of five caricatured portraits of Milk. Dramatic gestures, satirical language, and cartoonish symbols chronicle the events of Milk’s brutal assassination at the hand of fellow supervisor Dan White, who only days before the shooting had resigned in opposition to the enactment of a gay civil rights bill.

  1. Suzanne Feld, Robert Arneson: Self-Reflections, ed. Gary Garrels and Janet Bishop (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997), 80. ↩︎

  2. Thomas Albright, quoted in Steven Nash, Arneson and Politics (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1993), 12. ↩︎