A controversial bust of slain San Francisco Mayor George Moscone--commissioned by the city, but rejected after its unveiling in 1981--comes to Southern California for the first time this week on long-term loan to the Laguna Art Museum.
“Portrait of George” by sculptor Robert Arneson will go on display Thursday in the Laguna Beach museum’s main lobby, along with two other works also loaned by Oakland art collector Foster Goldstrom. They will be displayed for an indefinite period of time, museum officials said.
“We’d like to have it here for an extended period of time,” said Mike McGee, programs coordinator for the museum. “We think it’s something that a lot of people would like to see.”
Arneson’s “Portrait of George,” a ceramic bust on a pedestal, was one of six works commissioned by the City of San Francisco for the opening of the George Moscone Convention Center in December, 1981.
The sculpture sparked controversy because its pedestal is imprinted with graphic reminders of the mayor’s assassination: an impression of a revolver and bullets, a streak of red glaze suggesting blood, bullet holes, an outline of Moscone’s slain body and assorted words and phrases that referred to the popular mayor’s life and to his slaying.
Moscone was assassinated Nov. 27, 1978, by Dan White, a troubled conservative whom the mayor was about to replace on the county’s Board of Supervisors. After shooting the liberal Democrat, White, a former police officer and fireman, then stepped across the hall and killed Supervisor Harvey Milk, an activist and leader in the city’s large homosexual community.
White was charged with first-degree murder, but eventually was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after pleading innocent by reason of diminished capacity, due in part to an addiction to junk foods--a tactic that came to be known as the “Twinkie defense.” White was sentenced to seven years and eight months; he was released Jan. 6, 1984, after serving five years in state prison. Attempts by state corrections officials to parole him to the Bay Area sparked renewed controversy, so he instead was paroled to the Los Angeles area. White shot and killed himself in San Francisco on Oct. 21, 1985.
Arneson’s likeness of a smiling Moscone was not a subject of debate. The mayor’s widow, Gina Moscone, praised the bust when she saw it in the sculptor’s studio before it was added to the inscribed four-foot column. The finished work drew fire, however, from city officials when it was submitted, and the pedestal was draped at the official opening of the Moscone Center. When it was later unveiled for the news media, the sculpture set off widespread controversy.
In a telephone poll of more than 22,000 people conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle, 61% disapproved of the sculpture.
“It’s not as if I’m going to be there every day riding up and down the escalator looking at it. It’s just not the way I want George to be remembered,” Gina Moscone said at the time of the furor.
The work was removed, reportedly because of vandalism threats. And after urging from Mayor Dianne Feinstein, the city’s arts commission voted 7-3 to reject the work. That decision sparked yet another debate over censorship versus artistic integrity.
Arneson eventually returned the $18,500 advance he had received on his $37,000 commission, and “Portrait of George” was moved to a vault at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. About a month after the initial controversy, the piece was moved to a private museum and displayed as part of a ceramics show.
That’s where Goldstrom, a collector of 20th-Century art, got his first look at the work. “I had always wanted to buy an Arneson, for about six or seven years, but I hadn’t found the right piece,” Goldstrom said in a telephone interview Saturday. “I saw this and said, ‘Now, that’s what I’ve been looking for.’ ”
Goldstrom eventually bought the work from Arneson for $50,000. He praised the quality of the piece, but admitted that its notoriety was part of the draw. “The people who know me in the art world know that I love controversy and clamor, so that didn’t hurt,” he said Saturday.
Since then, “Portrait of George” has been shown at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Oakland Art Museum and other institutions. The work continues to draw attention, the collector said. “It was on the front page of the Washington Post. . . . It’s been reproduced in magazines all over the world,” Goldstrom said. “It’s probably one of the most famous, if not the most famous, piece of California art.”
Goldstrom, who is a friend of Laguna Art Museum director William Otton, said he decided to loan “Portrait of George” after a recent visit to the recently renovated facility.
Two other important and provocative works--John De Andrea’s “The Artist and His Model” and Jonathan Borofsky’s “Blue Raindrop Painting with Chattering Man"--are also on loan from Goldstrom.