SAN FRANCISCO
06/05/2012 07:33 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

'Portrait Of George (Moscone)' Comes To SFMOMA: Controversial Piece Returns To Public After 30 Years (VIDEO)

A controversial piece of San Francisco art was unveiled at SFMOMA last week, after being hidden from the public for more than 30 years.

On Friday, Robert Arneson's "Portrait of George (Moscone)," a bust of the late mayor that was returned to the artist after the city deemed it too inflammatory, was finally displayed at SFMOMA.

In the summer on 1981, two years after Supervisor Dan White murdered George Moscone and Harvey Milk, Arneson won a commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission to create a commemorative bust of Moscone to be displayed at the new Moscone Convention Center.

"Traditionally an honorific bust would be a memorial to someone, making them more handsome, more noble, to idealize them in some way," said SFMOMA Curator Gary Garrels in a video about the bust and its return to San Francisco. "You want to remember someone even better than they were."

But Arneson's unique interpretation portrayed a characterized version of Moscone as he was, with multicolored ceramic, imperfect teeth and a wide and infectious smile. Original drawings were well received. However, the original drawings showed the bust atop a blank pedestal.

"But in working on this, he began to feel the need to bring in the events that anchored Moscone to his life, his biography," said Garrels. "And not shrinking back from depicting the events of his assassination."

Arneson thus inscribed the pedestal of the bust with a mosaic of Moscone quotes and sayings, the names of his children and pictures of his high school. He also included controversial illustrations of Dan White's murder weapon, bloody bullet holes and a Twinkie--a nod to Dan White's famous Twinkie defense.

When the bust was finally unveiled at the Moscone Convention Center, attendees stared, jaws agape. And for a city still raw from the recent murders, the sculpture's unveiling sparked a firestorm.

"I just can't live with it," said the widowed Gina Moscone in Herb Caen's column at the time.

"It was a slap in the face to me, my mother, brother and sisters," said Moscone's son Christopher, who was 16 at the time of his father's death, to the San Francisco Chronicle. "[It was] completely insensitive and just not appropriate for public art."

Despite pleas from Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the city, Arneson refused to alter the base. The city returned the bust, and Arneson returned his commission check.

"Portrait of George (Moscone) marked a pivotal moment in Arneson's career," said Garrels. "After that, he began to fundamentally reassess his attitude toward his previous work and the purpose of art in general. Rather than finding a way to include wit and humor as essential components of his work, he began to think increasingly in terms of moral responsibility and political commitment as primary to his choice and treatment of subjects."

The piece lived hidden with the artist, and then a private buyer, making rare and discrete public appearances, but remaining largely concealed. Until now.

"This is one of the most iconic, important works that Arneson ever made," said Garrels. "Over the years there have been many people who felt like this was a work that had to be in San Francisco. It had to return here."

And after 30 years, San Francisco has welcomed the piece with open arms.

"Since becoming director at the museum in 2002, I have sought to acquire this important sculpture for San Francisco," said SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra in a release about the acquisition. "I could not be more pleased to finally share this cultural icon with the public and ensure its safekeeping in SFMOMA's collection."

And in an interview with the Chronicle, even Christopher Moscone approved.

"With the passage of time, I think this is probably a good place for it now," he said. "Artists want to provoke passion and feeling, and he definitely achieved that."

Watch SFMOMA's video about "Portrait of George (Moscone)" below, and stop by SFMOMA to see the piece in person.

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