Robert Arneson

Whistling in the Dark

Not on view



Glazed terra-cotta

Overall: 34 1/4 × 21 1/4 × 21 15/16in. (87 × 54 × 55.7 cm)

Accession number

Credit line
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Frances and Sydney Lewis

Rights and reproductions
© Estate of Robert Arneson / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


A pioneering California ceramicist, Robert Arneson completed numerous monumental portrait heads during the 1970s. Like much of the artist’s work from this period, Whistling in the Dark depicts Arneson himself. This terracotta head,  which the artist darkened by closing the gas kiln more than would have been customary, wears a relatively subdued expression compared to other works from the same period depicting Arneson’s grotesquely manipulated visage. Whistling includes no gesture, antisocial or otherwise; the head is upright and intact, and the face is not contorted. Nonetheless—perhaps owing to the pose’s origin as a magazine photograph—the bust appears uncomfortably fixed, and the short, round yellow pedestal itself assumes an almost vise-like appearance. Yet Arneson’s title, which wraps around the support, suggests a more positive valence: to be “whistling in the dark” is to have confidence in a situation, despite the odds.