Ralph Arnold: Experiments in American Culture

With contributions from Erin Thomas.

“I’m an American artist. That’s how I want to be known.”                                                    Ralph Arnold (1928-2006)

“American” is also an appropriate descriptor for the subject of Ralph Arnold’s extensive oeuvre. Arnold explored American popular cultural forms in his collages and assemblage works throughout his career. The collection of the South Side Community Art Center benefits from a range of works by Arnold. In Tribute to a Lineage, Arnold juxtaposes duotone images of African figurative sculpture and American cowboys perched on horses. The careful coordination of color between the images and the geometric patterns behind them—at once modernist grid and West African textile—harmonize the composition. Also, seemingly part of the patterned motif are the small geometric forms of black bodies that align to create a schematic of a slave ship, the point of contact between Africa and America. The collage presents the dual lineage of black Americans whose laboring bodies built America yet tend to be absent from the narratives of its founding unlike the rugged and heroic cowboys. Arnold appropriates these flattened and familiar, endlessly recycled images to investigate the complex construction of identity in America in a way that is more ambivalent than his emphatic claim to his American identity.

Ralph Arnold, Tribute to a Lineage, date unknown

Ralph Arnold, Tribute to a Lineage, date unknown.

Born in Chicago, Arnold studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before serving in the United States military during the Korean War.[1] Upon returning to Chicago, Arnold met Bill Frederick who would become his partner. Frederick was an accomplished silversmith who taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Frederick encouraged Arnold to take part-time classes at SAIC where he was able to explore various art media.[2] His early collages, wood constructions, and intaglio prints investigate form and texture in the language of modernist abstraction.

During the 1960s, Arnold and Frederick took frequent trips to New York to explore the art scene. Arnold was influenced by the Pop sensibilities of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Indiana.[3] By the mid-sixties, his collages and assemblages combined images of soldiers, pinups, cowboys, pop stars, fashion models, superheroes, football players—an array of pop cultural heroes and objects of consumer desire. These figures were obscured by gestural marks that often left trails of dripping paint, and cropping that removed heads, faces, or limbs leaving bodies in suspended motion. More explicitly political subject matter entered his collages in the late sixties with the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the protests in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. In Above this Earth Games Games1968, he juxtaposed news photographs of soldiers in Vietnam with the charging bodies of football players—American aggression and competition on display in both arenas.

Arnold’s engagement with the political upheavals of the 1960s took him outside his studio practice and into the community. At Art & Soul, an experimental collaboration between the Conservative Vice Lords and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Lawndale, he was an artist in residence teaching art classes to neighborhood youth, and served as a judge for a community art contest.[4] Arnold also taught at several Chicago-area colleges before joining the faculty at Loyola University where he was chair of the fine arts department.[5]

Ralph Arnold, The Waiting, 1973, collage with transfer, 44 x 44 inches.

Ralph Arnold, The Waiting, 1973, collage with transfer, 44 x 44 inches.

At the South Side Community Art Center, Arnold served as a juror for the Black Expressions ’69 exhibition, whose purpose, according to Center president Grace Leaming, was “to seek out and feature established and new artistic talent in a variety of areas within the black community.”[6] Additionally, Arnold exhibited in group shows and contributed to the Center’s Art Auction beginning in 1966.[7] The Center exhibited a retrospective of his art in 1973 titled  Something Old, Something New. Arnold donated The Waiting (1973) to the Center upon the close of the exhibition. The layers of imagery collaged with paint and fabric in The Waiting provide an example of how his early explorations of textures and materiality merged with processes of collecting, cutting, and pasting the various materials of American cultural detritus. Arnold juxtaposes multiple registers of texture in photographic reproduction—glossy magazines, matte postcards, the Ben-day dots of newspaper photographs—with lace and the bold lines in red, black, orange, and blue framing the corners of the collage.

Ralph Arnold, Untitled, date unknown.

Ralph Arnold, Untitled, date unknown.

One of Arnold’s works from the Center’s collection, Untitled, is undated, but its muted palette and mournful tone distinguish it from his works from the 1960s that took direct aim at American mass culture and military imperialism. It could be a formal exercise, a compositional play between figure and ground, with slanted geometric forms flicking back and forth in diffuse fields of color. At the bottom of the composition, the shapes become the tops of stenciled letters from whose partial form the viewer can intuit the phrase: a rainy day after the war. Here, Arnold’s formal investigation is grounded in a feeling or memory, perhaps made on a rainy day after he returned to Chicago from Korea.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

A larger assemblage, Black Music Box, 1982, is an important work in the Center’s collection. It radiates rhythmic color arrangements and collaged photographs like a visual jukebox. The piece presents a more focused theme: historical figures in black music from jazz to the present. However, the box is more than a historical diorama; it stores albums of fan photographs revealing Arnold as a collector and more enthusiastic admirer of popular cultural icons. Unlike his earlier works that took a critical stance toward American politics and culture, it reveals a sense of admiration for the power of the mass-produced objects of pop culture. A larger album can be pulled from a slot on the side, while smaller accordion albums are placed carefully in a drawer at its base inviting exploration of black music’s hidden treasures. The high level of design and craftsmanship recall the words used to describe Arnold on the opening of his 1973 retrospective at the Center: he is a “versatile and daring artist who is never afraid to experiment.”[8]

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

So.Side Community Center#411(3)

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, assemblage, 1982.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, assemblage, 1982.

[1] “Ralph Arnold: Biography,” The History Makers, May 19, 2014, http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/ralph-arnold-40.

[2] John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, interview by Erin Thomas, February 9, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “W. Side Store Front Becomes Sculpture Studio,” Chicago Daily Defender, August 18, 1969, 3; “Art Fairs Successful,” Chicago Daily Defender, September 3, 1969, 16.

[5] “Ralph Arnold: Biography,” The History Makers.

[6] “Confetti,” Chicago Daily Defender, October 8, 1969, 16.

[7] Ruth H. McCoy, “You, Too, Can Be An Art Collector!” Chicago Daily Defender, February 22, 1966, 53; Doris E. Saunders, “Senator Douglas Commands Admiration Galore,” Chicago Daily Defender, November 17, 1966, p. 24.

[8] “Show Ralph Arnold’s Art at S.S. Center,” Chicago Defender, July 14, 1973, 21.


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