Robert Arneson's clay alter egos are all over the Hirshhorn Museum: He is defiant and irreverent, beer belly protruding in blue denim, as the "California Artist"; hilarious and friendly as a shaggy, cigar-smoking canine in "Portrait of the Artist as a Clever Old Dog"; pensive and vulnerable, pondering his own mortality as a battered man, head atop a funerary jar, in "Ass to Ash."

But when he talks, it is the clay figure of Arneson swimming across the Hirshhorn floor against the tides of fashion in the metaphorical "Current Event" that comes to mind.

"I feel I've done it," says the world's foremost ceramic sculptor, whose works now sell for as much as $55,000 and whose Hirshhorn retrospective opens today. "But people still argue about whether or not I'm an artist because I work with clay!

"I have good friends who still take me aside and say, 'Bob, we really like you, and we really want you to be an artist, but you've got to give up that damned ceramics!' I tell them that if that's the case, I'd rather do what I'm doing than be an artist. One has to decide what one does best and do it, and not worry about all the labels stuck on it."

He is handsomer and quieter than he seems in his self-portraits. His face is finely chiseled, his eyes dark, deep and kind. His stocky figure -- a bit stout at 55 -- is tanned and robust after 10 years of fighting cancer, now quelled.

His nimbus of white hair and white beard make him look more like a California Santa than the bad boy who scandalized Oakland in the '60s with a funky clay toilet (during what he calls his "scatalogical period"), and San Francisco in 1981 with a bust of slain mayor George Moscone that was commissioned and then refused by the city because of the bloodstained bullet holes and graffiti-style markings on its base.

"That was disappointing," he says, "but it's over."

Not really. That incident, and perhaps his illness, clearly marked a turning point in his art. The works in the show, which will be reviewed in Sunday's Show section, take a distinctly more serious turn after 1981, not only the self-portraits, but also the new and ongoing series of horrific antiwar sculptures.

But his sense of humor has not been lost. His aforementioned portrait-as-pooch was designed, he says, to be shown in an English sculpture park "because in England, dogs aren't allowed on the grass, and this gave me the opportunity to put one there."

Arneson is happy about this Hirshhorn retrospective. "Proud," he says as he wolfs down the last of his paella, cooked by Washington painter Joe Shannon, his host at a small dinner the evening before the show's preview. "It's an honor. I think, why me? There are so many artists out there who've put in their time equally as well.

"Actually, my dream was to be a cartoonist," says Arneson, who did work as a sports cartoonist for the Benicia Herald (in the California town where he was born and now lives) during student days at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied art education.

He stumbled into clay only after a year of teaching high school, and decided to go to graduate school at Mills College in Oakland. "Pete Voulkos, who changed the course of western ceramics, was my hero, but I didn't want to study with him because I didn't want to be a clone. The interesting thing about Mills is that I wasn't allowed to attend graduate seminars because I wasn't an artist. I was in ceramics!"

Later, Arneson still recalls somewhat resentfully, he wasn't allowed to join an artists' cooperative in Berkeley for the same reason. He can laugh about it now, but he still remembers precisely when he became an artist in his own mind.

"I saw that to leave the crafts, you had to add content to the work. I was emulating lots of people at the time, including Miro', and was getting a mild reputation doing abstract expressionist ceramics a la Pete Voulkos, maybe with a slightly surreal element to it. But there was going to be a big sculpture show to celebrate the opening of the Kaiser Center in Oakland, and I was invited -- the first time in my life I was ever invited to something. I was 32, and I thought, a sculpture show!

"I actually quivered," he recalls, "and said to myself, 'I've really got to think who the hell I am now.' I'd started making objects, like beer bottles, six-packs -- wholly ignorant of Jasper Johns. I had about three months to think about a work, and I thought, I don't want to be anybody's clone, what would I do? I finally decided to do a ceramic toilet, and since nobody had done it, it would be without influences, but it would still be a clay vessel with a utilitarian aspect.

"When the owner removed the piece from the show, I was suddenly aware of the power of art, particularly art that had meaning of some kind, with something of our culture, enough to convince me that I was an artist, or rather an artist-in-waiting. I had a show in New York, and it was a bitter disappointment. Minimalism was coming in, and it was the wrong work at the wrong time."

Since then, Arneson has stayed on the West Coast, where there was a much more receptive attitude toward figurative art. "I'd have shows in my house -- clean out the furniture and bring up my friends -- that was good enough. I never assumed I'd ever sell anything: If I ever needed to sell anything, I'd make a sweet little Danish modern bottle. You could always sell a decorative object."

There were no more New York shows until 1975, but a funk art show at the Berkeley Museum in 1967 attracted the attention of Time magazine, which reproduced Arneson's now famous "Typewriter," which has fingertips for keys. The rest, very slowly, has become history, especially after the 1975 New York show, a major one at Allan Frumkin, and subsequent shows at Fendrick Gallery in Washington and elsewhere.

"I had recognition in the craft world before that, but Craft Horizons [magazine] was the only place you could see my work in the '60s and '70s. I'm still not one of those New York artists that always get written about.

"But that's all right," he says. "When you're removed, you're removed. I've always told art dealers who argue about my prices that this is a hobby for me. I teach for a living." He is now a professor at the University of California, Davis.

Though he's dabbled in bronze, he says he'll never leave clay, no matter what anyone says.

"Clay is fantastic -- it's just like drawing, and you can add and subtract. There's nothing like it. And you can add color -- real color -- not just stuck on. I can't think of another art material that has all that.

"It's not media that makes the difference between an artist and a craftsman, but content," he says. "It's like the difference between a designer and an artist -- one's outward and one's inward. A designer or craftsman really has to take your interests at heart to succeed; an artist doesn't.

"The fight goes on daily, everywhere," says Arneson, "but the medium is definitely not the message."