Stanford University’s riches keep accumulating but, this time around, rather than an announcement of a staggering increase in their endowment or the construction of a sports arena worthy of a prince, they’ve received the core of what many consider one of the finest privately-held collections of 20th-century post-war art. The Anderson family, who live in an affluent neighborhood near the university, has given Stanford 121 primo works by some 86 artists, from Clyfford Still, Philip Guston, Helen Frankenthaler and Frank Lobdell to Squeak Carnwath, Mark Rothko, Wayne Thiebaud and Frank Stella, which are now housed in a new, donor-funded, 33,000 sq. ft. campus building that opened to the public this week.
Though the architectural aesthetics of the facility, designed by Richard Olcott, whose firm Ennead Architects completed Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall last year, may not be on the same plane as Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth or even Mario Botta’s original concept for SFMOMA, now under siege as a result of that museum’s expansion, the building is simple and unpretentious, Most importantly, it provides a tasteful showcase for the art – the majority of which is installed on the expansive second floor – while not overshadowing it. Clerestories allow for filtered natural light on either side of a central staircase that has a curved ceiling above it; best of all, an open floor-plan that mimics the flowing, interconnected spaces of the Andersons’ sprawling ranch-style home makes it possible (and fun) to look across to various galleries and gain unexpected views of paintings or sculptures that one can then see or revisit.
I made several pilgrimages to the grouping of Bay Area Figurative artists, where I was drawn back to gaze again upon the gorgeous sky blue-gray and aquamarine vistas of Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park #60” (1973), whose seemingly translucent surface invites entrée into its maze of semi-permeable squares. It hangs outside a room that contains the same artist’s totally California “Girl on the Beach” (1957) and a trio of transfixing paintings by the late artist and Stanford professor Nathan Oliveira. The textured, nearly 3-D creature at the center of Oliveira’s “Reclining Nude” (1958) appears to be emerging from a muddy, primordial ooze; pinkish purples and detached human body parts float and coalesce in “Nude in Environment, 1” (1962); and then there’s the arresting “Stage #2 with Bed” (1967). Pitch-black and theatrical, it’s a setting for drama, a theater stage with a long, flat, bluish bed and a couch facing across the space to the only light source: a door, stage right, cracked open just a hair. In the corner of the gallery is Manuel Neri’s “Untitled Standing Figure” (1982), a white plaster sculpture of a female half-swathed in marine blue, as if it had been transported out of the studio before it was ready. On the opposite side of the gallery, a pair of large and loud Lobdell canvases vies for attention; like rowdy pals looking for trouble, they shout out color contrasts between blaring yellow and deep indigo in one instance and subtle umber and chocolate brown in the other.
The atmosphere feels freer and somehow less officious in this place than at a public institution, which befits the donors who were motivated not only by their legacy – Hunk Anderson is 91; Moo, 87 – but a desire to share. The Andersons, who made their money in the food service industry, lived with their art. Before the move, part of the collection was assembled at their home, where “Lucifer” (1947), one of Jackson Pollock’s early drip paintings, hung over their daughter’s bed as it had done for years. (The artist’s cigarette paper is famously stuck somewhere on the canvas.) The Andersons parted with that prized masterpiece along with the others; 104 are on display, with more to be exhibited on a rotating basis going forward.
The collection is heavy on the New York School – most of the work spans the period from 1947-86 – with fine representations by abstract expressionists such as de Kooning’s “Woman Standing – Pink” (1954-55), a lush, pastel-toned oil of a voluptuous nude who looks like she’s in the clutches of a garbage compactor. The art is organized loosely into about a dozen sections, such as Dumb Objects, California Funk, Geometric Abstraction, (the distinctly L.A.) Light & Space/Finish Fetish and The Shaped Canvas. The latter is where Frank Stella’s elephantine “Zeltweg” (1981) doesn’t so much reside as rule. The multi-part, multi-media aluminum construction, consisting of nine separate components with cut-outs and painted squiggles, is virtually three-dimensional, and made by someone who must have been on drugs at the time, or high by other means.
Painting dominates, but there are several compelling sculptures like Nancy Graves’ “Telestitch” (1988), a delicate, playful iron-and-bronze sculpture with an abacus, spiky radial saw discs perched on a lattice sea urchin that sits on a twisted stick, which, in turn, rests on the topmost point of a painted starfish. It’s reminiscent of the miniature balancing acts created by Calder, an inspiration for Graves, whose work is a welcome and all-too-rare sight. “Sky Garden” (1959-64), an enigmatic black wood assemblage by Louise Nevelson, is a repository of threatening, oversized, jagged-edged tools suitable for a giant forest troll. Like many of her cabinets of found curiosities, it raises more questions than it answers, which is just what art should do.
Though the building’s location most directly benefits Stanford students, teachers and scholars, admission is free and access is available to anyone. The best way for people from the Bay Area to take in the Anderson collection is to make an afternoon of it, combining it with a visit to the Cantor and perhaps a stroll to Stanford’s Memorial Court to view “Burghers of Calais,” Rodin’s stunning group sculpture of the tormented French noblemen who, legend has it, sacrificed their lives to save their town. It’s alleged that the figures are so extraordinarily life-like drunken freshmen have stopped to ask them for directions.