Harry W. Anderson, a flat-topped dorm food distributor who, on the side, built one of the most valuable collections of American postwar art in private hands, has died.
Anderson died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes Wednesday at his home on the mid-Peninsula, said his daughter, Mary Patricia Anderson “Putter” Pence. He was 95.
A refreshingly unpretentious man in an art world known for its pomposity, Anderson was always called “Hunk” and his wife and collecting partner Mary Margaret went by “Moo.”
They were “Hunk and Moo,” and their collection grew so vast that Stanford University had to build a new museum just to show it. Nearly 250,000 people have visited the Anderson Collection at Stanford University since it opened in 2014. Neither Anderson ever attended Stanford.
“He was gracious and giving and charming, and steadfast in everything he did,” said Jason Linetzky, director of the Anderson Collection.
According to gallery owner John Berggruen, Anderson was the most important art collector in the Bay Area until Donald and Doris Fisher started collecting. The son of Northern European immigrants, Anderson knew most of the major American artists of the second half of the 20th century. But he never took an art class, never changed his square look or folksy demeanor, and never took himself too seriously.
“He was self-made and came to collecting art by virtue of intuition and inimitable good taste,” said Berggruen, who had known Anderson since the early 1970s. “Hunk and Moo were always a wonderful combination and they just had this vision.”
They built a collection that eventually numbered some 1,400 pieces worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
He came home in 1946 with an Army-issue haircut and used the GI Bill to enroll at Hobart College in New York, where he hit on an idea to improve the dormitory food. He formed a partnership with two other students and called the company Saga. After graduating in 1949, Anderson went to colleges around the country, selling the food service.
In 1950, he married Mary Margaret Ransford, in Corning. They eventually settled in Menlo Park, where Anderson and two partners built Saga into a major corporation that distributes food to college campuses nationwide. Though Saga went public in the 1970s and was later acquired by Marriott, Anderson never really retired and kept his office at the former Saga complex on Sand Hill Road until the end.
During a trip to Europe in the early 1960s, the Andersons were captivated by an exhibition of the French Impressionists. They bought their first works, by Picasso and Matisse, and started building a collection that included American Modernists Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove.
In 1969, they made a switch from the Impressionists and Modernists to postwar American art. The timing was perfect. There wasn’t as much competition to drive up the prices and they went straight for the best in the New York school — Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Clyfford Still, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.
“Hunk had an ability to focus on things and listen to advice,” Berggruen said. “He established a relationship with the top galleries in New York and he was ambitious.”
The work regularly graced the walls of Saga Corp. and of the Andersons’ ranch-style home nearby.
Pollock’s “Lucifer,” which is considered the most valuable work by the artist in private hands, hung over the bed of the teenaged Putter, surrounded by her riding ribbons. From the New York School, they branched into Bay Area figurative art by Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and David Park, and the UC Davis cluster, Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest and Robert Arneson.
In 1996, the Andersons donated 650 works of graphic art to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, to create the Anderson Graphic Art Collection.
In 2000, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showed off the Anderson holding in “Celebrating Modern Art: the Anderson Collection.” It was one of three shows of the Anderson art over the years, and along the way 55 of their works have been donated to SFMOMA, including paintings by Lichtenstein, Johns, Stella, Warhol and Rauschenberg.
“Hunk and Moo have been two of the most important donors to the collection in our museum’s long history,” said Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The museum collection would simply not be what it is without their profound generosity.”
At one point, there was talk that the vast Anderson holdings would go to either SFMOMA or the Fine Arts Museums. The Andersons settled on Stanford, which agreed to build a $36 million two-story building run independently of the university museum, Cantor Arts Center, next door.
When the Anderson Collection opened in September 2014, it was considered to be the most important campus museum based on one collection to open at an American university since the Trumbull Gallery opened at Yale in 1839.
The Anderson gift comprised 121 works of modern and contemporary American paintings and sculpture, including contemporary painters Chris Brown, Deborah Oropallo and Squeak Carnwath. Anderson regularly dropped by to visit the collection, most recently in late December.
“He loved to remain involved and collaborate with the staff,” Linetzky said. “He was always looking forward to the next great exhibition.”
Wherever he went, Anderson wore slacks and sport coat. His shoes were always polished, and he usually arrived in a 1992 Mercedes 500 SEL.
His other car of choice was a white 1978 Volkswagen Beetle convertible, which he always drove top down while wearing a white straw boater, in the July 4 parade at Glenbrook, Lake Tahoe, where the Andersons vacationed.
Anderson also played tennis at the Menlo Circus Club in Atherton. Once he invited Berggruen down for a doubles match with Frank Stella as his partner. Anderson was soon invited to Stella’s New York gallery to take his pick. That’s how the Anderson Collection ended up with “Zeltweg,” a nine-piece mixed media work on metal that has been up since the museum opened.
It hangs just around the corner from “Lucifer,” liberated from Putter’s bedroom and open for free to the public, the way Anderson wanted it.
“Hunk was one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever met in terms of his nature,” Berggruen said. “He was true to himself and good company.”
Survivors include his wife of 68 years, Mary Margaret “Moo” Anderson; daughter, Mary Patricia “Putter” Anderson Pence of Los Angeles; and granddaughter, Devin Pence.
Burial will be private, but a public celebration of Anderson’s life will be held this spring. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Anderson Collection at Stanford University, 314 Lomita Drive, Stanford, CA 94305, or at http://anderson.stanford.edu.