Fifty years ago, Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson visited Paris and discovered a shared passion for the art of the French Impressionists. He was one of the founders of Saga food services, and when they returned to the Bay Area they could afford to begin collecting art by Renoir and Monet.
But they couldn’t buy paintings the way museums could. So they put aside the 19th century Frenchmen and turned to the painters Harry Anderson now calls “the saints” of American art: the creators of Abstract Expressionism in the years after World War II.
They chose works by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston, Wayne Thiebaud, Louise Nevelson and others. They also championed Bay Area artists such as David Park, Robert Arneson and Squeak Carnwath. For years, the paintings filled the walls of their ranch-style home.
Fortunately for us, the Andersons’ focus and insight have led to a brand new modern-art exhibit space that is astonishing in its scope and refreshingly rational and modest in its design. It’s not called a museum — maybe to avoid any stuffiness — but is named simply the Anderson Collection at Stanford University.
Housed in a $36 million building designed by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects, the collection enjoys 15,000 square feet of exhibition space, where 104 paintings, sculptures and other works are currently displayed. (The entire collection numbers 121 pieces.)
It opens to the public Sept. 21. As at Stanford’s adjacent Cantor Arts Center, there will be no admission charge for visitors, but timed tickets will be necessary for weekend visits through October.
Inside the Anderson Collection, the paintings and sculpture are grouped to some extent by style and period, covering 56 years. But as Olcott points out, there is no “prescriptive path.”
At the right side of this gallery is Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park #60” from 1973 with its cool blue geometric variations. Facing it, on the left wall, is Wayne Thebaud’s “Candy Counter” from 1962, unusually muted in blues and grays with a few pops of bright color.
Not far away is Louise Nevelson’s “Sky Garden” (1959-1964), a tall black-enameled assemblage of wood scraps, boxes, spindles and trim, one of her masterly compositions. It faces, maybe 10 feet away, the six black metal panels and wide frame of a real-life elevator.
There may be larger exhibits of art from the same period elsewhere, but sometimes less really is more. One exhibit niche here points out that geometric abstraction had a “continued resonance throughout the 20th century.” That resonance is illustrated in three nice bites: Ellsworth Kelly’s “Black Ripe” (1955), a fluid shape that, to some, suggests a gigantic olive; “All Black,” Ad Reinhardt’s square from 1966; and Josef Albers’ yellow-on-yellow “Homage to the Square: Diffused” from 1969.
For all the color and energy of the art — Jackson Pollock’s drip-painting “Lucifer” is certainly the most famous example — there’s a sense of relaxation in a visit to the collection. The free-form path through the space gives visitors a chance to see things in the order of their choosing.
Here is one sequence suggestion: Mark Rothko’s “Pink and White over Red” first; then almost any one of the Bay Area Figurative paintings from the 1950s; next Robert Arneson’s amusing ceramic “Hommage to Philip Guston”; and finally Robert Irwin’s white-and-silver acrylic ball, which looks as if it will float to the sky.
The exhibit’s wall texts and labels seem skimpy, but there are plenty of discoveries to be made and lessons learned nonetheless. For one thing, has there ever been a more vigorous, challenging half century of American art? Or one that mixed more media?
The paintings, even traditional oil on canvas, may command attention. But materials on view here also include polyester resin, Plexiglas, wire mesh and tar, epoxy, aluminum and “vacuum-formed butyrate.” There’s a pair of steel chairs by Scott Burton that appear ready for a Cubist couple to sit down in them.
Olcott’s design is impressive in its own right. The building’s facade suggests a wide row of folded panels above the glassed-in ground floor. The panels seem to float cantilevered amid a grove of oak trees next to the Cantor Arts Center. The entrance is cool and spare, with a wide staircase narrowing at the top, which leads to the exhibits one floor above. The building is light, bright and inviting, without self-consciously making a “statement” indoors or out.
The exhibit floor is a single space partially divided by solid-looking but moveable walls. Above are clerestory windows bringing in natural light, an almost radical concept in museums these days.
The Anderson Collection — “a gift that keeps giving,” as Harry Anderson said at a preview — is part of a developing campus “arts district” designed to show Stanford’s commitment to the arts. It offers a nice complement to the Cantor, which has its own notable collection of 20th century American art. (The Cantor is also displaying 10 Pop Art paintings borrowed from the Andersons’ collection at the shuttered San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.)
The Anderson Collection and the Cantor now make a choice destination for lovers and modern and contemporary art, especially since SFMOMA will remain closed until its remodeling and expansion project is finished in the spring of 2016.
At Stanford University
Opens: Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Regular hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday-Monday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday
Where: 214 Lomita Drive (near Campus Drive)
Admission: Free, but timed tickets required for weekends through October
Ticketing and parking information: http://anderson.stanford.edu.