“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?…”
(from “Andrea del Sarto” by Robert Browning)

Describing the Anderson family art, reach and heaven are the operant words, for Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson and their daughter Mary Patricia Anderson Pence have shaped a stellar collection. Known fondly as “Hunk,” “Moo,” and “Putter,” the three family members have worked as a team, concentrating on collecting American art created since World War II. Over a period of 50 years, the Andersons have deliberately selected paintings, sculpture, and multiples which express the “head and hand” of the artist—eschewing photo-based, overtly political, or highly conceptual works. This has resulted in an unusually warm and personal collection. Within this vein, they continue to collect and embrace what is new. And it is a rich trove.

Visited for years by art luminaries from around the world, the exquisite, privately held collection formerly located in the family home in Atherton and nearby Saga Foods headquarters in Menlo Park, is going public. The Anderson family has donated 121 works by 86 artists to Stanford University. In a new freestanding museum built by the university, the Anderson Collection at Stanford will bring cognoscenti to the digital pasturelands of the campus in Silicon Valley, and immeasurably enrich the lives of Stanford students and others. Situated in the rising “arts district,” where cranes and steel scaffolding crowd the eucalyptus-and-oak studded acres, the building will form an axis with the new Bing Music Center, the new McMurtry Building for Art and Art History, and the existing Cantor Arts Center with its Rodin sculpture garden. 

Designed by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects, the 33,000 square-foot two-story building is quiet and elegant. A simple row of clerestory windows crowns the textured “box” housing the exhibition galleries. The building seems to float, supported by a transparent “pedestal” which contains the glass-enclosed entrance, offices, conference room, library/study area and storage. Inside, a dramatic staircase rises to the second floor galleries, which flow together. The subtly concave ceiling, which the staff fondly refers to as “the belly of the whale,” disperses light from the surrounding windows. A high-tech system of sensors measures and regulates the ambient light. Jason Linetzky, collection manager for 10 years, now Director of the Anderson Collection at Stanford, is overseeing the installation, which will change over time. He works in close collaboration with Karen Saracino, his successor at the Menlo Park collection, which is undergoing an extensive reinstall of remaining works. Many works, including recent purchases, will remain at the corporate headquarters. Hunk Anderson, with a scrupulous eye and extraordinary energy for a man of 92, suggests and tweaks it all. The new building opens to the public on September 21, 2014. Docent-led tours will be available starting in October.

Perhaps it is no accident that the Anderson family built their collection in the West, where innovation and risk-taking are part and parcel of daily life. Saga Corporation, founded in 1948 by Hunk Anderson and two partners at Hobart College in Geneva, NY, served food in college and university campuses around the country. Seeking a place to anchor their headquarters in 1962, they chose Menlo Park, California. Hunk and Moo built a ranch home in Atherton and with the partners, a corporate headquarters, along Sand Hill Road. Hunk remembers, “There was nothing there not so long ago.” Now Atherton is a residential enclave for the very wealthy, and the series of modernist buildings designed by Cliff May form part of what is known locally as “billion-dollar mile.” The Saga Corporation was purchased by the Marriott Corporation in 1986. The collection of eight buildings was sold in l987 to the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and renamed Quadrus. Anderson art remains installed in the cafeteria, offices, halls and public spaces throughout the campus.

The story of the collection begins with an inspiring and life-changing trip to Paris museums—the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume—in the mid-1960s. Deeply moved by the art they saw there, Hunk and Moo vowed to build a collection. Moo thought it would be “a dozen or so.” Hunk thought, “a couple dozen.” “We didn’t know it couldn’t be done so we just went ahead and did it,” Hunk remarks. “People helped us, and we learned. We educated our eyes,” says Moo. Together, they are a rare combination of modesty and hubris, passion and risk-taking.

Initially drawn to figurative work and the Impressionists—a familiar entrance point for those new to the visual arts—they sought works similar to what attracted them in Paris. Their earliest purchases were American artists who worked in this vein: Alfred Cornelius Howland’s Fourth of July, and a seated girl by Frederick Frieseke. But unable to find works of the high quality they sought, they altered their course and began to collect Modernists like Picasso and Matisse, German Expressionists like Emil Nolde, and Americans from the Stieglitz circle—Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove. They were voracious readers and researchers, and also took classes. Professor Albert Elsen’s Art 101 at Stanford was a starting place. Elsen became a close friend and mentor, commenting tactfully on early purchases, gently encouraging them to look deeper. Proudly showing him their recent purchase of a Jackson Pollock, Elsen admired it then added, “Have you seen the black Pollock at the NY MOMA?” Praising their purchase of de Kooning’s Woman Standing—Pink, (1954-55), he tutored them in the nuances of Gansevoort Street, an earlier seminal abstract work (1949-51).

The celebrated Bay Area artist Nathan Oliveira, who was at that time a studio professor at Stanford, introduced them to the works and studios of Bay Area artists—David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and Roy De Forest. They also became friends with dealers in New York—Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, Martha Jackson, David McKee—and in San Francisco, Helen Heninger, then head of Gump’s Gallery, was an early advisor. On a trip to New York, she helped Moo select a bound volume of prints by Richard Diebenkorn. They hadn’t known the works were printed in Berkeley at Kathan Brown’s Crown Point Press. After they struggled about whether to take the book apart to frame and mount the prints, Hunk and Moo contacted Brown, who was glad to exchange the book for unbound prints. Later, when the series was loaned for an exhibition, and one print was missing upon return, they mentioned it to Diebenkorn who surprised them one day with an artist’s proof to replace the missing number.

Pursuing a collecting plan based on Saga business principles, the couple set down goals and objectives to be attained by “key result areas:” long and short term acquisition goals; standards for the proper care, custody, and control of the art; objectives for facilitating art world relationships; establishing an educational program through the collection. This last objective has been an important part of the generous Anderson philosophy, including public tours of the artwork displayed throughout the halls of the former Saga buildings, lectures for employees, and internships for Stanford art history graduate students. These students research the art and create informational brochures about selected works. They are encouraged to develop exhibitions throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Neal Benezra, now head of SFMOMA, was an Anderson intern, as well as many others who have gone on to careers as museum professionals. Moo fervently believes, “Art is meant to be shared.” 

The collection took twists and turns. Major purchases encouraged them to reconsider the direction and thrust of the collection. In the 1970s they sold their Monets, Renoirs, Sargents, and works they didn’t consider “the best of the best”—including lesser works by Morris Louis, Rothko, and Pollock. In 1972, they purchased 1947-Y, a large abstraction by Clyfford Still, who had taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now SFAI). After that purchase they began to concentrate significantly on post-WWII painterly abstraction, especially the New York School. Works by Kline, Motherwell, de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko form the core of the collection.

Ever growing and learning—from their own experiences, from interactions with dealers, artists, and fellow collectors—they gravitated to what was new. “Have we seen it before? Could we have imagined it?”

Another key aspect of their endeavor was to collect in depth. They purchased multiple works by a single artist, and in addition to paintings, acquired works on paper—prints and drawings, and sometimes, preparatory sketches. An early Matthew Ritchie accordion sketchbook prefigures ideas that appear in Three of a Kind (1996), and Jackpot (1998) in the collection. A recent purchase of a Julie Mehretu painting, Aerial, (2006), is accompanied by a series of prints that are versions of her seminal whirlwind imagery.

To complement the collection, each year Hunk and Moo commissioned photographer and founder of Stanford’s photography program, Leo Holub, to document ten different artists at work in their studios. Holub formed close bonds with many, and the duplicate portraits and studio shots presented to the artists and their families strengthened warm relationships with the Anderson family. As Hunk says, “Everything is about relationships.”

Furthering relationships with Bay Area museums, in 1992, the Anderson family donated 30 Pop Art paintings by artists like Indiana, Warhol and Oldenburg to SFMOMA. Together with two previous gifts—Jasper Johns’ Land’s End (1963) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Collection (1954-55)—these works form a dedicated gallery. In 2001-02, SFMOMA was again the recipient of an Anderson gift: seven paintings by Frank Stella that span his entire career. In their honor, Stella added another work to SFMOMA’s collection.

In 1996, the Andersons made another important contribution to a Bay Area art institution when 655 works on paper were given to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Now known as the Anderson Graphic Arts Collection, the works were originally housed at the Legion of Honor and are now displayed in a dedicated gallery at the de Young Museum, and available for loan to other institutions.

Moo has a special interest in works on paper, and in the late 1970s, together with Paula Kirkeby and Joseph Goldyne, she formed 3EP Ltd., a short-lived press and print gallery in Palo Alto. With a specially commissioned state-of-the-art Takach press, they invited painters to try the technique of monotype. As Paula says, “We liked virgins—people who weren’t printmakers.” Artists like Sam Francis, David Gilhooly, Ed Moses and others made prints at their studio.

How is a commitment to “the head and the hand” expressed in the collection? The great works collected, like Franz Kline’s Figure 8 (1952), Pollock’s Lucifer (1947), and Motherwell’s Wall Painting, No. IV (1954) were created when each painter was still questioning and searching. Each exemplifies a pivotal moment of discovery, in the transition from figuration or figurative abstraction to the innovative, distilled works and mature style for which they became known. 

Personally interested in the artist’s process and development, the Anderson family bought works recording the process, and established relationships with other works in the collection. Seeing these paintings together suggests commonalities and fresh ways of tracing ideas and movements. Their choices created meaning and relatedness in the works they bought. That is why it is such a personal collection. Hunk and Moo, later joined by their daughter Putter as she grew up in the midst of the collecting fervor, each have a vote when they purchase new work. There is a continuity of vision and a synchrony of mind that create cohesion.

The gestural expressiveness apparent in the mid-century abstract paintings in the collection reappears transformed in other later works that imply the presence of the figure. Philip Guston’s The Coat II(1977), Elizabeth Murray’s Chain Gang (1985-86), Bill Jensen’s contorted forms in Denial (1983-86). Nathan Oliveira’s Reclining Nude (1958), and Susan Rothenberg’s Patches (1982) unabashedly treat their personal versions of the tragic and comic, revealed in a painterly touch.

In the collection’s linear abstractions, which would seem to be in a different vein, we still detect a hand-made sensibility. Works by Sean Scully, Agnes Martin, Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and the Diebenkorn who created the Ocean Park paintings, could be characterized as “warm” geometry, for they evince the restraint and passion of the repeated gesture. 

The Andersons have kept many of their early sculpture purchases, works by Matisse, Nadelman, Maillol, Giacometti and Rodin. These all bear marks of the sculptor’s touch—originally created in clay and wax, translated into bronze. The collection features many post-WWII works by American sculptors like David Smith, Nancy Graves, Joel Shapiro, Robert Therrien, Mark Lere, and Tim Hawkinson. Departing from the figure and the maker’s handprint, these artists explored the tension between “balance” and “imbalance.” A central concern of sculptors who work against gravity was expressed in the new metal working techniques—as were conceptions like landscape and other painterly notions—welded, hammered, and constructed.

The collection contains work by numerous artists who, intentionally or unintentionally, explore the dualities that characterize the human condition—balance/imbalance, tragedy/comedy, physicality/the spirit. There is also a lot of dark work—paintings by Rothko, Reinhardt, Sultan, Rothenberg; sculpture by Nevelson, and Puryear. When I toured the Atherton residence in early July, I was stunned by the masterpieces hung cheek-by-jowl in the hallways: Red in Red (1955) by Sam Francis on the brick fireplace; the black, almost purple, Reinhardt at right angles to the yellow Albers; the startle of Morris Louis’s #64 (1958), “erupting” on a wall behind the couch and his Pendulum (1954) in the hall (the most beautiful Morris Louis paintings I had seen, their veils of color tempered by what looked like soot); the wide Kenneth Noland over the bed.

But what moved me most—and what may be changed most in the impact made—when relocated from the human scale of the home to the larger less personal space of the new museum (as beautiful as it is) were the Martin Puryear sculptures, Sharp and Flat, (1987); Lever (#4), (1989); Dumb Luck, (1990). Alive in their stillness, part-animal and part—simple machine, they are ciphers that inhabit and seem to move through the spaces they occupy. Marks of their maker inhabit their surfaces, which are outscale and elegant despite their humble materials. Perhaps these great works embody best the earthly humanism to which the Andersons are consistently drawn.

The numerous works by Vija Celmins in the collection are the celestial antipode to the earthliness of Martin Puryear. Barrier (1986), and Desert Surface #1 (1991) are instances of works in the collection that are painstakingly and obsessively rendered. Conceptions originating in “the head” reinterpreted by “the hand.” The Anderson family has stuck to its central tenets. In embracing the new, and in amassing their collection, they “didn’t know that it couldn’t be done, so they did it.” They weren’t limited by what they didn’t know. There is a peculiarly American quality to the innocence and the brashness that results in successful enterprises like this. A passionate and enduring commitment to art and the artists who make it, coupled with business acumen and a wish to learn, have given us a superb collection, linking artists from the East and West Coasts, from Northern and Southern California. Its impact will surely be felt on individuals, artists, and scholars—perhaps inspiring a whole new generation of collectors like the Andersons.