THE BLOG

The Anderson Collection: A Record of American Artistic Innovation

06/23/2011 06:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

When it was announced on June 14th that 121 key works of American art from the Anderson Collection had been donated to Stanford University, I went straight to my office bookshelf. There I found the dog-eared copy of American Art Since 1900: A Critical History, by Barbara Rose, that Hunk and Moo Anderson had presented to me in 1979 after my two years of service as an intern to their collection.

On the inside cover was a handwritten inscription from Hunk that included the two essential questions that the Andersons had asked themselves constantly during their many years of evaluating, acquiring and living with modern and contemporary art:

Have I seen it before?
Could I have thought of it?

Those two questions, straightforward and succinct, say quite a bit about Hunk and Moo and how they focused their thinking about modern art over more than four decades of collecting. The Andersons put a high value on innovation, and as a result they were able to acquire seminal works of American modern art before they were broadly appreciated and prohibitively priced.

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Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson: Photo by Leo Holub. Behind the Andersons is Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park #60," 1973

Hunk Anderson likes aphorisms -- his friends and family call them "Hunkisms" -- and when I spoke to him on the phone on June 21st, asking a few questions about the Stanford bequest, he reminded me of one of his favorites: "I didn't know it couldn't be done, so I just went ahead and did it." That saying describes Anderson's career as an art collector and also his remarkable success in the sphere of business.

Harry "Hunk" Anderson is one of three founders of Saga Foods, a corporation that got its start when Hobart College in New York closed its cafeteria in 1948. Anderson and two friends -- Bill Laughlin and William Scandling -- reopened it and used a clever system of selling meal tickets in advance to finance their operations. As the business grew exponentially into a thriving food-service and restaurant business, the trio developed "The Saga Way," a set of corporate values that mirrored the Golden Rule: "Treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself."

When Saga went public in 1968, the Andersons found themselves with some discretionary funds. Their collecting activities, which had been by a 1964 visit to the Louvre in Paris -- Hunk remembers the trip as "a life changing event" -- took off.

In its early stages, the collection included Impressionist works by Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, followed by some American modern works from the 1920s. Their initial vision, as Hunk remembers it, was that he and Moo "... could put together a collection of maybe a couple of dozen major artworks." Eventually, they assembled what the late Albert Elsen -- a professor of Art History at Stanford -- called a "collection of collections," numbering more than 1400 works.

"We went to the library, we got catalogs, we saw shows," Anderson remembers. "Moo really almost took a course from Al Elsen, and read his book Purposes of Art. I would sneak over there [Stanford] too. Albert Elsen was very, very instrumental in the formation of our earlier collection."

Elsen used to bring his students to the Andersons' home and would spend thirty minutes or more showing his students their cast of Rodin's Walking Man, running his hands over it as he spoke. Around the same time, Elsen nudged the Andersons to consider possible changes and suggested selling or exchanging early modern works in order to focus the identity of the growing collection. Nathan Oliveira, a member of Stanford's studio art faculty, was influential in introducing the Andersons to active Bay Area artists, and praised their acquisition of Bay Area figurative works by Richard Diebenkorn and David Park.

By the mid-70s the collection had grown large enough that it was on display in two locations: at Saga Foods corporate headquarters, and also in the Andersons' home. Saga employees and visitors who came to see the collection found a Wayne Thiebaud painting of pies in the employee cafeteria, paintings and etchings by Richard Diebenkorn in the hallways and a complete set of Gemini G.E.L. lithographs, the Stoned Moon series by Robert Rauschenberg, in the accounting center.

Many of the key works from the collection, including abstract expressionist paintings by Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Kline, were to be seen at the Andersons' home. Art historian Barbara Rose recalls very clearly the impression that the house, the collection and the Andersons made on her when she visited in the early 1970s:

I visited them at their home when I was teaching in California and I was stunned that each room had a masterpiece in it and, other than that, was relatively empty. The house was simple and unpretentious with no name brand architect competing with the paintings.

Nothing in the house was meant to distract from the art, and each work was treated with the kind of respect that serious art deserves. The collection was focused on quality, not quantity and it obviously meant a great deal to them. I will never forget that visit. It made me feel that there were genuine collectors who were devoting their lives to learning about, and living with, great art.

The Andersons gained a reputation with dealers for desiring only the best works. Hunk Anderson puts it this way: "The most important thing was being sure that we collected not only the best artists, but their best work. Quality, quality, quality... " When a crate arrived from New York containing a work for the Andersons to consider, it was set among the other works in the collection to see if it made the grade. "They [the works] had to speak to each other," Hunk once told me.

In this remarkable environment, the Andersons raised their daughter Mary Patricia (Putter) who grew up familiar with great works of art. Jackson Pollock's Lucifer once hung above her bed, and in the entryway of the house was an early Giacometti sculpture she liked to call "Skinny." Not surprisingly, she later played an important role in the family's collecting activities, steering her parents towards the work of painter Susan Rothenberg.

During the 80s and 90s acquisitions continued -- including key works by Rothenberg and sculptor Martin Puryear -- but so did selective selling, so as to focus their collection on art that was "made in America" from the post-war years to the present. Saga headquarters became a corporate office park named Quadrus in 1988, and the public part of the Anderson Collection is still there, available for tours on the 3rd Thursday of every month. Over 650 graphic works, many of which were once on display at Saga, were donated in 1996 to the De Young Museum to establish the "Anderson Graphic Arts Collection."

Over the years, more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students from Stanford and other universities have served as interns to the Anderson Collection, guiding tours and learning about art through close proximity. One of the interns, Neal Benezra, is now the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which hosted "Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection" in 2000. For that reason, it has long been speculated that key works from the collection would go to SFMOMA, which had already received more than 20 pop works from the Andersons in 1992, 7 Frank Stella paintings in 2002 and also prior gifts of works by Clyfford Still, David Park and others.

Looked at from a broader perspective, the Andersons bequest to Stanford makes a great deal of sense: it is the culmination of a long relationship with Stanford and with other educational institutions including Hobart College and USC.

"Moo and I have spent our adult lives just on and off of college campuses," comments Hunk Anderson. "One of the things that Stanford is doing is creating an Arts Initiative. President John Hennessy is trying to create the basis for breadth in education, and the integration of disciplines. We feel very proud to be a part of this initiative." The Anderson Collection, which is slated to open in 2014 in a building that is yet to be designed, will stand in close proximity to other buildings in a planned "arts district."

Paula Kirkeby, an art dealer and a friend of the Andersons, calls their donation a "Wonderful and well thought out gift for Stanford." Of course, what Stanford is getting is more than a collection of works of art, but also a kind of cultural and historical record.

According to Rachel Teagle, a former Anderson intern who later served as a curator of the collection, the Anderson Collection can be seen as a record of American artistic innovation and achievement that runs parallel to the historic rise of American industry in the post-war period. "I think what is so great about the collection," says Teagle, "is that the collection itself is an artifact of Hunk coming of age as a collector after going to school on the GI Bill, and then taking part in an era of industry when America made things. The collection reflects a similar rise to prominence."

The Anderson Collection was created by a forward-looking family that taught themselves the value of art as they lived with it. Of course, it was about more than education.

"We are very much self-taught, "says Hunk Anderson, "but passions cannot be denied."