For the past 44 years, a pivotal painting in the evolution of American Modern art in the exhausted aftermath of World War II has hung in a private home in an affluent San Francisco suburb — first in a child's bedroom and then over a dining room credenza.
Jackson Pollock's "Lucifer" (1947) is the canvas in which the artist's tentative experiments with a revolutionary new way of painting first took flight.
Now the painting is going public. "Lucifer" is the stellar work in the Anderson Collection, an impressive new museum opening Sunday at Stanford University.
Given the prestige of the university, founded in 1891, it is remarkable to realize that Stanford has never been home to a major art collection. The closest it has come is the group of 200 sculptures by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), mostly contemporary bronze casts, housed at the Cantor Arts Center adjacent to the new museum. Overnight, the Anderson Collection catapults Stanford into the top tier of American university museum art collections.
"Lucifer" joins another 83 paintings and 37 sculptures by 86 artists, acquired over the past 50 years by Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson and their daughter, Mary Patricia Pence. Their gift is among the most magnanimous in recent memory.
When announced three years ago, it was also something of a surprise. Since 1972, the Andersons had given numerous works to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, including prime examples by Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. (Selections from the Pop art gifts are currently on view at the Cantor.) In 2000, SFMOMA organized an exhibition of the Anderson collection in what was widely seen as an effort to cement a future bequest.
As often happens with such shows, no pledge materialized. The Andersons have said that planned gifts from other collectors to San Francisco lessened the museum's need for their paintings and sculptures. But the decision was a blow. SFMOMA is home to Pollock's enigmatic "Guardians of the Secret" (1943), an abstract invocation of mysterious ancient pictographs, and the breathtaking leap to "Lucifer" would have made an incomparable juxtaposition.
On the evidence, I suspect another reason guided the decision. In some respects, the Stanford museum bids farewell to a vanishing culture — to a slower, more deliberate and more personal collecting style.
The Andersons began collecting in the 1960s, when the art world was small and insular and museums weren't defined by a philosophy of grow-or-die corporatism. Buying and selling contemporary painting and sculpture had not become the spectator sport they are today, dominated by international collectors forged in the expansive contemporary art market that erupted in the 1980s. At Stanford, a fixed, free-standing collection that will not grow, housed in a dedicated university building, frames the distinction.
The most recent work on view is "Full Time," a 2003 canvas by Bay Area artist Squeak Carnwath that charts a ruminating, diary-like process of painting in abstract terms. Visually it looks nothing like Pollock's celebrated 1947 drip-painting, but conceptually it is cut from the same cloth. "Full Time" fits the collection's general focus, which is a mature American aesthetic that materialized in the two decades after World War II.
The period from the late 1940s to the 1960s forms the collection's beating heart. It emphasizes the three American cities where advanced art flourished most vigorously.
Bay Area figurative painting is anchored with exceptional examples by David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, whose loaded brushwork registers primitive human forms rather than abstract gestures. Funk art, a more bohemian rejection of highfalutin pure abstraction, is especially well represented in eccentric ceramic sculptures by David Gilhooly and Robert Arneson.
Los Angeles' emergence centers on Light and Space art. A black-and-white geometric abstraction by John McLaughlin rightly establishes painting as the launching pad for the genre's perceptual clarity. Committing every sin of "good" composition on the way to achieving its sublime ends, the beautiful painting is the perfect setup for an exquisite, lacquered acrylic disk by Robert Irwin. The disk, divided horizontally by a shadowy gray bar, is bathed in ambient light that appears to carve visual space as if it were a solid mass.
The Bay Area and L.A. selections are not comprehensive. Edward Ruscha, John Baldessari and David Hockney, for example, have been integral to the art life of Southern California for half a century, but you won't encounter their work here. Instead, the most sustained body of work is New York School painting, announced by "Lucifer." It crowns the museum.
On a raw canvas more than 3 feet tall and 8 feet wide, Pollock began "Lucifer" with gestural marks in silvery gray. The marks are the armature for a new type of drawing. Dripping black, orange and green paint, flinging it through the air, Pollock drew in space.
The abstract composition materialized from luminous paint falling to the surface. Hence the title "Lucifer," the wise and beautiful biblical angel who fell from grace, victim of his own exalted aspirations. Pollock, painting in the aftermath of global catastrophe, evinced an almost-primitive urge to manifest evanescent beauty from entirely new means.
There are other classic works, such as "Woman Standing – Pink" by Willem de Kooning, Pollock's chief rival for postwar artistic supremacy, and Sam Francis' flutter of cellular color, "Red in Red." William Baziotes' "Serpentine" is marvelous but eccentric — an unusually large, unusually spare example by a second-tier New York artist who had moments of genius.
Also from 1955, the undulating abstract shape in Ellsworth Kelly's "Black Ripe" derives from some unidentifiable object in the visible world; but the way that the flat, dark form visually presses against the edges of the nearly square canvas embodies the sense of lush fecundity identified in the title. Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Ad Reinhardt, etc. — in many if not most cases, the Andersons acquired superlative examples after the artist's reputation began to coalesce.
Often they bought multiple works. The practice speaks of old-fashioned connoisseurship, not conspicuous or speculative consumption.
And it is art the family lived with. Architecturally, the new Stanford building's primary achievement is in preserving a sense of domestic intimacy within a public museum.
Partly that's because, like a house, no prescribed path leads a visitor through its modestly scaled rooms. (About half of the 33,000-square-foot building is gallery space.) You're free to wander.
Richard Olcott, partner at New York's Ennead Architects, designed the building. Ennead has done numerous expansions to existing art museums, but the Anderson is unusual for the firm as an entirely new art facility. The buff-colored, precast concrete building is rather dull, however, subscribing to the common if dubious proposition that museum architecture must be boring to defer to the art inside.
There's a difference between deference and dullness. The best museum buildings heighten perceptual acuity.
The Anderson Collection footprint is like a shallow bow tie, a shape that coyly repeats in specially designed, George Nelson-style gallery seating. The second-floor suite of galleries, ringed with clerestory windows, rises above a glass-enclosed lobby, offices, storage and a seminar room. A long, sloping grand staircase cuts through the center of the space, slowing one's transition from the world outside to the contemplative interior upstairs.
It's a walk well worth taking. At the top of the stairs, Clyfford Still's magnificent, monumental 1957 wall of craggy magenta and black paint, flecked with cobalt blue, fleshy pink and chrome yellow, makes a grand announcement of your arrival at a distinguished place.
The Anderson Collection at Stanford University
Where: 314 Lomita Dr., Stanford, CA 94305
When: Opening Sept. 21. Closed Tuesdays.
Tickets: Admission is free but a reservation is required.