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Death masks, embroidered portraits and public art: What to see at Stanford’s art museums this summer

With gas prices high and airline travel unpredictable, it might be a good time to consider cultural offerings closer to home.
Sam Francis, The Beaubourg, 1977

With gas prices high and airline travel unpredictable, it might be a good time to consider cultural offerings closer to home. The Stanford campus is home to two world-class museums and if COVID has kept you from visiting them recently, you may be pleasantly surprised at the varied – and thought-provoking – exhibitions currently on view. A recent visit to both the Anderson Collection and the Cantor Arts Center revealed both old favorites and new acquisitions that offer something for every age and taste.

Start at the Anderson Collection, a bespoke museum that houses the collection of the late Harry W. “Hunk” and Mary Margaret “Moo” Anderson. The result of a mutually beneficial relationship between the local couple and the university, the Anderson holds a world-renowned collection of post-World War II American art that once graced the halls of the Saga Corporation, (Harry Anderson was one of the founders) and later, the Quadrus office complex on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. For those who are unfamiliar with the background of this collection and how it came to Stanford, it’s worthwhile to pop into the comfortably appointed library. Here, the Andersons’ private library of art books (used to assist them in their collecting) and a video interview with the couple can be found. The second floor is where the initial 2014 gift of 121 paintings and sculptures, as well as more recent acquisitions, are installed. 

The museum was closed for a period in 2021 while building maintenance was undertaken; it was also an opportunity to totally reinstall the permanent collection. In place of a didactic arrangement of pieces that grouped objects by themes (California Funk, Bay Area Figuration, Abstract Expressionism, etc.) the current installation is a delightful juxtaposition of like and unlike art works.  

In other words, this placement is more a reflection of how the Andersons lived with art in their home. Large-scale abstract paintings resided comfortably next to English antiques and sculptures by California artists like Robert Arneson and David Gilhooly. Yes, one of the most famous examples of Jackson Pollock’s “drip period,” “Lucifer,” is still in the largest gallery, but it has now been joined with more recent gifts from the Andersons and others. “Totem Lesson I” (also by Pollock) and “Gansevoort Street” by Willem de Kooning were given by Mary Margaret Anderson prior to her death. Another important Anderson gift were prints and a marble bust, “Makida III” by Manuel Neri. These and more contemporary works like Mary Weatherford’s 2017 “Black Painting,” which has a swath of neon tubing across the surface of the canvas, assure that the museum remains a dynamic learning experience, no matter how often one visits.

While it’s always interesting to see the new, it is also fun to see familiar works in new places. The bright and upbeat painting, “The Beaubourg” by Sam Francis, used to be tucked away in the lower-level hallway. Now on view upstairs, it has pride of place on a main wall.  Not far from it is a special grouping of works by Stanford alumnus Richard Diebenkorn. The Andersons were good friends with the artist, and the works here reflect his ability to capture light and landscape in an innovative, abstracted manner. “Ocean Park #60” is gorgeous, blue and tranquil – perhaps like the Southern California neighborhood that inspired it. This painting alone is worth a visit.

Back downstairs in the temporary exhibition gallery, “American Progress,” a thought-provoking display of prints and sculptures by Wendy Red Star, addresses the impact of westward expansion on Indigenous peoples and the environment.

Walking next door to the Cantor, which is a much larger and encyclopedic museum, it is a good idea to take a map and plot out a course for a visit. The permanent collection consists of everything from African art and artifacts to European paintings to contemporary works, so seeing it all could take hours. I focused on the temporary exhibitions now on display and found plenty to keep me looking and thinking.

a wall featuring mask art
“The Faces of Ruth Asawa” exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. (Image courtesy Glen Cheriton)

For those seeking a historical foundation for the museum, the exhibition “Melancholy Museum” provides a wonderful orientation on how Jane Stanford wanted to create a lasting tribute to her son, Leland Jr., himself a budding collector of antiquities. In this display, there are three death masks of Jane, Leland and their son that are a fascinating, if macabre, starting point before walking around the corner to see the newly opened exhibit “The Faces of Ruth Asawa.” Unlike the death masks, these faces of friends, family and colleagues are happy tributes. Created out of ceramic and in tones of brown, tan, yellow and white, the faces are, for the most part, smiling. The museum has acquired 233 of the masks, which were created over a three-decade period. Asawa, known mainly for her twisted-wire sculptures, made the masks as a way to capture faces in time.

A new display of works from the Marmor Collection focuses on the use of black and white in prints and features works by noted artists Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, Bruce Nauman and Sam Francis. The original gift of 200 prints, most made at the prestigious Gemini G.E.L. studio in Los Angeles, was intended to highlight “the importance of paper as medium.” Close by are several new museum acquisitions: “Country City” and “Large Sucker” by Sacramento native Wayne Thiebaud. They are bright, beautifully rendered and reflective of two of the artist’s favorite subjects, the vertiginous streets of San Francisco and mouth-watering food.

Upstairs, take a close look to enjoy the small, meticulously embroidered portraits sewn by LJ Roberts. They are an incredibly detailed tribute to the artist’s friends in the queer and trans community of New York City. Displayed in clear Plexiglas frames, it is possible to see the reverse side of each piece and marvel at the time (up to a year each) and care taken in their creation.

Visitors who’ve found they have worked up an appetite on this museum trek can stop by a new addition to the Cantor, Tootsie’s Café in the museum’s lower level. Opened just five months ago, it features seasonal salads, sandwiches and pastas. Or, those who may have brought a lunch can grab a bench outside and enjoy one of the museum’s best-known features: an extensive collection of bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Individual pieces are sited at ground level, while “Gates of Hell” has its own special platform.

There are two more noteworthy stops outdoors that visitors will want to catch: environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy’s sandstone serpentine sculpture has become part of the terra firma in the nearby arboretum. Just a few steps away, a brand-new addition to the public art scene on campus is a work by sculptor Beverly Pepper. Consisting of four 40-foot-high steel columns that serve as a sentinel to the Stanford Arts District, “The Stanford Columns” are bold, impressive and encourage visitors to wander – and wonder – at the plethora of art experiences right on our doorstep.

Both the Anderson Collection and Cantor Arts Center are free to the public with advance reservations. For the Cantor Arts Center, visit and for the Anderson Collection, visit

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