REVIEW John Anderson is among the great unknown painters of the 20th century. I say "20th" because, though living, he was forced to stop painting in 2003 due to Parkinson's disease. He painted voluminously, beginning in the 1950s, but seldom exhibited, and he's never had a show on the scale of his current retrospective. As Gordon Onslow Ford's studio assistant, he learned about abstract automatism from a master, and was invited to live on Onslow Ford's extensive Inverness estate in 1966, where he remains today. Thus he was able to pursue a pure artistic vision without needing to accommodate (or even notice) the fashions of the professional art world.
The results can be astonishing. If you've walked by the gallery in the past couple months, you may have seen in the window his painting Real Red (2000), which seemed to run an entire block down Powell Street (it's since been taken inside for the show). Large-scale works were Anderson's forte and Real Red amply illustrates both what he learned from his mentor and how he departed from Onslow Ford's aesthetics. For even as he embraced the latter's zen vision of circle, line, and dot as the basis of visual experience, Anderson ultimately rejected the equation of automatism with speed. For him, spontaneity wasn't incompatible with a more deliberate architecture, within which the improvised elements could play. (The show does, however, include a pair of early exercises paintings executed in 15 minutes which are splendid though atypical.)
While some of his work displays Onslow Ford's influence, Anderson clearly developed along his own lines over the years. A series of blue and white paintings from the 1970s are unlike anything I've ever seen, often composed in straight lines across the canvas which nonetheless yield various circular forms that appear to emerge from below the surface. There are fluid abstractions from the 1990s that at once give the impression of an impossible circuitry and the energy coursing through it. An electric blue often serves as the dominant tone, though his black and white work is equal to his use of color. This show is the first opportunity to see most of these works, but hopefully not the last for a painter who merits the designation of "master."
JOHN ANDERSON: A RETROSPECTIVE Through Sept. 23. Weinstein Gallery, 301 Geary, SF. (415) 362-8151, www.weinstein.com