Prolific Inverness painter John Anderson, a protégé of the Parisian Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford who labored in obscurity for more than five decades before his first major exhibition and commercial success in 2008, died at his hilltop home in the Bishop Pine Preserve on November 13 after a protracted battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 78.
“Line by line, dot by dot, circle upon circle the painter depicts an alien, compelling world that appears to be animated by its own logic,” wrote longtime friend and sculptor Peter De Swart in an introduction to Anderson’s exhibition catalogue at the Weinstein Gallery, in San Francisco. His abstract acrylic paintings, featuring emanating orbs, swirls and blotches of color beside dizzyingly detailed dots and lines, arose from intense explorations of the unconscious mind and defied standard representation. Not surprisingly, the man behind these creations fashioned for himself a unique world—one that he inhabited with monkish intensity and focus, a wry sense of humor, and a deep intellect. He made a career as a talented though unlicensed contractor, and he was deeply devoted to his daughters Tama Bell and Ana Turner, and his wife, Mary Mountcastle Eubank.
“He was a person who really looked at the world through his own eyes. He was not afraid to think or say things even if they wouldn’t agree with what other people thought. He never questioned how he should live,” De Swart, who knew Anderson for more than three decades, said.
John Anderson was born in South Side Chicago in 1932 to John Anderson and Evelyn Stade. The lower-middle class family struggled through the Great Depression, and Anderson’s relationship with his alcoholic father was strained. At 18 he enlisted in the Navy and served on a life-saving, non-combat vessel in the Korean War. He spent his time off in Japan, where he first encountered Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that would later influence the theory and practice behind his art.
Anderson returned to the Midwest in 1954 and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign under the G.I. Bill. While there, he decided to pursue painting and, after stints at Mexico City College and in Texas, he moved west to study at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts. “No one studied art,” he told an interviewer of his experience. “We all stayed home and painted…You learned what you could by yourself.”
In 1958, with his government funds dwindling, Anderson took a job as a dishwasher at Manka’s Restaurant, in Inverness. The mundane occupation would lead him to a special relationship with Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford, who associated with the same literati circles as Andre Breton and Gertrude Stein and influenced artists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell.
Onslow Ford had recently settled on a large wooded parcel atop the Inverness Ridge and frequented the restaurant with his wife. One day, on a customary visit, he noticed a painting hanging above the fireplace and inquired about its origin. Anderson was called out of the kitchen, and he and Onslow Ford struck up a conversation that sowed the seeds for a lifelong friendship.
“It was one of those days that turns your life around without you knowing how or why it happened,” Anderson said. “There you are in a whole new set of circumstances going in a whole new way.”
Later that weekend, Anderson lunched with Onslow Ford, Alan Watts and Richard Bowman on the hilltop property. He soon became an assistant to Onslow Ford, who inspired him to shift from figurative work to the abstract, spontaneous and philosophical and to begin using lines, circles and dots as elemental fixtures.
During the days Anderson worked at a frame store in San Francisco. He had his first daughter, Tama Bell, with Beth Johnson in 1966. Around the same time, Onslow Ford provided him with a one-acre parcel and invited him to join him and sculptor JB Blunk at a developing artist collective at Bishop Pine Preserve. Anderson built a cottage and adjacent studio, where he would live and work until he died.
Anderson began working as a carpenter and unlicensed contractor during the warmer half of the year and spent the other six months painting. Bolstered by his reading of Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and his understanding of Zen Buddhism, he quickly distinguished himself from Onslow Ford with a unique theoretical framework and terminology.
“Once John found his way inside his own world, marvelous creations started to blossom,” Fariba Bogzaran, a close friend and professor of art at John F. Kennedy University who researched his art for her doctoral dissertation, wrote in an email.
In 1966, Anderson developed the idea of SIME, which stood for “SImultaneous ME,” as his “beginning image,” the one from which all his other works bubbled. Visually, it graced his canvases as two circular objects connected by a line, but it represented an esoteric psychological experience that guided the rest of his work.
“I was focused in the moment and began to paint without intention, very subtle impulses, from an inner world of my psyche, passed through my hand to become marks on the canvas,” Anderson wrote in his 2001 book Beginner’s Beginning. “They arrived spontaneously, formed by their own language, but centered in the nucleus of the moment. Sime World is the track of that state of grace; it is the result of the spontaneous activity of my whole person, my Radiant Self. It was an experience of wholeness that still resides in my painting today.”
The interpretation of this concept became more nuanced and significant over time. For Anderson, SIME signified a gateway into the unknown. It was the unification of the physical painting process and the higher consciousness he wished to reflect and illuminate.
“The more conscious I am, the more centered in the here and now, the more liberated SIME is to play in the cosmic drama I am part of,” he wrote. “SIME is what focuses me in that drama, and empowers me to begin to radiate its compassionate energy.”
Anderson began his painting process with a meditation session. He sat on the floor with the canvas stretched out before him, and waited. “His process was emptying his mind and focusing as much as possible and then working from that place,” Mary Eubank said. “Just going into a deep inner place and then working from that place without trying to pictorialize it.”
Despite his deeply theoretical and serious artistic life, Anderson remained private about his artwork. “John was unexpected,” Bogzaran wrote. “Outwardly he might have shown his down to earth side, casual, builder of homes and then in his paintings he was a creator of marvelous inscapes, cosmic, extremely precise and methodical.”
Anderson was also known for his irreverent and at times lacerating brand of humor. “He had a liquid tongue. He had a fast mind, and sometimes I think he regretted what he said,” longtime friend and writer Philip Fradkin, for whom Anderson helped build a home, said. “If you knew him well enough, it came from inside him and his needs. It was just part of his character. I took it as a challenge, a match of wits.”
Ana, his daughter with his second wife, Nancy Stein, remembered him as a great father who was always involved and supportive. “He was really funny,” she said. “He made up all these songs. When he didn’t know the words to the songs, he would make them up. He really knew how to play. Even though he was busy creating artwork and doing construction, he was always there.” In the early 1980s, while in San Francisco, Anderson fell and broke his neck. He was found on the street and rushed to the hospital, where he remained unconscious for three days. Following the accident, he began hanging around the recently widowed Eubank, and the pair bonded over their respective healing periods. They fell in love and remained together until his death. It was his longest romance.
After he was fully healed, Anderson returned to his meditative routine of prodigious production. Despite not being exhibited or publicly recognized, he would not put down his brush again until around 2003, after Onslow Ford and Blunk’s deaths and his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, both of which devastated his creative abilities and drive.
“Despite the fact that he had gotten very little recognition, it never deterred him,” Eubank said. “He just kept working. It didn’t seem to preoccupy him. He just worked very steadily and it was the work that mattered to him, not what he was getting from it.”
Once he stopped working, Anderson no longer felt the need to shelter himself from outside influence or commercial pressures. Introduced through Bogzaran, Rowland Weinstein of Weinstein Gallery came to his studio in 2008 to see his work and asked to test a few paintings at his shop. There was an immediate interest. “I think his work is totally extraordinary,” said Weinstein, who sells paintings by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall on the same walls as Anderson’s. “The level of detail is almost unfathomable. The magnitude of the effort and patience is completely mind boggling.”
The paintings sold so well at a group exhibition that the gallery decided to host his first major solo exhibition in 2009. Weinstein said he had never seen such passion for a completely unknown name. Hosting Anderson was the most fulfilling and meaningful experience of his career.
“The moment when you see him walking into the exhibition and people start clapping and you see the tears streaming down his face, that’s a moment I will never forget,” he said. The reception was astounding. Roughly 100 of Anderson’s paintings flew off the walls and into collectors’ homes in Houston and Scottsdale and elsewhere across the country, some of them for as much as $140,000. Anderson was elated and overwhelmed.
“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,’” raved art critic Garrett Caples in his review for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Tama started calling her father a rock star. Ana said the late recognition is what kept his ailing body going for as long as it did. For once, Anderson was willing to boast. He even convinced the clerk at the Inverness Store to refer to him as “master.”
“I think it couldn’t have happened any better,” De Swart said. “It is, in a sense, a storybook ending.”
John Anderson is survived by his wife, Mary Mountcastle Eubank; his daughters, Tama Bell and her husband Dan, Ana Turner and her husband Burke, and Elizabeth Leighton Jones; his grandchildren, Ashley and Lauren Bell, and Alec Turner; his sister Margaret Theime; and nephews, Leroy, Dave, Mike, Tim and Don Theime and niece, Debi Tabeling. A memorial in Point Reyes Station is being planned for the near future.