Wayne Andersen, pioneer in visual arts at MIT, dies at 85

Art historian joined the Department of Architecture in 1965.


Wayne Vesti Andersen, a professor emeritus of history, theory and criticism of art and architecture at MIT, died Jan. 6 at Massachusetts General Hospital at age 85.

Andersen was a scholar, author, lecturer, and consultant to corporations and government agencies. His expertise ranged from the finer points of Paul Cezanne’s drawings to the breeding lines of Arabian horses.

After completing his PhD at Columbia University, Andersen was brought to MIT in 1965 by then-President Julius Stratton. He was given an academic appointment in the Department of Architecture and a charge to develop a program of visual arts.

“Wayne was always a daring explorer of ideas and a congenial, constructive collaborator,” says Stanford Anderson, a professor of history and architecture at MIT. “While he blazed new trails for MIT in contemporary art, we had the valued opportunity to share with Henry A. Millon in the foundation of MIT’s pioneering PhD program in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art. He was a dear friend and colleague.”

As director of MIT’s Hayden Gallery, Andersen generated national interest in MIT as a sponsor of contemporary art, with original exhibitions of the work of Hans Haacke, Takis, the Park Place Group, and the photographer Minor White, among others. In 1969 he created the “Moon Show” a multimedia exhibit combining film, historic images, Neil Armstrong’s moon photographs, and one of the first public exhibits of moon dust collected by the Apollo 11 astronauts.

“Wayne was a towering figure,” says Caroline Jones, a professor of the history of art at MIT. “Tall and commanding until the end, he brought MIT into the contemporary art world with joy and panache. His eyes gleaming with mischief, he helped generations of MIT students and colleagues see the parallels between an inspired hack and the blagues of the avant-garde. His impact on campus, and on the thriving arts community that now characterizes our Institute, is immeasurable.”

As chairman of MIT’s Committee on the Visual Arts from 1965 to 1977, Andersen added large-scale sculpture to the campus and inaugurated one of the first “percent for art” programs at any university; the requirement for the MIT collection was that all artworks remain publicly accessible. Early acquisitions included pieces by Henry Moore and Louise Nevelson; an extensive collection of paintings and prints dispersed across the campus; and a print-lending library for students to enhance their dorm rooms. He also brought artists and critics to MIT to engage both students and faculty with ideas in contemporary art.

In 1968, Andersen was appointed as a consultant to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for art projects done under a percent-for-art program associated with public spaces built with federal or state funding. In 1969, Frank Morris, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, engaged Andersen to create a collection of contemporary art for the bank’s new building, designed by Hugh Stubbins and Associates.

“He clearly had an eye for what was good,” says Bruce Mazlish, a professor emeritus of history at MIT. “He had extraordinary range and depth. Wayne’s was always a questing mind. He will be missed, both as a colleague and as a friend.”

Starting in the late 1970s, Andersen was one of the first corporate art consultants to advise companies on how to enrich their environment as part of their corporate identity. He built art collections for companies including IBM, AT&T, Wells Fargo Bank, Northrop Corporation, and Texas Instruments. Many of these collections included integral art: large-scale photography, graphics, murals, and tapestries. In 1986 he founded Vesti Design International, specializing in integral art installations; the firm’s work included interior artwork for the mosque at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and for King Abdulazziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Andersen was the author of 14 books, including “Gauguin’s Paradise Lost” (1971, with a second edition in 2013), which was labeled an “extraordinary study” by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times; and “The Youth of Cezanne and Zola” (2003), which was rated among “the best of the best of 2003” by the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Andersen was born on a farm in Hinton, Iowa, one of 10 children of parents of Danish descent. He revisited his love of farm life by creating Vesti Arabians, an Arabian horse breeding farm that he operated in Woodstock, Vt., for 10 years. In addition to his MIT position, he was a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia universities.

In the last year, Andersen worked on a book of his collected essays, in which he wrote: “I have had a long life of successes guided by evading threats of failure, like a skier flying down an unknown mountainside with no designated route or destination in mind.”

Andersen is survived by his wife, Phyllis Andersen, of Boston. He is also survived by a son, Mark Andersen, of Los Angeles, and a daughter, Maja Andersen, of Phoenix, both from his first marriage, to Ebba Stoll.


Topics: Obituaries, Emeritus, Faculty, Visual arts

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