Richard Anderson, artist known as ‘Momo’ popular in S.F.’s North Beach, dies at 74

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Richard Anderson, artist known as ‘Momo’ popular in S.F.’s North Beach, dies at 74
North Beach artist Momo, born Richard Anderson, was a distinctive presence on upper Grant Avenue. Photo: Dennis Hearne

Richard Anderson, known throughout North Beach as the artist “Momo,” has died. His death at 74 was confirmed by District Three Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a friend and neighbor for decades.

According to his daughter Peggy Anderson, who did not know the cause of death, the artist apparently died on November 20 or 21.

Momo lived at the Tower Hotel, a single-room apartment run by the Chinatown Community Development Corp. run, near the neighborhood’s historic bohemian connection, Peskin said.

“North Beach meant the world to my dad,” Anderson told The Chronicle. “He met my mother (there) and I grew up in North Beach, at Caffe Trieste and Washington Square. He was friends with the homeless and the employees of every cafe and restaurant. The city literally took care of my father for the last 10 years, looked after him, called him out when he got rowdy, and loved him and his work.”

With his long gray hair, beard and walker, Momo was a distinctive, often paint-splattered presence on upper Grant Avenue. In the 1980s and ’90s, he became known for leaving paintings on materials such as plywood and cardboard in alleys and against buildings in North Beach, as well as selling works on the street. He also wrote poems and in 2016 published the collection “A Guy Looks for Friends Where He Can” with Exit Press. With its quirky, neo-expressionism-by-the-way street art aesthetic, Momo has developed a loyal neighborhood following, said friend and North Beach resident Susan Stauter.

“Long before I knew Momo, I knew his name and would see his work,” said Stauter, the artistic director emeritus for the San Francisco Unified School District. “He was a trickster, like the fool in ‘King Lear’ who tells the truth but jumps around with bells and whistles. And he was also an artist who dealt with deeply personal issues in his work, such as life, death and loneliness.”

Peskin called Momo “part of the landscape” at the famed Caffe Trieste and nearby Live Worms Gallery. Both businesses posted memorials to him.

“Momo’s art was like Momo,” Peskin said. “It was funny, poignant, ironic, funny as hell. In some ways he was kind of a shy, soft-spoken guy, but (when) he could get out, he saw the world in all its rambunctious hilarity. He always had a sweet, warm wisdom or wise observation.”

Peskin said he plans to adjourn the Nov. 29 Board of Supervisors meeting in Momo’s memory.

Momo primarily created drawings and paintings in a primitive-referential, figurative style that often used visual wordplay and text for humor. It was the kind of art sold to tourists looking to take home a piece of the neighborhood’s Beatnik character and locals who collected Momo’s work.

“His work was constantly surprising.” says Elizabeth Ashcroft, the owner of Live Worms. “They were simple, but they weren’t simple, and I think they touched people.”

Momo’s works often contain puns and whimsical observations. Photo: Live Worms Gallery

Momo regularly hosted at Live Worms after Ashcroft took it over in 2020. His art wasn’t technically cartoons or graffiti, Ashcroft said, although there were elements of it. To the uninitiated, the work can often appear “lumpy” or even childish, Ashcroft said, but that was part of his intent.

“We all really respected his sense of humor, wit and the fact that it was often on the edge,” Ashcroft said.

A recent grouping of Momo’s works at Live Worms included “The Four Corndogs of the Apocalypse,” one of several pieces about the carnival food; “Sometimes There Are Witches,” which showcases an octet of classic Halloween heels; and a self-portrait titled “I’m White Sorry!”

Momo was born Richard Brien Anderson on June 17, 1948, in Cranford, NJ, to Richard Anderson and Margaret O’Brien. According to his daughter, he attended Boston University and moved to San Francisco after living in a congregation in Oregon with his first wife, Camille Alain. He worked as a preschool teacher at a school in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and it was during that time that her father began his art practice, creating works with his students using materials found on the street is.

Eventually, Momo began painting with poet and co-founder of City Lights Booksellers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Anderson said her father adopted the “Momo” nickname in the 1980s because “one of the surrealist poets said that Momo was the king of fools, and my father held on to that title.” Jesse James Ferrell created a short documentary about the artist titled “American Outsider Momo: King of the Idiots.”

Over the years, Momo became a familiar figure in a neighborhood that valued eccentric, artistic personalities, part of what Peskin called the “pantheon of characters that give North Beach its soul.”

Momo, although in poor health, continued to create and show his art in the weeks before his death. Photo: Dennis Hearne

Writer Scott Lettieri, a friend of Momo’s for more than three decades, said of the artist: “He was the comic relief in a world that took itself too seriously.” Lettieri, who leads literary tours of North Beach, said Momo was sometimes an impromptu attraction on the walks, telling jokes and reciting poems.

In recent years, Momo was often tied to the blocks of the upper Grant near his room due to chronic emphysema and mobility issues. The death of daughter Erica Michelle Johnson in 2020 was another major setback for the artist, who also had declining health, Anderson and others said. But still, in the weeks before his death, he continued to create and show new work.

In addition to Peggy Anderson, he is survived by his oldest daughter, Caitlin Rose Anderson, and five grandchildren, including Joel Johnson, Jacques Benazra and Juliette Benazra. Plans for a memorial have not been announced. Ashcroft said a show of Momo’s art is planned at Live Worms.

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