Diebenkorn and The Sausalito Six

by Larry Clinton and Wood Lockhart

The recent Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit at SFMOMA, contained a lot of biographical information on Richard Diebenkorn, but one glaring omission – the time he spent living and painting in Sausalito.

Wood Lockhart PhD, art historian and former Board member of the Sausalito Historical Society, told this story in an earlier MarinScope column.  Here are some excerpts:

Portrait of Richard Diebenkorn as a young artist.   Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Artists have been living and working in Sausalito since the 1930’s, but it was not until the years after World War II that the town became known as an important American art colony. Of the many artists who contributed to this reputation none were more significant than those who came to be known as the Sausalito Six. Between 1947 and 1950 Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell, Walter Kuhlman, John Hultberg, James Budd Dixon and George Stillman studied together, painted together, exhibited together and created a body of work which represents Sausalito’s most important contribution to the history of art.

The friendship between these artists began at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) in San Francisco, which all six of them attended immediately after the end of the Second World War. The post-War students were mostly military veterans taking advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided free tuition and a subsistence allowance to any former soldier who wanted to continue his education. By the end of 1946 the student body at the CSFA was composed mostly of these older military veterans including all of the Sausalito Six.

The most famous of the Sausalito Six was Richard Diebenkorn, one of the best and most important American artists of the second half of the twentieth century. Diebenkorn was educated at Lowell High School in San Francisco and at Stanford University. After his discharge from the Marines, he enrolled at CSFA in 1946. In 1947 he was promoted from student to faculty member and moved to Sausalito. Diebenkorn’s Sausalito paintings are among the very best examples of west coast Abstract Expressionism – a uniquely American combination of Abstraction, Expressionism and Surrealism.

Beginning in 1948 the Sausalito Six began regular meetings in one another’s studios, usually in Sausalito but sometimes at Dixon’s studio in San Francisco. These get togethers often involved what the artists called “pen and ink jam sessions” where each artist would produce a pen and ink drawing. In an effort to make their work available to a wider public at an affordable price, they decided to put together 200 portfolios of these drawings in the form of signed lithographs that were published and made available to the public.

In a memoir in which he spoke of his association with the Sausalito Six, George Stillman wrote: “The Bay Area was filled with artists making pretty pictures. To fall into the trap of providing social entertainment on the level of drawing room decoration was to be avoided at all costs. About five or six of us shared this opinion at the time: Diebenkorn, Hultberg, Lobdell, Kuhlman, Dixon and myself. But it was more than just a negative attitude toward drawing rooms that brought us close; there was a real kinship in our basic reason for painting. We showed together, published together and somehow knew when it was time to leave each other’s company.”

The glory days of the Sausalito Six lasted only a few short years. By the end of 1950 they had all gone their separate ways: Diebenkorn left for Albuquerque, Lobdell and Kulhman went to Paris, Hultberg to New York and Stillman to Mexico. Only Walter Kuhlman returned to Sausalito where he continued to paint until his death at the age of 90. His work together with that of the others of the Sausalito Six stands as an eloquent testimony to the importance of Sausalito as a true artists’ community.