Walter Kuhlman in his studio at the ICB
By Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
“Painting has to have an abstract substructure. Otherwise it isn’t worth a damn.” That was the credo of one of Sausalito’s most influential artists, Walter Kuhlman. In a 1980 interview, he told MarinScope contributor Beth Galleto that he revealed himself to the world through his painting, but he declined to interpret his work. “Jung said that it is sufficient that an artist create,” Kuhlman explained. “He should leave interpretation to someone else. I’m content to do that.”
Walter Kuhlman was part of a wave of WWII veterans who came to the Bay Area to attend local art schools on the G.I. Bill. He enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961). “It was not like the organized art schools today where everybody is degree-nutty,” Kuhlman told Historical Society volunteer Peter Arnott. “In those days, the school was so free. You’d come in in the mornings, paint until two o’clock, then go down to Bruno’s and drink wine. I never even got a certificate from the school. I guess they gave them, but it didn’t matter. We were painting. We didn’t care if we were famous. We were all out of the war —and survived. We didn’t look to tomorrow. We just painted.”
Kuhlman took a break from school to spend a year in Paris. He later recalled that the impact of American painting was just hitting Europe at that time. “I was part of that vanguard,” he told Beth Galleto.
Upon returning to Sausalito, he worked for a time at Heath Ceramics, which employed a number of local artists. Then he cooked for five years at the Glad Hand. One day a friend called to tell him that he had been chosen for a Graham Foundation Fellowship. “Only ten people in the world got these fellowships,” Walter said, “and you couldn’t apply for them.” The fellowship freed him from financial worries, and upon hearing the news, he said, “Now I don’t have to cook these chickens anymore.”
Meanwhile, CSFA had become a hotbed of a distinct style of abstract painting known as West Coast Abstract Expressionism. Kuhlman and four fellow students met up with Richard Diebenkorn, the best known of the West Coast Abstract Expressionists and a member of the CSFA faculty. In 1948, Diebenkorn, Kuhlman and the others began meeting informally in each other’s studios in Sausalito.
As Historical Society Board Member Wood Lockhart noted at an “Artistic Sausalito” program at the Sausalito Woman’s Club in 2009, “The Sausalito Six shared models and ideas. Sometimes they would have sessions during which they worked on keeping up their figurative skills, or pen and ink ‘jam sessions.’ They also had group shows in Sausalito at the Seashore Gallery,” and other venues.
The Sausalito Six worked together for less than two years, and then the artists went their separate ways. Lockhart reported, “Walter Kuhlman, the only one of the Sausalito Six who later returned to live in Sausalito, had built a house for himself and his family in 1949 at an initial cost of $5,000, doing much of the work himself.”
In 1955, Kuhlman was the first artist to rent a space in the Industrial Center Building — beginning a tradition that continues today. Peter Arnott recalls, “Over the years, Kuhlman has been honored with many distinguished awards. ‘But,’ he said, in his quiet, self-effacing way, ‘you can’t find happiness in the minds of others’.”
Examples of Kuhlman’s ground-breaking work hang in major museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum in London. And he has graced the faculties of several Bay Area institutions, such as Stanford University, Santa Clara University and Sonoma State University, where he taught for two decades.
“After a long and distinguished career,” Peter Arnott reported, “Walter Kuhlman died in March of 2009 at the age of 90. During his lifetime, when asked to comment on his art, Kuhlman typically looked inward. ‘I just get the canvas dirty,’ he said, ‘and then dream into it.’ And he continued, ‘It’s the emergence of life … living things coming out of a shadow … I never know what happens.’
And finally, the confession of the truly talented: ‘How do I know? I just do it’.”