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John Saccaro



By Margaret Pike

John Saccaro's successful artistic career was centered on his unrelenting desire to capture some kind of energy within his art. He is most commonly associated with the San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism. His artistic style has closely mirrored the course of American aesthetic sensibilities exemplified during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

Table of Contents


John Saccaro was born in San Francisco on September 2, 1913 to parents of Venetian descent. His father was a Foreman for the Union Iron works and his mother was a housewife. His notes from grammar school were usually filled with sketches of cowboys, ships, and strong men instead of arithmetic and English. Although his father died from cancer when Saccaro was four years old, he left an impression on his son. His father forced him to learn Italian- the “old language,” which would later help his artistic career.

At the age of eighteen, John Saccaro moved into a hotel in San Francisco. He decided not to graduate from high school, and to instead start working. A year later, two major loves entered John's life at the same time. He enrolled in his first art class at an adult education center, which was taught by the woman who would become his future wife, Marie Lynch. Marie Lynch was from Boston, MA, was a graduate from the University of California San Francisco, and always had an interest in creativity and the arts.

In 1939, a friend recommended that he apply to the Public Works Art Project (PWAP). Saccaro submitted a portfolio of watercolors and was hired immediately to the Easel Section of the project. In late 1939, Saccaro was transferred to the Murals section of the PWAP. Also in 1939 at the age of 25, John Saccaro had his first one-man show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. After spending some time at the Mural's Section, Saccaro transferred to another project, this time supervising the installation of a tile mural at the Aquatic Park. The original designer for the mural had suddenly quit, and the crew of Italian tile installers was already in San Francisco. The installers needed some artistic direction, but they only spoke Italian. Saccaro's father forcing him to learn the "old language" back in his childhood had finally paid off. Unfortunately, in 1942 World War II was in full swing, and Saccaro was drafted before the Aquatic Park mural was finished. During the war, he was assigned to paint the camouflage on tanks for the Army. While in the Army he became the resident artists for the troops, "I painted all kinda things, ambulances and, you know, and made red crosses and white stars for allied identification and, then, when I was in Europe finally, then I did a lot of Mickey Mouses and that rabbit, you know, that tough rabbit, that everybody wanted on their tank… "Whats up doc," and all that."

At the end of his service in 1945, he moved back to San Francisco. Saccarro enrolled at the California School of Fine Art (CSFA), in 1951, at the age of 38. The California School of Fine Art was the center of the west coast Abstract Expressionism movement. Though the San Francisco school of Abstract Expressionism is often over shadowed by the New York school, this California style was equally innovative and art historically significant. The CSFA was the home to faculty such as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Ansel Adams (1902 –1984), Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967), David Park (1911–1960) and James Budd Dixon (1900-1967).

He was by far the oldest student at the school, and he often boasted that he had begun painting even before some of his teachers. The CSFA was centered on Abstract Expressionism, and its teachers often would use interesting techniques to coax students into thinking about abstract painting styles. One technique that his teacher, Hassel Smith would employ would be to crumple up a huge pile of newspapers on the floor then he'd ask the students to paint it. This would help them begin to think of paintings in terms of lights, darks, and colors, instead of in terms of the contours of figures and representational objects. The encouragement he found at the school really inspired him to work on creating good abstract paintings and to abandon the regionalist style he had developed in the PWAP.

After graduating, he began painting in the abstract style he is most famous for, which he called Sensorism. To Saccaro, Abstract Expressionism was not just about creating a painting through spontaneous actions; to him, he had to create something. He had to deliberately create an abstract image that captured some kind of energy or emotion. " I never went for the little business of dripping the paint on the floor or jumping up to the canvas and making stripes. No, I always had to come up with some sort of an image... I couldn't explain what the image was, I couldn't say even when I gave it a title, I couldn't make you really see what I saw because everybody sees different. But I had to have something there. And you can see that in every [painting].” Saccaro continued to paint in this Sensorist style with much success. He was featured in many prominent galleries, including the M.H. de Young Museum, the Bolles Gallery in New York, the Oakland Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

As the 60s rolled in, the art world began to change, and John Saccaro knew it. Abstract Expressionism was more than a decade old and Pop Art was already becoming fashionable. "I quit painting in '63 because I could see it was the end of Abstract expressionism for me. For everybody, you know. Pop art had already come on strong and op art was already waiting in the side wings there to come on stage strong. And then from there on it went to what… Minimal art, then conceptual art, and asshole art, and vaudeville art, and every other kind of art. So I just couldn't get with that stuff." So just like that, in 1964 John Saccaro decided to quit painting with oils altogether. That same year he was offered a teaching job at UCLA. He taught there for two quarters.

After a six-year hiatus from the art world, Saccaro and his wife returned to San Francisco. In 1970, he debuted a mixed media show that was unlike any style he had ever done. The show, titled X-ray Suite: Gun Shot Wounds and Clinical Enigma's, premiered at the Quay Gallery in San Francisco, This show featured exposed X-ray film that had been painted or embellished in some way.

Unfortunately, in 1973 Marie passed away and Saccaro spent his final days in his hometown of San Francisco, were he died on October 3rd, 1981. Many of John Saccaro's paintings are featured in prominent collections of Abstract Expressionism, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum and the Oakland Museum.


Although John Saccaro is most famous for his Abstract Expressionist paintings, he spent the first decade of his career as a Regionalist painter for the Public Works Art Project. During Saccaro’s career, the international art scene was going through a lot of changes. Starting with Abstract Expressionism, America (not Europe) was becoming the new focal point for the avant garde. John Saccaro’s progression from a naturalistic style to an abstract style mirrored America’s own artistic transition through the 50s and 60s.

Saccaro’s early works are characterized primarily by their subject matter. They often depict traditional “American” themes of agriculture or rural workers. One example of John Saccaro’s work that exemplifies this style is his piece Railroad Repair (c. 1939). This oil on canvas depicts a time-honored scene of three men working on a railroad. Though the perspective on this piece is not completely naturalistic, all of the elements within the composition, including the men, railway car and scenery, are all presented in a slightly stylized, yet realistic way. During this time, Saccaro primarily worked with watercolors.

After his time in the Army, Saccaro came back to San Francisco and enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Immediately after enrolling, he was encouraged to paint abstractly by teachers such as David Park and Hassel Smith. Saccaro’s early Abstractionist works varied greatly while he was still trying to develop his own, unique style. His works ranged from oils on canvas to mixed media works on plywood boards. One example of his developing abstract style is his mixed media piece Cantatas from 1951. This brightly colored work looks nothing like the Sensorist pieces he eventually became famous for. It is an abstract expressionist piece that consists of bright colors, mainly tangerines, which are juxtaposed over blocks of muted dark beiges and olive greens.

It was not until after his graduation from the CSFA that he discovered his own abstract style, which he called “Sensorism.” His oil on canvas, Raid (Sensory) (1957), exemplifies the Sensorist style. Almost all of his Sensorist paintings were on large canvases, usually over 60”x50” in size. These paintings are usually multichromatic and done in muted colors. Saccaro uses a variety of horizontal and vertical slashing strokes to create his images, and his technique includes layering many of these slashes. Saccaro executed this layering in a precise manner. Concerning this technique, he once said, “So the way I went, finally, is I’d take a canvas, a big canvas, and just load the God damn thing helter-skelter, every God damn color I could throw out and was available, I put it on with a knife and with a tube, squeezing it and spreading it and brushing it and everything until I had an absolute chaos on it. And this is the formal, philosophical way of the… I don’t know what you’d call it… the ontology or whatever the hell it is, where you bring order out of chaos.”

After discovering his own Abstract Expressionistic style, John Saccaro prospered and created many Sensorist canvases. But just as easily as Abstract Expressionism had become cutting edge, a new style began to develop and to take it’s place- Pop art. In 1964, John Saccaro decided to quit painting all together. He decided this was the end of his beloved movement, and so he would go out with it. “I had said my say. If these God damn things are any good, they’ll be here in 50 years from now and be worth $20,000 maybe. Or if they’re no good, they’ll be worth 50 cents fifty years from now. I said what I had to say. That’s all. I would like to be painting, but I sure as hell am not going to take somebody else’s school…” Today, Sensorist paintings by John Saccaro are worth a lot more then 50 cents and that is because today’s modern audience is able relate to the energy his was striving to capture almost 50 years ago.


  • 1913 Born on September 2 in San Francisco on Telegraph Hill
  • 1932 First professional interest in art. At age 19 he takes an adult education Art Class that is taught by his Future wife Marie Lynch
  • 1939 Starts working for Easel Section of the Public Works Arts Project in SF
  • 1939 First one-man show at SFMA
  • 1939-40 Transferred to Murals Section. Works on Murals on Federal Building at Treasure Island for the Gold Gate Exposition.
  • 1941-42 Transferred to supervise Aquatic Park project
  • 1942-46 In the Army for WWII
  • 1947 Pursues a career in writing
  • 1951-54 Enrolled at CSFA on a GI Bill
  • 1955 Begins painting in Sensory Paintings
  • 1964 Quits painting in the abstract style
  • 1963-64 Teaches at UCLA: Advanced Drawing Laboratory, Advanced Painting
  • 1970 First new show since he quit painting. Xray Suite: Gunshot wounds and Clinical Enigmas opens at Quay Gallery
  • 1973 Wife Marie Saccaro dies
  • 1981 San Francisco October 3rd

  • Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA
  • Elvehjemg Museum, University of Wisconsin at Madison, WI
  • Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA
  • MH de Young Memorial Museum, SF
  • Oakland Museum, CA
  • Palm Springs Desert Museum, CA
  • Pasadena Art Museum, CA
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
  • Triton Museum, Santa Clara, CA

  • Solo Exhibitions
  • 1939 San Francisco Museum of Art- Water Colors, CA
  • 1946 M.H. de Young Museum- Oils, San Francisco, CA
  • 1956 M.H. de Young Museum- Oils, San Francisco, CA
  • 1960 M.H. de Young Museum- Oils, San Francisco, CA
  • 1958 Oakland Museum, CA
  • 1962 Bolles Gallery, NY
  • 1970 Quay Gallery, San Francisco, CA
  • 1981 Museo Italo-Americano
  • 1990 Carlson Gallery, San Francisco, CA
  • Group Exhibitions
  • 1939 3rd Annual Watercolor Exhibition, San Francisco Art Association (SFAA), SF Museum of Art (SFMA)
  • 1939 7th Annual Exhibition of Watercolors, Drawings and Prints, Oakland Art Gallery
  • 1939 Portland 8th Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, OR
  • 1939 International Watercolor Exhibition, Art institute of Chicago (AIC)
  • 1940 4th Annual Water color Exhibition, SFAA, SFMA
  • 1940 60th Annual Exhibition, Oil and Sculpture, SFMA 1940
  • 1940 8th Annual Exhibition of Watercolor, Drawing, and Prints, Oakland Art Gallery
  • 1940 Oil Paintings, Oakland Art Gallery
  • 1941 12th Annual Statewide Exhibition, Watercolor and Drawings, Santa Cruz Art League
  • 1941 5th Annual Watercolor Exhibition, SFMA
  • 1942 21st International Exhibition of Watercolors, Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1942 6th Annual Watercolor Exhibition, SFAA, SFMA
  • 1953 72nd Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibition, SFMA
  • 1954 73rd Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibition, SFMA
  • 1954 Spring Annual Exhibition, Oakland Art Museum
  • 1955 Pittsburgh International, Pittsburgh, Penn
  • 1955 24th Biennial Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC
  • 1955 Art in the Twentieth Century, SFMA
  • 1955 3rd Biennial Museum of Modern Art, San Paolo, Brazil
  • 1955 Contemporary American Painters, Stanford Art Gallery
  • 1956 Pacific Coast Art, Seattle, Portland, SFMA
  • 1956 New Accessions-USA, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
  • 1956 75th Annual Painting and Sculpture, SFAA, SFMA
  • 1957 25th Biennial Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC
  • 1957 63rd Annual, Denver Art Museum
  • 1957 California Artists, San Jose State College
  • 1958 American Painters, Virginia Museum Fine Arts
  • 1958 Art: USA, New York
  • 1958 64th Annual, Denver Art Museum
  • 1958 Provincetown Art Festival, Provincetown
  • 1958 Annual Exhibit, Vancouver Art Gallery
  • 1959 26th Biennial Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery
  • 1959 A Rationale for Modern Art- American Federal Artists
  • 1959 78th Annual Painting and Sculpture, SFAA, SFMA
  • 1960 79th Annual Painting and Sculpture, SFAA, SFMA
  • 1960 Denver Art Museum Summer Quarterly, Denver Art Museum
  • 1961 27th Biennial, Corcoran Gallery
  • 1962 Artist’s Environment: West Coast, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
  • 1962 Some Points of View, Stanford Art Gallery
  • 1962 3rd Winter Invitational, California Palace of the Legion of Honor
  • 1963 4th Winter Invitational, California Palace of the Legion of Honor
  • 1960 San Francisco Art Institute Art Bank Exhibition: Painting and Sculpture, M.H. de Young Museum
  • 1973 A Period of Exploration, The Oakland Museum
  • 1973 Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era, SFMA
  • 1976 The Artists Environment: West Coast, Amon Carter Museum, UCLA Art Galleries and the Oakland Museum
  • 1996 The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism, Laguna Art Museum and SFMOMA

  • San Francisco Art Association
  • Artists Council, San Francisco Art Institute (1961-1963)

  • 1953 1st Prize in Oil Painting, SF Art Institute
  • 1954 1st Prize in Oil Painting, San Francisco Art Associations, SFMA, for “Rock, Branch and Winter”
  • 1954 2nd Prize- Morrison Award and Silver Medal in Painting at Oakland Art Gallery
  • 1955 1st Honorable Mention, Stanford University Award
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Artist’s Environment: West Coast. Fort Worth, TX: Carter, Amon, Museum of Western Art, 1962.
    2. 2. the Artist’s Bluebook, International edition. Visited 7/16/2007.
    3. 3. Bénézit, Emmanuel. Bénézit Dictionary of Artists. Paris: Gründ 2006.
    4. 4. Fuller McChesney, Mary. Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945-1950. Oakland, CA: Oakland Museum, 1973.
    5. 5. Fuller, Mary, “Was there a San Francisco School?,” Artforum, January 1971 pg. 46-53.
    6. 6. Artists in California, 1786-1940, 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Hughes Pub. Co., c1989.
    7. 7. Landauer, Susan. The San Francisco school of abstract expressionism, Laguna Beach, California: Laguna Art Museum; Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, c1996.
    8. 8. Los Angeles Time (1886- current) May 9th, 1954; Proquest Historian Newspapers Los Angeles Time (1881-1986) pg D6.
    9. 9. Saccaro, John, Abstract expressionists: an exhibition and historical survey of Northern California abstract expressionists, active 1945-1960: John Saccaro, 1913-1982, paintings, 1952-1962. San Francisco, CA: Carlson Gallery, 1990.
    10. 10. Saccaro, John, Conducted by Mary Fuller McChesney. Archives of American Art, June 18, 1964.
    11. 11. Saccaro, John and St. John, Terry. Conducted by Paul Karlstrom. Archives of American Art November 18, 1974.
    12. 12. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Painting and Sculpture in California, the Modern Era : San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, September 3-November 21, 1976, National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., May 20-September 11, 1977. San Francisco: The Museum, c.1977.
    13. 13. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. John Saccaro papers, 1935-1975. 1.6 linear ft. (on 3 microfilm reels). Reel(s): 723 and 4211-4212.
    14. 14. “Upcoming Shows,” Artforum, September 1970 pg 72.