Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective
The Corcoran Gallery of Art presented the exhibition Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective, the first full–scale survey of the work of this important San Francisco-based artist. Organized by Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the exhibition featured more than 90 works – paintings, watercolors and drawings that trace his career from his early photo-based pieces of the 1960s to his most recent works. Since his work emerged in the context of New or Photorealism in the late 1960s, Bechtle’s family genre scenes, streetscapes and images of cars have become icons of middle–class American culture. This comprehensive presentation of the artist’s work was on view from March 4 through June 4, 2006 at the Corcoran – the last and only East coast venue for the tour.
Despite widespread exposure in the context of Photorealism and inclusion in important surveys of American art in the United States and abroad, Bechtle’s work had not been the subject of a major museum show until it was displayed at the SFMOMA and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 2005. This exhibition spaned the artist’s 40–year career with work drawn from local, national and international collections. Accompanying the show was a major publication with color plates of all of the works in the exhibition and essays by Bishop, painter and art historian Jonathan Weinberg, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth chief curator Michael Auping, SFMOMA curatorial associate Joshua Shirkey, and Los Angeles-based artist Charles Ray.
“Bechtle’s extraordinary talent lies predominantly in what he can do with paint, rather than in what he can do with likenesses or photographs, though all of these elements figure into his accomplishments,” notes Jonathan P. Binstock, a coordinator for the Corcoran presentation and Corcoran Curator of Contemporary Art. “While his pictures look terrific in reproduction, they are altogether different in person, when one can experience the finesse of his painterly application and of his unique touch. Nothing looks quite like his creations – they are transporting.”
Bechtle was born in 1932 in San Francisco and raised across the Bay in Alameda. He studied graphic design and painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, earning his BFA in 1954 and MFA in 1958. He began painting seriously in the early 1960s, finding his own voice through a tightly controlled realism that was distinct from the expressionistic paint-handling characteristic of Bay Area Figurative art – the then dominant mode of expression among his local peers and predecessors. Bechtle’s interest in painting elements from his immediate surroundings as they actually looked, rather than an interpretation of how they looked, led to his use of black and white photographs in 1964 as studio aids.
The following year, Bechtle began taking slides for color reference which he projected directly onto canvas. After outlining the contours of the forms in pencil, the artist then built up the work with paint to establish the presence of form, light and color. The photographs provided Bechtle with the beginning structure for the painting, which allowed him to make artistic changes in the content and composition of the work as he painted.
Bechtle’s paintings emphasize Northern California residential neighborhoods – replete with stucco houses, repetitive rows of palm trees and the ubiquitous parked car. Bechtle’s preference for wide, empty spaces; his flat, sun–bleached palette; and his detached mode of recording detail impart a certain sense of alienation to his frequently banal subjects. The comprehensive exhibition includes works, such as the extraordinary ’60 T-Bird, 1967-68, an iconic image from Bechtle’s early group of car images. This painting features the artist’s brother standing proudly beside his virtually perfect white coupe with gray tires appointed with white stripes.
The Retrospective also includes the painting, Alameda Gran Torino, 1974, a deadpan image of a wood-paneled station wagon, which is considered to be one of Bechtle’s finest works. Other early works in the exhibition include, ’56 Chrysler, 1965, set in front of the artist’s mother’s Alameda home; and ’46 Chevy, 1965, featuring Bechtle’s brother sitting in the artist’s own convertible, which is the first piece to make use of a snapshot-like aesthetic – a major direction of his work for the duration of the 1960s and 1970s. Major family genre scenes include, Roses, 1973, featuring a trio of women on a suburban sidewalk and Agua Caliente Nova, 1975, giving an honest view of the family experience of the Western landscape. The exhibition also includes, Frisco Nova, 1979, an important bridge between the artist’s snapshot-inspired paintings of cars and people to his more recent emphasis on landscape.
The exhibition concludes with San Francisco residential landscapes, including the dramatic Sunset Intersection-40th and Vicente, 1989; Texas Street Intersection, 2000; and the companion paintings, Mariposa I and Mariposa II, 1999 and 2000, which make use of the artist’s hilly Potrero Hill neighborhood; and Jetta, 2003, showing the artist’s recent interest in depicting covered cars. Bechtle’s recent work is also represented by major interiors – both self-portraits and double portraits of himself with his wife, art historian Whitney Chadwick, in such pieces as, Broome Street Zenith, 1987, and PotreroTable, 1994.