Hopper without the melodrama
September 28, 2020 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Robert Bechtle, Bay Area photorealist, has died at the age of 88. Vacant roads, driverless parked cars, and the occasional person appear in Bechtle’s work, which often feels purposefully sucked dry of emotion. Its sangfroid disturbs because the imagery feels trapped in a specific cultural moment, in a way that ought to feel nostalgic. But Bechtle delivered his banal material—distinctly American, distinctly middle-class—without any affect. “Bechtle exploits the strangeness in humdrum photographs of the obvious, and he does so with the sort of reticent, stubborn grace that marks most of the Bay Area’s finest painters—David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud,” critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker in 2005.

The camera, he often said, can be compared to a sketchbook—that which makes painting possible.

Bechtel's oral history interview at the Archives of American Art
"My theory is that a painting should never be finished any further than it needs to be to get the idea across, and that anything more than that is fussing.”

'61 Pontiac
Covered Car
Multiple works at the Gladstone Gallery
posted by PussKillian (15 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Bob Bechtle at Crown Point Press. A San Francisco vernacular.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:05 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing a picture in the Childcraft volume that dealt with art and was astonished.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 9:21 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]


One of my favorites. I never saw streetscapes in SF the same again after I first discovered his work.
posted by missmobtown at 11:24 AM on September 28, 2020


Did Bechtle consider his work photorealist? Besides being impressed by the work that goes into photorealist drawings etc. I usually don't like them as much as I like these paintings. The framing is very reminiscent of photography, and seemingly prescient of Instagram framing, but I don't have the impression that Bechtle is trying to make the viewer think his paintings are not paintings. Even as tiny rectangles on the Gladstone Gallery website they always look like paintings. But I could be misunderstanding the goals of photorealism.
posted by Corduroy at 11:26 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

His Alameda paintings bring back such strong and clear sense-memories of my East Bay childhood that they're almost painful to look at.
posted by theodolite at 11:50 AM on September 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 1:55 PM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

theodolite, this SF-raised kid knows what you mean.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:17 PM on September 28, 2020

That New Yorker article linke above made me research Bechtle's work when I read it years ago. He was a wonderful artist; and he found a way of making the quotidian very much as important and fascinating as any other facet of our lives.
I loved the way he painted those bigging, clunking cars from the 70s, much like a portrait painter paints their human subjects.

posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 2:44 PM on September 28, 2020

I like Bechtle's work as much as anybody. But shouldn't we make some distinction between painting or drawing the image of a 3-dimensional object in front of us, and painting or drawing a two dimensional photograph?

Painting or drawing an object in space is simply more difficult and creative than copying the light and dark patterns on a flat surface (photograph). The first demands continual creativity and problem solving. The second is straightforward copying - done well, or ill, or more or less idiosyncratically.

Painting and drawing of real objects in space should have significantly higher status than copying photographs. The act of transferring a 3D image to a flat surface is a challenge that almost defines our humanity. Copying photographs should be honored - but as a lesser artistic skill.
posted by Modest House at 4:01 PM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

posted by extramundane at 4:46 PM on September 28, 2020

I wasn’t familiar with him, but now I’m fascinated by his work.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 5:27 PM on September 28, 2020

Suburbs and cars. Most of his art reminds me of my childhood.
posted by freakazoid at 7:22 AM on September 29, 2020

From the Dept. of Your Title Sucks:

I fail to see any discernable relation between Bechtle's work and Hopper's. They are worlds apart in style, intent and feeling.
posted by y2karl at 4:39 PM on September 29, 2020

> Painting and drawing of real objects in space should have significantly higher status than copying photographs. The act of transferring a 3D image to a flat surface is a challenge that almost defines our humanity. Copying photographs should be honored - but as a lesser artistic skill.

Reading about his process (project a photograph, trace, and fill)
The artist would use photographs as the basis for his paintings and watercolors, projecting them onto his canvases and tracing the shapes in exquisite detail, faithful to every shadow, highlight, and tonal nuance. From afar, and even in some cases up close, the works are mindbogglingly realistic.
I don't see how that technical part of his work is different from a 1-hour photolab - his work is arguably more photography more than it is painting.

This is not to disparage photography as a medium, there are the truely great photographers out there, and photographs that are high art or snapshots of something effervescent or so on, but I don't see the point in mechanically copying a great photo as a painting, necessarily. And each of us can think of dozens of iconic photographs that wouldn't be improved by re-rendering in paint.

This is separate from working painters' processes of taking their own reference photographs and pushing them, hacking them, compositing them, and so on, and thereby making something new.

But mechanical reproduction just seems pointless. I think it may somehow appeal to critics who disapproved of traditional representational painters working at the same time as modern art was happening, because of reasons, or something.

Gurney's got a lot on his and other artists' practices of using reference photography:

Although photographs were used widely by artists during his time, Shishkin was conscious of not mindlessly copying. He told his students that the way an artist uses a photo will reveal the artist with talent, because "a mediocre artist will slavishly copy all the unnecessary detail from photos, but a man with a flair will take only what he needs."
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:08 AM on September 30, 2020

I wrote this about his covered cars in my substack:

Bechtel is a formalist who knows his history. A wrapped car, is a historical object, with deep memory. It is a sensual object covered, where a false modesty increases hungry or desire to know what is occurring with that object. A wrapped object reminds one of a body made an object as well. Sometimes, the depiction of an object becomes a kind of portrait. Wrapping an object, makes it slightly more portrait like—think of everything from Christian images of descents from the cross; allegorical paintings of nudes barely covered from Titian to Manet; of Dutch still life painting. I think a wrapped object makes the painted depiction of a person to an object, more ambivalent. A drawing from 2009, with the tears and the rips across the cover, gaps indicate this bodily memory via explicit punctum.

Jaguar Mark V Covered, 2009, Graphite on Textured Paper

The later, smaller work of Bechtel—had odd angles, oblique notes, often on the diagonal, and more about light and shadow than object. They were tiny, as well—he was one of the few artists who moved from monumental work, to work that was almost incidental. He still worked from photographs, and so though the small work gave the impression of being painted in plein air, it was work processed. One of his great skills as a painter was hiding conceptual rigour under virtuoso painting—the covered vehicle marks a hiding of realism, by indicating more realism.

Watercolor blurs, and photo smears are different—but a watercolour painting of a smeared photo of a covered car has similar formal appearances—they both kind of work against the verisimilitude as marker of skill, a refusal of his work from the 1960s. But that there are photos where the car is on an oblique angle, where the greys and blacks of shadows and ashpalt take up most of the comopostion, with the landscape in the very back, like a Florentine painting from the 15th century, ones where incidental details like lawns or the yellow ropes that cover the car mean more more than the car itself, working as a kind of double erasure. ]

The ones that I like the most, the ones that deepen this effect, are the ones in charcoal or graphite. Where the silvery grey of the car cover and the silvery grey of the material dedicated to depicting the car cover have a mutually reinforcing material pleasure.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:06 AM on October 1, 2020

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