Robert Bechtle, a giant of the Bay Area scene associated with the Photorealist movement of the 1960s, has died at 88. A representative for the artist’s New York gallery, Gladstone, which represented him alongside San Francisco’s Anglim Gilbert gallery, confirmed his death.
Bechtle’s paintings, prints, and drawings typically involved closely relying on photographs that he took featuring imagery that defined the Bay Area region, where he was long based—cars and quotidian streets that were typically free of people. These works placed him among the Photorealists, a group of artists who were also relying on photographic material as the basis for their art.
For Bechtle, the no-frills aesthetic was intentionally free of metaphor and grand themes—the stuff that had pervaded Abstract Expressionism and other forms of abstraction that had dominated the postwar era. “This becomes a kind of still-life situation,” Bechtle said in a 2001 Archives of American Art oral history. “You can put the car in front of this house, and it is like the bottles on the table.”
Yet Bechtle was rebelling against Abstract Expressionism in another way, too. Like the Pop artists, who turned ready-made material culled from advertising and print media into the subjects of their art, Bechtle, like the other Photorealists, was drawing on compositions that were already defined by his camera. Originality and the artist’s hand had been prized by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and others; Bechtle, by contrast, was removing himself from his paintings, letting photographs guide him instead.
By the mid-’60s, using a method that was then new and strange, even a bit heretical, Bechtle projected slides of his photographs onto canvases, carefully tracing and repainting the forms that appeared in the pictures. This method ended up being influential, and in the ’80s, at a time when many were considering the pervasiveness of photographic imagery, artists such as David Salle ended up relying on it for their works.
Bechtle had a deep knowledge of art history, and he insisted that, even though his technique was for its time bizarre and anti-tradition, he was still working with in a lineage of painters that extended back to the Renaissance. In a video interview with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bechtle said, “The information that is available in the photograph becomes the basis for what the paint is going to do, so the marks that one makes have to do with the history of painting. They really don’t have to do with photography.” The camera, he often said, can be compared to a sketchbook—that which makes painting possible.
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.
Robert Bechtle was born in San Francisco in 1932. For the early part of his life, his family bounced around California, and he ultimately received his B.F.A. from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. When he graduated in 1954, he worked for a spell as a graphic designer, then was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Berlin. In 1956, he went back to CCAC, where he took in the work by Bay Area artists such as Richard Diebenkorn that was quickly rising to fame.
Although Diebenkorn’s paintings differ vastly from Bechtle’s, with their expanses of muted colors congealing to create landscapes that border on abstraction, Bechtle said that the painter’s interest in the flattening of space proved inspirational during the early stages of his career. So, too, did new work being made by Jasper Johns, who famously used predetermined patterns and shapes, such as bullseyes and the American flag, as the compositions for his paintings.
Bechtle’s works often look to be mere imitations of photographs, but they are often more stylized, with brushwork that causes them to differ slightly from their source material. The artist Wayne Thiebaud, another figurative painter who has sometimes been considered an influence for the Photorealists, once said, “When he began to use photography, I think he escaped that mechanical quality, not only by taking his own photographs, but also by doctoring them up pretty severely, rendering them quite differently from trying to get ‘the camera effect.’”
Though the paintings remain Bechtle’s best-known works, he was also an accomplished printmaker and draughtsman. His charcoal drawings, in particular, have been praised for their delicately rendered lighting effects.
Bechtle has been considered one of the defining artists of the Bay Area, although his work has periodically been the subject of major exhibitions beyond it. In 1972, he was featured in the fifth edition of the Documenta quinquennial in Kassel, Germany, which that year was curated by Harald Szeemann, in one of the most storied exhibitions in recent art history. In 2000, the Oakland Museum of California surveyed his art. Five years later, Bechtle became the subject of a retrospective at SFMOMA that traveled to the Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth in Texas and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 2008, he appeared in the Whitney Biennial in New York.
The style of Bechtle’s paintings was restrained and rigorous—and he would have it no other way. In his AAA oral history, he said, “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.”