Robert Bechtle (born 1932) is one of the central artists of the West Coast Photorealist movement. Bechtle drew inspiration from the bright light of California, often returning to images of San Francisco neighborhoods, iconic American automobiles, and urban streets. Bechtle’s virtuosic command results in techniques that range from the imperceptible brushstroke of an anonymous hand to the painterly impasto of his later works.
Bechtle’s paintings recall the high contrast and shifting focus of a more personal, vernacular photography. His paintings are informed by the unique color chemistry of prints from the 1960s and 1970s, placing their dreamlike nostalgia within a more complex layering of meanings.
Robert Bechtle was born in San Francisco, California in 1932. After losing his father at age 12, Bechtle was raised by his mother, a hardworking teacher. Bechtle was already drawing cars and airplanes as a child. With the longstanding support of his maternal family, his decision to pursue a career in art was seen as a natural progression.
After graduating from Alameda High School in 1950, Bechtle enrolled at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, choosing to study graphic design for its practicality. Fresh out of art school, Bechtle joined the army where he was stationed in Berlin. While there, he took advantage of the opportunity to visit Berlin’s major museums and those of other European cities.
Upon returning to the United States, Bechtle resumed his studies at California College of the Arts in 1956, beginning his master’s degree. After completing graduate school Bechtle began teaching painting, printmaking, and graphic design.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Bechtle struggled to define his technically demanding realist approach against the well-established presence of Abstract Expressionism. Bechtle returned to Europe in the early 1960s for inspiration, tackling London and Venice with a box of pastels and a sketchbook. However, his time abroad had its most profound impact on the way he viewed California’s light-filled cities and car culture upon his return.
Since its inception, Bechtle’s Photorealism has been recognized for its groundbreaking contribution to the movement. Louis K. Meisel, whose SoHo gallery was the epicenter of Photorealism on the East Coast, recognized Bechtle as one of the first Photorealists. Bechtle’s work has been exhibited internationally and within the United States at major institutions including: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Bechtle resides in San Francisco, California.
“My painting has been about seeing, and among other things, the kinds of marks that can translate what is seen into a cohesive system on the canvas, which aims to imply an accurate depiction of what is painted. I am concerned that these paintings have an honesty and straightfowardness in both their design and their marks that eschew bravura posturing yet provide a tapestry that has visual interest beyond simple description.
Since 1963, I have been involved with the evolution of realism as a possible stance within the modernist tradition in the late twenty-first centuries. By realism, I mean art that is based upon observation of everyday life and is faithful in some degree to its outward appearances. It is to that end that I must have used photographs as sources for my paintings. The use of photographs as a reference has allowed me to paint things and situations I felt would be difficult, if not impossible, otherwise. As a result, my paintings have a particularity of place, time, and light.
My subject matters come from my own background and surroundings. I paint things I know and remember for which I feel affection. I see them as particular embodiments of a general American experience. My interest has nothing to do with satire or social commentary, although I am aware that might be read into the work. I am interested in their ordinariness–their invisibility through familiarity–and in the challenge of trying to make art from such ordinary fare. My hope is that the pictures transcend their particularity to achieve a quiet and evocative poetry.”
-Robert Bechtle, from the book Photorealism in the Digital Age © 2013
Citation: Bernarducci, Frank, Harris, Elizabeth K., and Meisel, Louis K. Photorealism in the Digital Age. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2013.
2015 – “Important Works on Paper” Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California
2014 – “Photorealism: The Everyday Illuminated,” Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California
2012 – “Lifelike,” New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans; traveling to Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California
2012 – “Highlights 2012,” John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, California
2011 – “Hyper Real: Art and America in 1970,” Ludwig Forum, Aachen, Germany
2010 – “Robert Bechtle: Watercolors and Drawings,” Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, California
2009 – “Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s,” Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Germany
2008 – Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
2008 – “Summer Choices: A Group Exhibition,” Crown Point Press, San Francisco, California
2006 – “Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California
2005 – “Robert Bechtle Prints: 1965 – 2004,” Crown Point Press, San Francisco, California
2006 – “Full House,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
2006 – “Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective,” Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D. C.
2006 – “Infinite Painting, “ Villa Manin Centro d’ Art Contemporanea, Codroipo, Italy
2005 – Gallery Paul Anglim, San Francisco, CA
2002 – “New York Renaissance: Masterworks from the Collection of the Whitney Museum,” Palazzo Reale, Milan, Italy
2002 – “American Standard: (Para)Normality and Everyday Life,” Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, New York
2001 – “Looking At You,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
2001 – “Les Annees Pop” Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
2001 – O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, New York
2000 – Gallery Paul Anglim, San Francisco, California
2000 – “Urban Realism,” Blain Fine Art, London, United Kingdom
2000 – “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
2000 – “Drawings 2000,” Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, NY
2000 – “A Century of the American Dream,” Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya: Hyogo Prefectural Museum ofModern Art, Kobe, Japan
1999 – “The American Century: Art and Culture, 1950-2000,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
1997 – “Thirty-five Years at Crown Point Press,” National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, California
1997 – “Watercolors” O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, New York
1996 – Gallery Paul Anglim, San Francisco, California
1996 – “CCAC: Past, Present, and Future (1906-1996),” Oliver Art Center, California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, California
1995 – “American Academy Invitational Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture,” American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, New York
1993 – “Robert Bechtle + Ralph Goings: A Review of Paintings and Watercolors, 25 Years,” Louis K. Meisel Gallery, New York, New York
1992 – O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, New York
1991 – “Robert Bechtle: New Work,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California
1987 – O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, New York
1984 – O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, New York
Youtube – “Robert Bechtle on Painting and Photography” uploaded by SFMOMA
San Francisco Chronicle – “Robert Bechtle’s Artwork Speaks for Him” by Kenneth Baker
Walker Art Center – “Interview with Robert Bechtle” by Brooke Kellaway
SFSU Magazine Online – “Robert Bechtle Photorealist Painter” by Rachel Howard