By  on February 18, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO — It was the antithesis of Abstract Expressionism, but it didn’t really Pop.

When photorealism flashed in the pan at Documenta 5 in 1972, fans cheered the return of painting with a capital P and heaped praise on one of its founders, Bay Area painter Robert Bechtle, for his virtuoso displays of verisimilitude. Some critics even likened him to a new Vermeer, a master of the everyday whose work depicted one of the most ordinary items of middle-class life: the car. Crucially, Bechtle didn’t portray automobiles as avatars of highway romance in the spirit of Detroit’s marketing campaigns — but as commonplace artifacts of the contemporary suburbs.

“No glamour,” recalls Bechtle at his studio in San Francisco’s staid residential neighborhood of Potrero Hill. “Just an object that sits there gathering light and dust and rust.”

Shortly after Documenta, photorealism fizzled. The art establishment refused to make room for it in the mainstream of Contemporary Art, and the movement’s founders dispersed. Bechtle, though, stayed his course for the next 30 years; now a new generation of critics seems ready to judge his work with a revisionist eye. Janet Bishop, curator at the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art, where Bechtle is getting his first full-career retrospective, argues that Bechtle now appears as a progenitor of current art trends.

 “There’s been a resurgence of interest in realism in Contemporary Art,” she explains, “via people like Bob Gober, Charles Ray, photographer Gregory Crewdson and any number of others that has allowed us to see photorealism again. These artists are using realism and are getting at the same strangeness of the everyday.” (In the same spirit of reconsideration, New York gallerist Barbara Gladstone, who represents Richard Prince and Matthew Barney, recently brought Bechtle into her stable of artists.)

The SFMOMA survey, which opened Feb. 12, shows that, like Degas with his ballerinas or Vermeer with his quiet ladies, Bechtle has grappled repeatedly with a single subject. Today, he “owns” his niche as surely as Ed Ruscha “owns” words. And even if Bechtle has permitted a few other subjects into his tightly controlled body of work, it is the challenge of painting cars that has honed his formidable skills. The young artist looked out his studio window in 1964, saw inspiration parked on the suburban street and ever since has painted cars at as fast a clip as his dauntingly precise technique allows. 

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