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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. 

This story first appeared in the February 18, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“There was something audacious about doing cars at first, because nobody was doing cars,” Bechtle recalls. “If I was going to do them, they had to be really convincing.”

The car is so commonplace a consumer good, he explains, that he couldn’t ever get away with fudging the details. There may also be something about Bechtle’s own artistic temperament — one marked by modesty and a distaste for overt emotion – that determined the deadpan quality of his work.

The retrospective gathers 40 paintings and an equal number of works on paper. Key early works, such as “Date Palms” (1971), set the standard for his hyperrealism on canvas, while the rear-view perspective of the “Alameda Gran Torino” (1974), an oversized monument to family vacations, typifies Bechtle’s apparently artless composition. (In fact, the canvas is scrupulously organized, with an echo of the unusual perspective in Albrecht Durer’s 1505 engraving “The Large Horse.)

Since the late Sixties, Bechtle has used his own photographs as source material, projecting the image on a blank canvas and tracing the outlines of his subject in a process he calls “translating” the image from photograph to painting. A finished canvas can easily be mistaken for a snapshot again when reproduced at postcard size, and his earliest dead-on views of cars parked on the street speak to Bechtle’s ambition to emulate the neutral style of real-estate photographs, pictures that pretend to nothing more than bare documentation.

Stylistically, Bechtle draws on painterly techniques he learned by studying the masters of the Renaissance and, like them, he is deeply concerned with the formalist matters of composition, light, shadow and color. Even within his tight style, though, there is a clear sense of development across time. His work has become “looser” over the years, moving away from the photographic perfection of his Seventies work.

“The place of photography has certainly shifted over the course of Bechtle’s career,” says Bishop. “Coinciding with the popularization of large-scale color photography in Contemporary Art, Bechtle became more painterly, and the brush strokes became clearly more visible and the surface animated with random markings that came together to create the image.”

Bechtle was born in the East Bay and has lived near San Francisco his entire life. He first trained as a commercial artist before attending graduate school at CCAC (now California College of the Arts), where Bay Area realist painter Richard Diebenkorn was a looming presence, even if Bechtle never studied with him. Like Diebenkorn, he chose to paint domestic subjects close at hand: neighborhoods of white stucco California bungalows and ordinary cars such as Chevys and VWs, station wagons and delivery vans.

“It’s a kind of environment that I have known all my life,” he says, “a suburban, middle class, not particularly remarkable but comfortable kind of life.”

 Bechtle speaks as meticulously as he paints, and during the long pauses between thoughts, he assumes the determined look of someone eating unshelled sunflower seeds. He lives modestly with his second wife, art critic Whitney Chadwick, and the studied calm of their house seems impervious to loud noise. Only their two cats, Trotsky and Dylan Thomas, animate the otherwise perfect stillness. Bechtle, incidentally, drives an old Volvo station wagon which, he says, is a “car for someone who doesn’t like cars.” (It makes a cameo appearance – again outside of a window – in Bechtle’s recent self-portrait “Potrero Hill.”)

Most of what Bechtle chooses to paint is equally unobtrusive.

“That’s the large part of what’s out there and what we don’t necessarily pay much attention to,” says Bechtle when asked about his taste for modest subjects. “The moment you start pushing the edges of it – hot rods or big houses – you’re looking for things that are exceptional. And I’m not. I’m looking for things that are…I like the term invisible.”

Since the late Seventies, Bechtle has integrated his cars into broader suburban landscapes, and he has also experimented with genre scenes of afternoon drinks parties and yardscapes of patio clutter. All of the work is bathed in a hard-edged, timeless light that gives an air of neoplatonic permanence to otherwise fleeting moments, and many visitors will no doubt be reminded of earlier American realists such as Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler.

One of Bechtle’s best-known works, “Agua Caliente Nova” (1975), shows a braless mother and her two bored, sticky children as they pose at a roadside scenic vista point near Palm Springs. Though the painting alludes to the grand landscapes of 19th-century Western painter-explorers, the magnificent desert view in the background seems almost beside the point. Here the ideal of a wilderness sublime has contracted to a suburban mundane. Perhaps no other chronicler of the Equal Rights Amendment era – apart from Joan Didion in print – so effectively marshals the details of ordinariness to conjure the atmosphere of the decade. The effect can be unintentionally nostalgic, something that used to make Bechtle uneasy.

 “I wonder if there comes a point when nostalgia drops away and they’re simply of their time,” he asks, “just as Degas’ paintings are of their time. I hope that my paintings manage to make it to a time when nostalgia is not an issue. But for the time being it’s an inevitable aspect of them.”

Bechtle’s most recent drawings and watercolors, including some shadowy night scenes, represent something of a late-career development. He now tends to push cars to the far edge of his compositions, so that large expanses of his new works are dominated by asphalt, sky and other empty fields. On the one hand, it allows Bechtle the “interesting challenge” of painting pavement, but, on the other, it also calls into question whether the car paintings are, strictly speaking, about cars.

When asked as much, the artist shakes his head and lets out a rare laugh.

“And maybe they never have been,” he says.