Robert Bechtle

"I think of the camera as a sketchbook tool."
-- Robert Bechtle
View Spark segment on Robert Bechtle. Original air date: February 2005. (Running Time: 10:29)

For more than 40 years, Robert Bechtle has been widely recognized as one of the founders of American photorealism, a style of painting that rivals the detail and objectivity of a photograph. In "Paint x 3," Spark watches Bechtle at work rendering one of his favorite subjects -- his Potrero Hill neighborhood -- and talking about his motivations and images as he prepares for a retrospective exhibit of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (February 12 through June 5, 2005).

When Bechtle began painting in the late 1950s and 1960s, the local art scene in the Bay Area was dominated by figurative and abstract expressionist painters who used the broad, painterly gestures of the East Coast abstract expressionist style to depict figures and landscapes. Bechtle initially began working in this expressionist style, but quickly found himself drawn toward making carefully detailed portrayals, observed and executed with the unblinking accuracy of a camera. Along with fellow realist artists Ralph Goings and Richard McLean, Bechtle helped popularize photorealism, a mode of painting whereby the artist covers over any trace of brushwork to produce an image that approximates a photograph as closely as possible.

The camera is an essential tool in making Bechtle's paintings. His process begins by making photographs of the landscape around him, which he uses as a kind of sketchbook, selecting single images to develop into paintings. Bechtle projects the image onto the canvas and traces the basic lines and shadows of the image. He then completes the painting by matching his paints to the colors in the photograph.

Bechtle chooses as his subject matter the urban and suburban landscape that surrounds him -- a terrain populated by neat bungalows and gleaming cars bleached by the California sun. His neutral, near featureless scenes -- often devoid of any human presence -- of neighborhood streets of San Francisco, Oakland and other communities reveal the deep-seated sense of alienation that characterizes the American middle-class neighborhood of the early 20th century.

Bechtle earned a B.A. in 1954 and M.F.A. in 1958, both from the California College of Arts and Crafts. From 1969 until he retired in 1999, he taught in the painting department at San Francisco State University. His works have been exhibited widely throughout the United States and Europe, as well as in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Bechtle's paintings can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum, and many other public and private collections across the United States and abroad.

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