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Robert Bechtle, Photorealist Painter of the Everyday Middle Class, Dies at 88

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Robert Bechtle, ''61 Pontiac,' 1968–1969.
Robert Bechtle,”61 Pontiac,’ 1968–1969. (©1969 Robert Bechtle/Whitney Museum of American Art)

Robert Bechtle, whose paintings of cars, families and intersections transformed the mundane into the captivating, died Thursday morning. He was 88.

A longtime Bay Area resident, Bechtle was one of the figureheads of American photorealism, alongside artists such as Robert Estes, Ralph Goings and Chuck Close. Seeking to conceal brushstrokes in order to convey the look of a photograph, Bechtle painted everyday street scenes of suburban life that resembled Kodak prints, lending their middle-class banality a magical aura.

Watch a KQED profile of Robert Bechtle below:

Bechtle was born in San Francisco and raised in Sacramento and Alameda. At the start of his career, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Bay Area art world was entranced with abstract expressionism of figures and landscapes.


Bechtle dabbled in the expressionism of the day, but eventually forged his own style—or lack thereof. “The realist painting really was a way of saying ‘I’m not interested in style,'” he told KQED in a 2004 profile. “This is a no-style way of painting. It just goes back to looking, which is a classic artist’s and painter’s ploy, to say, ‘I just want to look, and observe, and learn.’ And it worked.”

As Bechtle’s star rose, he accepted offers to teach at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and San Francisco State University. Beginning in the early 1980s, Bechtle lived in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, where he photographed urban landscapes—hills, concrete walls, backyards—which he would turn into vibrant paintings.

Robert Bechtle, 'Alameda Gran Torino,' 1974.
Robert Bechtle, ‘Alameda Gran Torino,’ 1974. (SFMOMA/T. B. Walker Foundation Fund purchase in honor of John Humphrey/© Robert Bechtle)

Over the decades, his work was acquired in the permanent collections of SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Walker Art Center and the Smithsonian. He was the subject of an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California in 2000, and a highly acclaimed major retrospective at SFMOMA in 2005.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bechtle died at a Berkeley hospice facility of Lewy body syndrome. Son Max Bechtle told the newspaper that “He just painted what was around him… Nothing fancy, just everyday stuff, but he painted it in intricate detail.”

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