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A Real Retrospective 

A Bay Area native, painter Robert Bechtle deserves his three shows

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
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The middle-class slopes of Potrero Hill and the suburban roads of Alameda don't exactly scream with picturesque possibility, but painter Robert Bechtle has spent his life turning them into art. Using the mundane as fodder for his masterpieces, Bechtle finds riveting subjects in the most ordinary of things: garage driveways and city intersections, Christmas gatherings and summer strolls, a green-and-yellow wood-paneled Gran Torino. The everyday-ness of his paintings brings with it a familiarity that is tangible, but the uncanny exactitude of his lines, shadows, and sun rays is what makes his landscapes so realistic and inviting. A Bay Area native with an artistic career that spans half a century, the 72-year-old painter is now having his first major retrospective (appropriately titled "Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective") at SFMOMA. And if that weren't enough to keep his fans busy, two other galleries -- Crown Point Press and Paule Anglim -- are hosting Bechtle exhibits as well.

Some of Bechtle's work is so perfectly photographic that it's hard to believe it's oil or charcoal on the paper, rather than chemicals and emulsion. The artist does use pictures as starting points, though, and even projects them onto canvases to sketch his outlines. The results are brilliantly painted snapshots of commonplace scenes -- like three women clad in 1970s sundresses admiring pink roses (Roses) or a long row of blue and orange lounge chairs flanking a hotel swimming pool (Palm Springs Chairs) -- that look as if they popped right out of a family photo album. While much of his work is almost slavishly realistic, some is more interpretive; in Rainbow Car Wash, for example, the entire scene is in black-and-white but for the overhead sign, a brightly colored arching rainbow.

"They are, on the one hand, about the cars and about the people," says SFMOMA curator Janet Bishop about Bechtle's oeuvre. "But even more than that, they are paintings about painting, about the decisions one makes about cropping and brushwork and color. ... He is really engaged in what it means to be a painter."

Bechtle's career, however, has not been limited to painting. This month, Gallery Paule Anglim features a selection of his recent drawings, while Crown Point Press shows a survey of his prints, which range from lithographs made in his garage to traditional woodblock prints made in China. The two exhibits complement the collection of paintings perfectly, baring other aspects of the artist's process and rounding out the viewer's appreciation of Bechtle's body of work.

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Hiya Swanhuyser

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