Remembering Robert Bechtle

The San Francisco-born photorealist has died, but his way of seeing the city will always be with us.

You haven’t really seen the quieter, suburban parts of San Francisco County until you’ve seen them through Robert Bechtle’s eyes. With little mediation, he transformed our everyday world into fine art: Orderly rows of Marina Five style houses in the Sunset District, cars parked perpendicularly on an impossibly steep hill, the quality of the light on a rare sunny day. 

Bechtle, who passed away on Thursday at age 88, saw the stark beauty in the parts of Northern California that tourists never visit. His paintings — made hyper-realistic with the aid of a photograph projected on to canvas — called attention to the absurdity of the grades and the monotony of the houses, adding an aura of uneasiness to the regional trappings of the American dream. But Bechtle was hardly a ruthless social critic. He was an interested observer, a chronicler of “California subject matter,” someone who wanted to bottle up all that is strange and unique about San Francisco suburbia and show it to the world. 

Bechtle’s “Watsonville Olympia,” will be on view at SFMOMA when it reopens on October 4. (Photo: Katherine Du Tiel, SFMOMA)

“With the passing of Robert Bechtle, our community has lost one of its true greats,” said Janet Bishop, chief curator of SFMOMA and curator of Bechtle’s 2005 retrospective, in a statement. “He found his own voice in the late 1960s as he moved toward realism and an explicit use of very casual, snapshot-like source material from his own life — cars, family, street scenes. And yet everything about his paintings is intentional, from the structure to the imagery to the way he worked with paint.”

Bechtle was born in San Francisco in 1932 and spent most of his youth in Alameda. He earned degrees from Oakland’s California College of the Arts and UC Berkeley. At the former, he studied under Richard Diebenkorn, a leading artist in the Bay Area Figurative School, and another evocative painter of unsung San Francisco landscapes. 

Starting in 1966, Bechtle began projecting slides of photographs onto his canvases while he painted, becoming one of the first Photorealists. At the height of Pop Art, with its ironic approach to realistic imagery, Photorealism was largely dismissed by critics at the time. But Bechtle’s work has always stood out from the crowd, achieving something of a critical renaissance in recent years. 

Half a century before Instagram filters, Bechtle understood the appeal of light-washed landscapes and muted colors. Decades before CGI, he descended into the uncanny valley, making his audience sit with the discomfort of that which is almost real. But ultimately, these surface-level effects contain something deeper. Realism, according to Bechtle, “becomes a way of taking something of absolutely no consequence, and… giving it a quality that might be monumental, or at least freezing it to the point where it’s a very existential moment.” 

Alameda Gran Torino (Photo: Ben Blackwell, SFMOMA)

His monuments were the streets of the Bay Area: in Alameda, Berkeley, and especially the parts of San Francisco only a local would recognize, including Potrero Hill, the Sunset, and St. Mary’s Park. Houses, cars, and asphalt attracted his gaze, with human figures often appearing as afterthoughts. 

Bechtle’s oeuvre is an expression of the urban wanderer, of solitary walks through anonymous neighborhoods. Houses and parked cars provide solace; people create uneasiness. Many of his works helpfully reference the streets which they depict, making it easy for fans to make an urban scavenger hunt out of the artist’s settings. It doesn’t hurt that the neighborhoods that fascinated Bechtle still look more or less the same as they always have. (What has changed are the cars, as Bechtle surely would have noticed.) These neighborhoods have themselves been treated as works of art, each resident’s first glimpse of the place frozen in time not by an artist but by public policy. Better, in this writer’s opinion, to let the likes of Bechtle do the preserving. 

The artist may be gone, but his way of seeing this city and region will always be with us. SFMOMA holds 19 of Bechtle’s works in its collection, including one, Watsonville Olympia, which will be on view when the museum reopens on October 4.

But the most visible Bechtle in the world is not in any museum: it’s San Francisco Nova, on display in SFO’s Terminal 3. For those of us who recognize those distinctly San Franciscan houses, San Francisco Nova is a welcome home sign. For newcomers who are compelled by the scene, well, they must’ve landed in the right place.

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