Oakland Museum of California

Oakland, CA

510-238-2200 or toll free at 888-625-6873



California Classic: Realist Paintings by Robert Bechtle


The work of one of America's founders of photorealism is highlighted in "California Classic: Realist Paintings by Robert Bechtle," on view at the Oakland Museum of California May 6 - Oct. 1, 2000. The exhibition includes 18 paintings and drawings by the Bay Area artist, dating from 1965 to 1997. (left: 20th Street-Early Sunday Morning, 1997, oil on linen, 36 x 66 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim)

Bechtle's paintings of San Francisco/Oakland streets and of cars--the symbol of California culture--are classic American icons that reflect the California scene. "My subject matter is my immediate world, objects that I know and care about," Bechtle says in the exhibition catalog. "They represent the essence of the American experience." His streetscapes are neutral, objective, often devoid of any human presence. Bleached by the strong California sun, the scenes reflect a sense of void and alienation.

The artworks in the exhibition, ranging in size from the dimensions of a piece of notebook paper to the eight-foot-long '60 T-Bird, are created in oils, watercolor, pencil or charcoal. Typically, a Bechtle composition includes a foreground of asphalt roadway; a midground that contains the main subject, often a parked car; and in the background, the facade of a building. Much of the detail in the scene is edited out, resulting in simple, organized, almost abstract forms. (right: Potrero Crest-19th & Pennsylvania, 1995, oil on linen, 40 x 48 inches, Courtesy John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco)

The term photorealism was coined by New York gallery owner Louis K. Meisel in 1968, and was first used in print in the 1970 exhibition Twenty-two Realists at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photorealists base their works on photographs, using such mechanical means as copying onto a grid or projecting the image onto the canvas to transfer the information. The finished work is made to appear photographic, with even tones, flattened forms, and apparently unselective detail. Bechtle defines his own paintings as realist, since he works from, but is not limited by, photographic detail. (left: '60 T-Bird, 1967-68, oil on canvas, 73 x 99 3/8 inches, Collection U. C. Berkeley Art Museum)

He began to use the camera so that he could work on figure paintings while his model, his wife, wasn't around. After he began painting cars, he found that he needed the camera to preserve the scene as the light changed. The camera makes possible the freezing of single moments in time, recorded with every minute detail. He uses the camera as a sketchbook, then turns the scenes of American vernacular suburban culture into metaphors for alienation and loneliness.

Bechtle explores issues of light and lack of centrality in composition. He uses tilted, often empty foregrounds to achieve emotional as well as visual effects. Chrome bumpers, spindly palm trees, creamy stucco, and patterned fabrics come alive in his hands. His early work was flat, bland, with minimal shadow. In the early '80s he began using higher contrast, with dramatic backlighting and darker shadows that incorporated subliminal colors, reflecting his interest in such Old Masters as Vermeer and Velasquez. (left: '64 Chrysler, 1971, oil on linen, 48 x 60 inches, Collection of Max Palevsky)

Born in 1932 in San Francisco, Bechtle received his B.A and M.F.A degrees from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He retired in 1999 from a 30-year teaching career at San Francisco State University. Over the past 40 years he has had numerous solo exhibitions throughout California and in New York, and has participated in group exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe as well as in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Bechtle is one of three Northern California artists, along with Ralph Goings and Richard McLean, who originated the West Coast photorealist style. Their work is distinguished from that of their New York counterparts by use of the bristle brush rather than airbrush, spontaneous outdoor scenes rather than the subject matter of studio still lifes and figures, and use of sharp focus for all depths of the image (unlike the images a camera would produce). (left: Sterling Avenue, Alameda II, 1991, charcoal on paper, 10 x 14 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim)

"California Classic: Realist Paintings by Robert Bechtle" is organized by the University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach with funding from the Richard Florsheim Art Fund, and is curated by Marina E. Freeman. Supervising curator at the Oakland Museum of California is Philip Linhares, OMCA Chief Curator of Art.

Read more in Resource Library about the Oakland Museum of California.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

rev. 1/29/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.