February 14, 2005 (Monday) – I went to the Robert Bechtle show at SFMOMA on Friday and again on Saturday.Robert Bechtle was born on May14th of 1932. He is an American painter. He got his bachelor’s degree in 1954 that is Bachelor of Fine Arts and his master’s in the year 1958 that is Master of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts. He has served in military as well in Germany after which he lived rest of his life in the Bay Area. Crypto Wealth will serve in trading. And you know, I just don’t think “photorealist” is a particularly accurate description of his work. Maybe at one time (in the 70s) it made some kind of marketing sense, but it doesn’t really describe the majority of his work.

He’s a realist. Period. Like most realist painters, he focuses on images of the real world, his real world. He paints his family, his house, his neighborhood, his cars. As he moves about in his world, he captures sketches of things that he might want to paint later. He uses his camera as a sketching tool. He sets up many of the scenes he intends to paint, photographs the scene, and then manipulates the photos (cutting and splicing different photos together, or just adding and eliminating elements.) There’s a few display cases showing Bechtle’s source photographs, and preliminary sketches for some paintings, including, “Potrero Table”,1994, show above left.

Between SFMOMA and the other two venues showing Robert Bechtle’s work in SF this month, there are about 140 of his paintings, drawings and prints on view. Only about 3 or 4 of those could fairly be described as “copying a photograph.” His earlier work is flattened and pared down to a point approaching minimalism. The later work is very painterly, almost impressionistic. In neither case does it look like a photograph, at least when you’re standing in front of it. It does reproduce like a photo, however. Both in print, and on the web, almost all of Bechtle’s paintings look like photographs.

So, I highly recommend a personal visit to these shows, if you want to understand the buzz about Bechtle:

SFMOMA, through June 5, 2005
Gallery Paule Anglim, through March 5, 2005
Crown Point Press, through April 2, 2005

February 9, 2005 (Wednesday) – Robert Bechtle, drawings at Gallery Paule Anglim
There are three Robert Bechtle shows opening in San Francisco this month, and since he’s had some influence on my work, I thought I’d write a few more words than I usually do. The SFMOMA retrospective, the first full-scale survey of Bechtle’s work, covers his career from the 1960s to his most recent work, with 91 paintings and works on paper. It opens to the public this week and I’m planning on attending the member’s preview as well as the Saturday lecture.

A couple of San Francisco galleries also opened Bechtle shows, and I saw them last week. Gallery Paule Anglim has a new exhibition of Bechtle’s charcoal drawings, and Crown Point Press is showing a large group of etchings, color lithos, wood cuts and gravure/aquatint prints. Both shows are terrific.

It seems like just a year ago that I saw another show of Bechtle’s charcoal drawings at Gallery Paule Anglim, but it was in 2002. I think this show is all new work (one of the night scenes looked familiar to me.) The drawings are all on a thin, tinted drawing paper – the kind with the French-style lined texture and deckle edges. This orderly texture (as opposed to, say, rough watercolor paper) adds to the sense of stillness he builds with orderly drawing, mostly empty streets, lots of empty space (even when the view is just across the street or across the room.) Whether it’s a drawing, a print or a painting, Bechtle completely nails that blinding California light. He as born in San Francisco in 1932 and has lived in the Bay Area all of his life.

Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press writes that in San Franciso, Bechtle found,

“… a small art community that has long fostered original art ideas. Hans Hofmann taught in Berkeley in the early 1940s before he lived in New York, and abstract expressionists Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko were at the California School of Fine arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the 1950s. Richard Diebenkorn and other Bay Area figurative painters provided influences toward figuration before those kinds of ideas resurfaced (after abstract expressionism had done away with them) in New York. And funk art, a kind of homegrown humor-filled, surrealist-influenced pop art began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, conceptual art and photorealist art were two streams of figuration with influences from the minimal art being developed in New york and Europe. The photorealist artists and conceptual artists working in San Francisco in the 1970s were different in obvious ways, but (in varying degrees) they had in common a desire to make their art workmanlike, without embellishment. Early in his career, Bechtle has said, he ‘was consciously trying to see how devoid of inherent interest I could make things, how bland they could be and still make some kind of sense.’ ”
from the Crown Point Press newsletter, “Overview”, winter 2005

His most recent work, some self-portrait drawings at Gallery Paule Anglim and the etching, “Texas and 20th Intersection” at Crown Point Press show a continued devotion to this intention. A series of self portrait drawings all show him in front of a window, at different times of day, no furniture in the room, facing the viewer with an unreadable expression. Many of the city scenes show a car covered with a cloth. (They’re so common in Bechtle’s work that whenever I pass one of those covered cars on the street, I think of him.) The drawing itself is perfectly smooth and flawless. Large shaded areas are so smooth and flat they almost look sprayed on. Each line, curved or straight, is smooth, sure, unwavering, and unsmudged. And it’s clearly charcoal! Amazing.

February 10, 2005 (Thursday) – Robert Bechtle, prints at Crown Point Press

Robert Bechtel, Sunset Intersection, 1983, color soft ground etching in three panels on one sheet of paper.
Paper size: 32-1/4 x 59-3/4; image size 22 x 49-1/2″, printed by Lilah Toland at Crown Point Press.

Yesterday I talked about Bechtle’s charcoal drawings at Gallery Paule Anglim. Another Bechtle show opened in San Francisco last week, at Crown Point Press, which is located just south of SFMOMA. Bechtle has been making prints at Crown Point Press since 1967, and they have a great selection in this show, from some 1967 hard ground etchings to his most recent soft ground color etching, finished in October 2004.

Some of these images were familiar to me, as the FAMSF has many of his earlier prints and the Oakland Museum has a few of his paintings. Bechtle tends to recycle favorite images, in different formats, again and again. In 1983 he made a huge color soft ground etching of a Sunset intersection (not far from my house – image of the print above.) I’m sure I’ve seen an oil painting of this image somewhere, probably in New York, but I can’t find a mention of it on the web. The print is in three panels, on one sheet of paper, 32-1/4 x 59-3/4″. I can understand the technical reasons for the three panels, but I think it detracts from the image. Nevertheless, it’s a great print.

I was hoping to see a copy of the color woodcut print, “Potrero Houses – Pennsylvania Avenue”, and I wasn’t disappointed. I had read about this print in Kathan Brown’s 1996 book, “Ink, Paper, Metal, Wood” (ISBN 0-8118-0469-0). Bechtle had painted the scene on silk, using Chinese watercolors. Then he and Brown went to Beijing to have it printed at a Chinese woodcut shop. They were happy with the printing, but not the mounting:

“When we received the edition prints of “Potrero Houses – Pennsylvania Avenue,” the printing was consistently good. But in the mounting, lots of brush hairs and bits of dirt and straw had been caught between the print and the heavier sheet on which it was mounted. The dirt showed clearly through the silk, especially in the wide expanse of the street in the print. when we complained about this to Mr. Sun at Rong Bao Zhai, he was surprised at our concern. ‘No one sees that,’ he said. His tone implied a simple statement of fact, not an excuse, and I realized that in china, people have learned not to see what they consider unimportant. We ended up throwing away the worst of the flawed prints, settling for a smaller edition than we had wanted (and paid for). I decided in the future, we should do the mounting ourselves.”
from Kathan Brown’s “Ink, Paper, Metal, Wood” (ISBN 0-8118-0469-0)

The edition was only 38, but the one they had framed at the show looks very good – actually, it looks like a watercolor at first glance.

The most recent print is the one that Crown Point Press is using on the postcard for this show, “Texas and 20th Intersection.” It’s a soft ground etching with aquatint, Paper size 31 x 39″; image size 22 x 30-3/4″, printed by Catherine Brooks. A car slants down the hill to the left with sunlight glaring off the windshield. That glow coming off the windshield is an awesome tour de force. Kathan Brown wrote,

“This is a large print for Bechtle, whose work is labor intensive, his largest except for the famous “Sunset Intersection” of 1983. He spent three weeks in October, 2004, working every day on it, drawing five 22 x 30 copper plates in soft ground and adding a sixth for aquatint. In soft ground etching, the artist draws on paper laid over a plate coated with a soft wax. The pressure of the pencil picks up the wax, and the texture of the paper is etched into the plate. That texture provides the tooth that holds ink and gives a soft ground line it’s quality.
quoted from Winter 2005 edition of “Overview,” the Crown Point Press newsletter

February 11, 2005 (Friday) – Robert Bechtle, in print, in the press and on the web

Amazingly, the SF Chronicle assigned Jesse Hamlin, instead of Kenneth Baker, to review the Robert Bechtel show. Now we won’t have to read how realism is dead and painting is on life support. It’s a good article (check it out.) He interviews Bechtle in front of some of his early work at SFMOMA. Bechtle talks about being tuned into the “hum of ordinary things,” and he describes how he saw California with new eyes after returning from a trip to Europe. Hamlin mentions the surprising painterly quality in Bechtle’s work – you really don’t notice that in books or on the web – you have to be standing in front of the painting itself.

I’m a fan of Bechtle’s work, and it’s not only his command of technique that impresses me, but the California aesthetic, also expressed in the work of Chester Arnold, John Register, James Doolin, Robert Arneson, Edward Ruscha, and William T. Wiley. On Monday I’ll wrap up this series with a personal report on the SFMOMA show. Until then, here’s more info on Robert Bechtle:

Robert Bechtle’s Artist’s statement from 1999, OK Harris Gallery:

I am interested in how things look; I am also interested in painting that is based upon how things look. I like to see things the way they are rather than thinking how they can be changed. The richness and range of the visual world constantly thrills and amazes me. I am most particularly interested in using the part of our world which we seem to notice least…that is, our everyday surroundings as we live day to day. Thus, I have painted friends and family, familiar houses, streets and neighborhoods. The paintings are on one level, about middle class American life as experienced in California. On another, they are about reconciling that subject matter with concerns about formal painting issues (the use of color and light, design, and the kinds of marks one must make to replicate appearances). They are, in that sense, a part of a long tradition of European and American painting which has sought to find significance in the details of the commonplace.
– – Robert Bechtle, 1990

Web sites that feature Robert Bechtle’s work:

Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York (new work)
SFMOMA Bechtle Retrospective Exhibition February 2005 show
FAMSF : de Young Museum, Bechtle prints
Oakland Museum, about Oct. 2000 show
Hunter Museum, Bechtel pages
CrownPoint Press Bechtle pages page
ArtBusiness review of Bechtle openings
Gallery Paule Anglim, Bechtle page
OK Harris Gallery
Traditional Fine Art Online, Review of Bechtle show
Seavest Collection
Bechtle’s AskARTpage
Bechtle images from art-in-context
ArtCyclopedia list of Bechtle web sites
Brauer Museum Bechtle page

Books that mention and show Robert Bechtle’s work:

Robert Bechtle, A Retrospective
by Janet Bishop, Michael Auping, Jonathan Weinberg, Charles Ray, Joshua Shirkey; 2005 UC Press, ISBN 0520245431
This is the recent SFMOMA show catalog.

Ink, Paper, Metal, Wood
by Kathan Brown, 1996, Chronicle Books, ISBN 0-8118-0469-0
(pages 212 – 215: story of Bechtle’s woodcut on silk prints, images of Bechtle’s “Potrero Houses – Pennsylvania Avenue” and “Albany Monte Carlo”)

Super Realism
by Edward Lucie-Smith, 1979, Phaidon Press, ISBN 0-7148-1971-9
(page 37: Bechtle’s painting, “Santa Barbara Motel”)

Contemporary American Realism since 1960
by Frank H. Goodyear, 1981, New York Graphic Society, ISBN 0-8212-1126-9
(page 199: Bechtle’s painting, “58 Rambler” and a little bit of copy about him)

Made In California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900 – 2000
by Stephanie Barron, Sheri Bernstein, Ilene Susan Fort, 2001, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ISBN 0-520-22764-6
(page 206: Bechtle’s painting, “67 Chrysler”)

Photorealism at the Millennium
by Louis K. Meisel, 2002, Harry N. Abrams, ISBN 0-8109-3483-3
(pages 39 – 50: images of 59 paintings by Bechtle, most of them from the ten years before the book was published.)

by Kerstin Stremmel, 2004, Taschen, ISBN 3-8228-2942-0
(page 13: Bechtle’s painting, “Marin Avenue – Late Afternoon” and a quote form Bechtle: “When I’m photographing a car in front of a house I try to keep in mind what a real-estate photographer would do if he were taking a picture of the house and try for that quality.”)

Realism in 20th Century Painting
by Brendan Prendeville, 2000, Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0-500-20336-9
(pages 152, 169 – 171, image of Bechtle’s painting, “20th Street – Early sunday Morning”, and a small amount of text about his work)

Robert Bechtle: California classic (Centric 58)
by Marina Freeman, 2000, California State University, Long Beach, University Art Museum, ISBN: 0936270403
(show catalog – out of print)

Why Draw a Landscape?
by Kathan Brown, Bryan Hunt (Illustrator), April Gornik (Illustrator), Joan Nelson (Illustrator), Anne. Appleby (Illustrator), Slyvia P. Mangold, Jane Freilicher (Illustrator), Pat Steir, Ed Ruscha, Robert Bechtle, Tom Marioni
(1999) Crown Point Press, ISBN: 1891300113
Kathan Brown proposes that the best artists reflect issues of their times in their work and suggests that in life and art engagement is replacing coolness.