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SFMOMA retrospective for emeritus prof

February 11, 2005

Image of Bechtle's oil on canvas work Alameda Gran Torino, 1974The images of single-family homes, streetscapes, vintage cars and family barbecues in backyards evoke a time in middle-class American life that has passed like lead gasoline, "The Brady Bunch" and the Cold War. They may look like photographs from old family albums or real-estate brochures, but are actually paintings, charcoal drawings and watercolors upon closer inspection. This is the art of Professor Emeritus Robert Bechtle, whose life's body of work is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 5.

"Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective" features 91 works by the renowned photorealist who taught in the SF State Art Department from 1968 to 1999. The exhibition spans his 40-year career with work drawn from Bay Area, national and international collections as well as a major publication.

"This exhibition promises a critically important and highly deserved assessment of one of the great American realists," SFMOMA Painting and Sculpture Curator Janet Bishop said in a press release. "Bechtle paints life as it is, focusing on the quotidian through quiet, highly exacting works that have the capacity to shift our perceptions of the most familiar aspects of our daily lives."

Image of Bechtle's oil on canvas work Frisco Nova, 1979 Bechtle's paintings emphasize Northern California residential neighborhoods -- replete with stucco houses, repetitive rows of palm trees and the ubiquitous parked car. The exhibition includes such works as '61 Pontiac (1968-69), arguably Bechtle's most famous painting. This painting, featuring Bechtle, his first wife and two children standing in front of their family car, has never been shown previously on the West Coast. The exhibition also includes Alameda Gran Torino (1974), a painting that is considered one of Bechtle's finest works with its deadpan image of the family wood-paneled station wagon.

Bechtle had been a quiet, well-respected faculty member at SF State. Professor Sylvia Walters, former chair of the Art Department, describes him as warm, reserved and very popular with students and colleagues.

"He always taught with a real gentle generosity," she says. "He was infallibly warm and confident about his art. Students flocked to him and often stayed an extra semester to be in his classes."

Born in San Francisco in 1932 and raised in Alameda, Bechtle began painting seriously in early 1960s, finding his own voice through a tightly controlled realism that was distinct from the expressionistic paint-handling characteristic of Bay Area figurative art -- the then-dominant mode of expression among his local peers, including fellow SF State art Professor Emeritus Richard Mclean, and predecessors.

Bechtle's interest in painting stems from his immediate surroundings as they actually looked, rather than an interpretation of how they looked, led to his use of black-and-white photographs as studio aids. Much of his work recalls Alameda and San Francisco, including the Potrero Hill neighborhood where he lives.

The SFMOMA is located at 151 Third St. (at Mission Street) in San Francisco. For admission prices, hours and other details, call (415) 357-4000 or visit the SFMOMA Web site.

-- Matt Itelson
Images: Alameda Gran Torino, 1974, collection SFMOMA -- T.B. Walker Foundation Fund purchase in honor of John Humphrey,© Robert Bechtle; Frisco Nova, 1979, collection of the City and County of San Francisco -- purchased by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the San Francisco International Airport, © Robert Bechtle


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Last modified February 11, 2005 by University Communications