Robert Bechtle (b. 1932, San Francisco, CA; d. 2020, Berkeley, CA) is best known for painting things most familiar to him: the streets, houses and cars in his neighbourhood as well as family and friends, all reminiscent of pictures from private photo albums. Bechtle studied graphic design and fine art at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, receiving his BFA in 1954 and MA in 1956. After being briefly drafted into the US Army and stationed in Berlin, he returned to the West Coast to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1967 to 1968 he taught at the University of California, Davis and from 1968 at San Francisco State University. There, Bechtle discovered the Bay Area Figurative Movement, a group of artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, who had abandoned abstraction for figuration; where they used an expressionistic hand, Bechtle opted for a pared-back, ‘no style’ aesthetic.
Bechtle introduced photography into his painting process in 1964 as a studio aid; by 1966, his photographs had evolved into a working sketchbook. Drawn to their simplicity, Bechtle typically photographed middle-class neighbourhoods with uniform houses and sensible saloon cars, things he described as ‘ordinary fare’. Bechtle visited the same streets repeatedly: Almeda, where he grew up, and Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, where he later lived. Rather than taking quick snapshots, Bechtle would spend an age looking and noticing changes, photographing the same scenes at different times of day, fascinated by the changing light, carefully composing his photographs to balance light and dark.
Bechtle’s work has been exhibited internationally since the 1970s, first featured in seminal early presentations: Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5: Questioning Reality – Pictorial Worlds Today, Kassel (1972) and Photo-Realism, at the Serpentine Gallery, London (1973). Recent institutional exhibitions include American Dream, National Museum in Krakow, Poland (2009); Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2009); Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyperrealistic Painting (2013-2017), which opened in Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany before touring to 10 locations including Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, UK; and Tampa Museum of Art, Florida; From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today, Parrish Art Museum, New York (2017-2018) and Chrome Dreams and Infinite Reflections: American Photorealism, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, CA (2022).