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Robert Bechtle
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
San Francisco
Death Date: 
Photorealist artist Robert Bechtle is known for paintings and prints depicting what he calls “California subject matter” such as cars, his family and sunlit middle-class neighborhoods, often scenes of the San Francisco Bay Area. He also had a long academic career teaching painting and drawing. Born in San Francisco in 1932, his family moved to Oakland soon after Bechtel was born, lived for a few years in Sacramento and then moved to Alameda in 1942. Bechtel began drawing at an early age and his artistic talent was encouraged by his family. While attending Alameda High School he won a scholarship in a national “Scholastic Magazine” competition that paid for his first year of study at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (CCAC, now California College of the Arts), where he majored in graphic design. After receiving his BFA degree in 1954 Bechtel went to work for Kaiser Industries as a graphic designer, but was drafted into the Army later that year. He was stationed in Berlin in 1955, where he enjoyed visiting museums and traveling around Europe while on leave. He returned to CCAC in the fall of 1956, taking graduate work in painting and working part-time for Kaiser. Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), who had joined the faculty while Bechtel was in Berlin, became a major influence. Although he experimented with abstraction, Bechtel was drawn to the Bay Area Figurative style of Diebenkorn. He began teaching design at CCAC in 1957, received his MFA degree the next year and began dating one of his students, Nancy Dalton. Having learned lithography, his prints appeared in the 1959 exhibition, “Prints by Bay Area Artists #1,” at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the S.F. Museum of Modern Art [SF MOMA]). He began teaching full-time at CCAC and quit his Kaiser job later that year. He took leave form CCAC in 1961 to travel to Europe for about a year, part of the time with Nancy. After his return they rented a house together in Alameda and were married in 1963. While working on his painting “Nancy Sitting” (Berkeley, private coll.) in 1964, he took a photograph of her to prevent the need for her to model for him for hours, the beginning of his use of photography in his art. His painting “Cookie Jar” (1964, SF MOMA) won a James D Phelan Award in Art in 1965 and was exhibited at the Legion of Honor Museum. By 1966 he was projecting color slides directly onto a canvas, and followed the image in creating a painting; this became his standard studio practice, establishing his photorealist style. He taught design at the University of California, Berkeley during 1965-66 and painting and drawing at UC Davis 1966-67. His first solo museum exhibition was mounted by the S.F. Museum of Art in 1967.The following year his former CCAC classmate Richard McLean (1934-2014) recruited Bechtel to join the faculty at San Francisco State University, the beginning of a three-decade career. Three Bechtel paintings were seen by New York gallerist Ivan Karp (1926-2012) in the Milwaukee Art Center’s 1969 exhibition “Directions 2: Aspects of a New Realism,” leading Karp to offer to represent Bechtle through his gallery, OK Harris Works of Art. Bechtel’s first solo show there was in 1971, followed by eight more solo shows at the gallery through 2001. That show and the three Bechtle paintings in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition “Twenty-two Realists” in 1970 established his reputation. The Whitney later purchased one of the paintings from the show, “’61 Pontiac” (1968-69). Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, which had mounted a solo show of Bechtel’s work in 1966, presented another one-man exhibition in 1973, featuring 61 paintings and works on paper. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded a grant to Bechtle in 1977, the first of three such grants. After moving to San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district in 1980, Bechtel’s art focused on street scenes in his new neighborhood, a theme he has continued to follow. He separated from his wife Nancy that year and began a relationship with Whitney Chadwick (b. 1943), an art historian teaching at S.F. State, whom he married in 1982. Bechtel returned to printmaking in 1982 at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, creating soft-ground color etchings. He continued to create prints at Crown Point Press, most recently in 2013, all part of the Crown Point Press archive at the Legion of Honor. Bechtel retired from teaching at CCAC in 1985 and from S.F. State in 1999. His honors include a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship (1985), election to the National Academy of Design (1993) and an award in painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1995). The SF MOMA mounted a retrospective of his works in 2005, which traveled to Ft. Worth and Washington, D.C. Bechtel continues to live and work in San Francisco. (TNB 3/2016) Selected bibliography: Bishop, Janet C., et al. Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective. Exhibition catalog. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.