We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

“Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective”

If Robert Bechtle lives anything like he paints, he must have been a drag at happenings, man. In the mid-to-late ’60s, at a time when many artists were staging hierarchy-busting performance pieces, creating industrial-looking monoliths, or assembling ersatz objects out of discarded commercial materials, Bechtle was putting venerable old oil paint in the service of copying photographs with fussy, near-mechanical precision. It’s exceedingly slow work, and over the past four decades, the artist has seldom averaged more than four or five paintings in a year. As for the photos he’s chosen to examine so closely, they’ve never been of exotic people or places. In fact, Bechtle has seldom strayed from Alameda, Calif., the middle-class town near Oakland where he grew up. As a result, he’s become known as a painter of cars, rows of sun-bleached suburban homes, and a handful of his relatives.

Of course, art as a series of refusals is nothing new. In the more than 90 works included in “Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective,” Bechtle seems to be another link in a long chain of artists who have found empowerment in self-imposed limitations, whether that means resisting art-world trends or examining only the most readily available of subjects. Edward Hopper comes immediately to mind as a forebear, and not only because of his works’ Middle American milieu. Like Bechtle, Hopper often shows us a world made chalky by strong mid-morning light, its colors washed out and massed in flat, reductive planes. Another precursor, as Michael Auping points out in his catalog essay, is Giorgio Morandi, the singular Italian modernist who spent his whole career painting a handful of bottles in his studio. “In both artists’ imagery, everything is out in the light,” Auping writes. “The mystery is not in obscurity, but in unblinking clarity.” With Bechtle in particular, the mystery is how the humble, occasionally tacky trappings of bourgeois life, when paired with an artistic method born of the techniques of commercial art and illustration, can yield paintings that occasionally attain something like the sublime.

The early paintings seem to be all about gray—thin lines and large expanses of it, defining a snapshot reality of low light, low contrast, and slightly blurry focus. In ’61 Pontiac (1964), the weave of the canvas is visible; the image appears to have been stained or printed as much as painted. The titular car occupies most of the lower half of the picture. It’s glimpsed from indoors through two large windows, effectively dividing the canvas in two. This superimposition of rectangles, dividing an already eerily stable world into a grid through which flashes of life can be perceived, was a common compositional device for Bechtle throughout the ’60s. This is partly because, during this period, he hadn’t yet gotten into the habit of projecting slides directly onto his canvases and tracing them—instead, he would grid his source photos, transferring them to his support a square at a time. French Doors I (1965) and French Doors II (1966) make this process explicit, repeating the artist’s reflection in two parallel sets of square glass panes. In each, the seam of two joined canvases serves as a natural compositional divide, becoming the line along which the two doors meet. It’s as persuasive a statement on the artificiality of the picture plane as any geometric contrivance by Frank Stella.

By 1968, when Bechtle finished ’60 T-Bird, his paint showed sharper contrasts and smoother application. The piece is still a monument of reticence, however: The dark gray of the unyieldingly uniform pavement in the lower fourth of the canvas acts like a sort of vision sink, swallowing both the light it receives and the viewer’s gaze. Slowly, Bechtle’s use of color did expand. In ’61 Pontiac (1968–1969), a sudden stripe of blue on a door handle, a bright orange accent on the tip of a nose or a lip, and the deep crimson shadows across Bechtle’s son’s knees are almost startling. In Alameda Gran Torino (1974), the car’s fake-wood-grain panels are outlined by an impossibly intense butter yellow.

For Bechtle, clarity had local roots—not just in terms of his subject matter but also in his stubborn response to the pervasive influence of the Bay Area Figurative School. Despite having gotten his MFA at what is now the California College of the Arts in 1958, Bechtle never took a class with Richard Diebenkorn, then an instructor there and the movement’s leading figure. As a painter, Diebenkorn used the energy and immediacy of abstract expressionism to depict local people, places, and things, all illuminated by a recognizable local light. His paint was rapidly applied, thickly and with occasional splatters; in multiple Diebenkorn pictures, dark ultramarine underpainting peeks out from underneath a frenzy of scumbled, opaque yellow marks, setting up vibrations and contrasts in an otherwise monochromatic expanse. “God, I’m not going to get caught up in that,” Bechtle remembered thinking of his school’s superstar faculty member in a 1978 interview. “I’m not going to take a class with that man.”

So many refusals. The biggest of all, of course, is that of Bechtle’s own medium: He’s transformed oils to the look of the photograph, abandoning both expressionistic brio and traditional glazing methods. His colors telegraph printed images, not the solid volumes of classicism. Yet after a few minutes with “A Retrospective,” it nonetheless becomes very clear just how different paint is from photographs, actual objects, or images in memory—and how much Bechtle understands this difference. In ’61 Pontiac, for example, despite the strong shadows underneath a tree in the painting’s upper right-hand corner, its leaves remain a murky sap green, showing no dazzle of impressionistic light. Exceedingly subtle flourishes creep in elsewhere, too, in paintings such as Roses (1973). Here, thin crimson and viridian outlines that recall the work of fellow Californian Wayne Thiebaud cling to shadows and individual blossoms, blurring the edges of things ever so slightly. Period- and class-specific clothes and automobiles become unfamiliar, demonstrating that even painstakingly realist representation is a type of abstraction, a mode of interpretation. The oft-remarked-upon discomfort one gets in front of a Cézanne, of observing humans as if they were an alien species, becomes acute.

Ask Bechtle why this is—or why he chooses any of his trademark subjects—and the answer will inevitably lead back to composition. Bechtle is fond of explaining the hows but never the whys: “What inspires a painting may not be the most dominant thing in the completed painting,” he tells us in one of the catalog essays. “It may be in the background. It’s usually something that really only translates, at least in my mind, through painting.” Bechtle has often talked about his pictures of people and cars as either still life or landscape—as observations of a larger compositional arrangement. This, even though his figures are almost always intimates: family, friends, and, increasingly in the ’80s and ’90s, himself.

But Bechtle’s self-portraits reveal nothing of the artist’s interior state. He may be squinting; his head might not even be fully visible. Exhibition organizer Janet Bishop points out that the most notable thing about his self-depiction in Potrero Hill (1996) is not his facial expression but the way in which his head seems to be married to the grille of a Volvo station wagon. In Broome Street Zenith (1987), Bechtle and his second wife, art historian Whitney Chadwick, sit at opposite ends of the roughly 5-and-a-half-foot-long canvas. Bechtle looks out at the viewer, listening through headphones to the Walkman at his hip; Chadwick is viewed from behind, watching an equestrian event on a black-and-white TV. Neither seems as important as the watery, wavering image of the building across the street, seen through the distorting glass of the windows in the middle of the picture. If Bechtle is telling a story here, it’s one about seeing and about the history of seeing—at least as it’s been told through art. Renaissance aesthetics conceived of the painting as a window; modernist thought suggests that it’s nothing more than a flat surface. Here, it’s some of both, suggesting that Bechtle’s art is a particularly slippery synthesis: an instant rendered over a long time, an abstraction made to appear real, a series of familiarities that become ever stranger.

Because of Bechtle’s monumentally slow methodology, minute changes in his work over the decades begin to look exponentially important. The pointillistic blue and orange daubs that begin to creep into his paintings in the ’90s—notably in Marin Avenue—Late Afternoon (1998)—add an unexpected restlessness, but the force is still neutralized, handled evenly from edge to edge of the canvas. This storm of light and color is subdued by edge and focus; Bechtle’s distance remains. After three decades, his car pictures begin to take on another Thiebaud-like feature: the drastic diagonals of San Francisco’s hilly streets. In Texas Street Intersection (2000), an aging car in the lower left-hand corner faces the viewer; it’s parked on an incline and threatens to slide off the edge of the canvas. The cars in Mariposa II (2000) are all parked on inclined driveways, tracing parallel diagonals from left to right—except for the lone boxy compact peeking out of the piece’s right-hand corner. It, naturally, slopes slightly in the opposite direction. Bechtle seems to be poking fun at his own typically stable compositions, allowing some of that reserved façade to slip a bit. Even considered as a self-portrait of sorts, it’s not an earth-shattering moment in his oeuvre—just evidence that his artistic maturity has crept up on us at the same glacial pace at which Bechtle has always worked.

Like so many museum shows right now, the Corcoran exhibition makes Bechtle out to be a regionalist—and in his case, it’s not a hard sell. All of the decisions the artist has made—for control over turmoil, for the banal over the exotic, for the clinical over the emotional—have kept him hemmed in, safe inside a particular sphere. What’s remarkable is the adventurousness this has yielded. Bechtle’s body of work begins with a few simple facts and ends with quiet revelations about place, class, and the nature of vision and experience. It does so in ways the artist probably wouldn’t have guessed—and certainly wouldn’t want to talk about. If Bechtle has treated painting like the graphic-design job he started off training for, perhaps we should think of his art as a great middle-class success story: All that hard work has paid off. CP