“Painting a nostalgic view of the Bay Area”: Robert Bechtle

An image from Robert Bechtle, an artist from the Bay Area

On September 25, I was sitting in Biology Class when I read “Photorealist Painter Robert Bechtle, Who Captured the Bay Area in Painstakingly Faithful Detail, Has Died at 88” from Artnet News. I immediately called my mom to deliver the news: one of our favorite painters had passed. Robert Bechtle was an American photorealist painter from the Bay Area. He focused on highlighting the mundane parts of American suburbia in a beautiful and frank way. To many of you, the name Robert Bechtle means nothing, but to me, he represents day trips to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), running through the streets of San Francisco and yearly neighborhood backyard barbeques.
Robert Bechtle was born on May 14th, 1932 in San Francisco, California. He was a lifelong resident of the Bay Area dedicated to capturing snapshots of regular life. According to his ex-wife, Bechtle started painting photorealistic paintings of his surroundings as a way to overcome his artist’s block (Artnet). Little did he know that painting his own middle-class neighborhood would become his primary subject (Artnet). He would get up at 6am every morning to take photos for inspiration during his walks around Potrero Hill. He had a keen eye for detail and everything he put on canvas was done with an intention. He had his last show in 2017 and shortly after in 2018 was diagnosed with Lewy body syndrome, which deteriorated his physical and mental acuity (Datebook). He couldn’t paint or draw, but still stuck to his 6am wake up time for his daily walks.
Bechtle’s paintings remind me of point and click photographs; they are sepia-tinted and and eerily realistic. His paintings are simple, yet every time I am in front of Alameda Gran Torino, 1974, I find myself breathless. It is almost like I am looking at a perfectly preserved piece of history and I can jump right into it. Alameda Gran Torino depicts a green Ford Gran Torino with dark wood paneling, the ideal suburban car. The Gran Torino is parked in the driveway of an average American suburban home; one could mistake the home as a friend’s. The painting reminds me of old photos at my grandfather’s house. When my grandfather first immigrated to the United States, he took photos of everything from flowers to his neighborhood. My grandfather wanted to capture innocent American culture and Bechtle does the same with oil on canvas. It is beautiful, but at the same time, makes me feel nostalgia for a time where I did not exist. Bechtle’s depiction and view of the Bay Area varies greatly from my current community. Through his work he conveys the feelings of the unimportant Bay Area: what it is like to live somewhere that is not always moving quickly, but at a certain and confident pace. His depiction is something that I will never be able to live in, due to gentrification. He paints a nostalgic view of the Bay, and the fact that he can make viewers feel this way when looking at a 2d painting is a testament to his commitment of his art. His skill is something many artists dream of holding, yet Bechtle possesses and utilizes with ease. Even though Bechtle has passed, his legacy lives through his works. When you have a weekend free in the city, I recommend visiting his works in the SFMOMA.