Obituary: Robert Bechtle

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Robert Bechtle
May 14, 1932 – September 24, 2020

Robert Bechtle, Potrero Hill, 1996, Oil on canvas. SFMoMA collection; Ruth Nash Fund purchase. Copyright: Robert Bechtle; Image: Ben Blackwell
Robert Bechtle, Potrero Hill, 1996, Oil on canvas. SFMoMA collection; Ruth Nash Fund purchase. Copyright: Robert Bechtle; Image: Ben Blackwell

Long-time Potrero Hill resident, photorealist painter, and former California College of the Arts faculty member, Robert Bechtle, died on September 24, 2020 from Lewy body dementia. He was 88. 

Bechtle was known for his extraordinary skill in memorializing the everyday, painting such images as the back of Chevy Nova and a woman smiling at the camera. At first glance, the captured moments look like simple snapshots. A closer look reveals colors in the shadows that make the images flicker. 

Bechtle’s work conveys his keen sense of humor. In “Fosters Freeze” (1975), two children dig into sundaes, concentrating harder on the ice cream than on anything around them. In “Potrero Houses – Pennsylvania Avenue” (1988), a blocky sedan teeters at the top of Pennsylvania Avenue, eternally ready to roll down the hill.

Bechtle was a master at painting long, slanting shadows in the City’s hills. He enjoyed painting all types of cars, from sleek Monte Carlos to bulky Gran Torino wagons. 

Local artists remember Bechtle for his quiet and thoughtful approach to teaching and creating art. 

“When I worked as his teaching assistant at San Francisco State University, I remember he always came to the classroom early,” said Mark Johnson, professor of art at San Francisco State University. “He spent at least half an hour setting up every still life. He wanted students to be able to create a well-balanced picture, the kind he’d paint himself,” 

Bechtle was born in San Francisco on May 14, 1932 to Thelma (Peterson) Bechtle, then a schoolteacher, and Otto Bechtle, an electrician. He spent his early years in the City, later living in Oakland and Sacramento. The family ultimately returned to the Bay Area, where Bechtle attended Alameda High School. 

Bechtle earned a Bachelor of Applied Arts in interdisciplinary design (1954) and Master of Fine Arts in painting (1958) from the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC). He received an honorary doctorate in art from CCAC in 2007. In 1957, while still a CCAC graduate student, Bechtle began teaching there. He remained a faculty member until 1985. 

Bechtle taught design at the University of California, Berkeley from 1965 to 1966, and drawing and painting at UC Davis from 1966 to 1967. In 1968, Bechtle’s former CCAC classmate, Richard McLean, asked him to teach art at San Francisco State University. Bechtle remained a SFSU faculty member until 1999. 

Frances Valesco, a SFSU professor of art and San Francisco muralist, recalled Bechtle as part of a group of art faculty that used to lunch together. 

“He was very methodical, very private, but also a sharp observer. He was a master draftsman and loved teaching beginning art classes. He wanted students to get that foundation with perspective and materials,” said Valesco. 

Bechtle’s work was widely known and exhibited, especially his oil paintings and prints. Bechtle also created watercolors and drawings. 

Bechtle was honored with 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). Although he exhibited at many galleries, he formed a close relationship with Barbara Gladstone, owner of Gladstone Gallery, which has locations in New York and Brussels. 

“Bob could transform artifacts from everyday situations and settings into unbelievably powerful, awe-inspiring compositions that capture the poignancy, magic, beauty of the quotidian moments in life,” said Gladstone. “His paintings are incredibly rich with texture and visual information. The impact of seeing his work in person is truly striking. His artistic vision has inspired many artists and artistic movements. We feel so honored to have had the opportunity to work with him for nearly twenty years,” said Gladstone. 

Bechtle’s prints first appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) in 1959, when it was known as the San Francisco Museum of Art.  In 2005, SFMoMA, which now has 19 Bechtle pieces in its collection, mounted a retrospective of his work.  Janet Bishop, SFMoMA’s chief curator and curator of Bechtle’s retrospective, said he was one of the City art community’s true greats. 

“Bob grew up on Bay Area Figurative art, inspired by Richard Diebenkorn, in particular. He found his own voice in the late 1960s as he moved toward realism and an explicit use of very casual, snapshot-like source material from his own life, cars, family, street scenes. And yet everything about his paintings is intentional, from the structure to the imagery to the way he worked with paint,” said Bishop. 

Bechtle forged other local ties, especially with Crown Point Press, a San Francisco gallery attached to a printmaking studio. Bechtle became a member of the Society of Independent Artists, a City-based group of painters, sculptures, photographers, conceptual artists, and a few musicians.

“Robert was nice, shy, and not controversial. He was a great painter,” said Tom Marioni, a conceptual artist and a founding member of the Society. “I used to kid him that he was cheating by projecting photographs and then tracing them to paint. He told me there was no cheating in art. The proof is in the pudding.” 

Paul Kos, a conceptual artist and Society member, recalled that Bechtle wouldn’t paint images of glorious sunsets or Bay views. Instead, he painted the house across the street, the 1968 Pontiac parked in a driveway.

“The ordinary became extraordinary because of his skilled craftsmanship and photorealistic attention to detail. Potrero’s Hill’s history was documented by this quiet, soft spoken generous spirit,” said Kos. 

Isabelle Sorrell, a conceptual artist, Society member, and Kos’ wife, said Bechtle’s character and mindfulness were evident in his everyday habits. 

“I recall having [Bechtle and Whitney Chadwick, Robert Bechtle’s second wife and an art historian who taught at SFSU] over for dinner at our place. As most frequently, our mutual guests were animated into the conversation while Bob was eating his dinner quietly. said Sorrell.  “I always thought that there was something beautiful through his focus in whatever he was doing. That time he was eating…was as sacred as when he put a mark down on paper or canvas. Ultimately, we can say that through his commitment, rigorous methodology, and clarity toward what mattered to him he left proof of who he was…one connects with his work or not, you know a Bechtle when you see it!” 

Ruth Miller, a Hill resident, and friend of Bechtle, said she misses Bechtle’s profound capacity for kindness and sweetness.

“He was such a generous listener, so easy to talk to, and so quick to laugh. Any number of people could find a point of entry with him. He transcended so many categories personally and professionally. He will be sorely missed,” said Miller. 

“He was a mensch, in every sense of the word,” said Stephen Beal, president of California College of the Arts. 

Beal said Bechtle generously supported the school, often attending scholarship dinners and student openings.

“His work and who he was resonated with people. He was skilled far beyond his technical ability. He was poetic in a humanistic way,” said Beal.

Beal said Bechtle’s portraits of the southeastern neighborhoods in particular, the lights, streets, and hills of Potrero Hill, “instill the viewer with a sense of purpose and dignity.” 

Rachel Howard, a freelance journalist who interviewed Bechtle for SF State Magazine, SFSU’s alumni magazine, said Bechtle taught her valuable lessons when he invited her to his Potrero Hill home and studio in 2006. 

“His studio wasn’t a very large room. It was the size of a one-car garage. Bechtle had many paintings old and new up on the wall. He indicated he was constantly reconsidering his work,” said Howard. “His studio was fit for a professional who lived a very quiet life. Bechtle was happy to stay in the room with his work, just him and his supplies, working slowly and carefully. He brought his full self to his work. He showed me this is how emotion enters your art. Art happens in a community, in a culture. It is created when there is a gathering place of artists. Robert Bechtle was an important part of the City’s art community. Other artists were very important to him and his work as well.” 

Bechtle is survived by his son, Max Bechtle, his daughter, Anne Bechtle, and his wife, Whitney Chadwick.