Robert Bechtle

The quality of the light and the issue of drawing the substance of the paintings from my own, everyday surroundings -- contemporary California, middle-class surroundings -- is basically what the paintings have been about all along... It is still a challenge to use these materials in a way that is formally interesting and at the same time evokes some kind of poetry.

In 2005, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective (later traveling to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) of the paintings by Robert Bechtle beginning with works done in 1964. Bechtle, who was born in San Francisco in 1932, had lived all his life in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his art is centered on scenes from everyday life. In connection with the retrospective, Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker that in 1969, when he first noticed a Bechtle painting, he was “rattled by the middle-class ordinariness of the scene.” As he looked more closely, he discovered “a feat of resourceful painterly artifice” that he gradually realized was “beautiful.” Schjeldahl concluded the article in this way: “Life is incredibly complicated, and the proof is that when you confront any simple, stopped part of it you are stupefied.”

Bechtle began drawing and painting at a young age and won a scholarship that paid for his first year of college by submitting a portfolio of artwork to a national competition. After graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in Oakland, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Berlin where he painted murals in the mess hall and delighted in visiting European museums. Back in California, he got an MA from the California College of Arts and Crafts and began his teaching career there. Over the years he had taught in various Bay Area institutions, especially San Francisco State University.

Besides making paintings, watercolors, and drawings, he was an accomplished printmaker: he worked in lithography early in his career and mainly in etching after 1982 when Crown Point Press began publishing his prints. Bechtle was given his first solo museum exhibition in 1967 by the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), and in 1970 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York purchased a painting of his. Since then, his work has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and other museums in the United States, France, and Germany. Bechtle had his first New York exhibition in 1971 at OK Harris Works of Art, where he continued to show regularly until he joined the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2003. He was also represented by Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco. Robert Bechtle died in 2020 at the age of 88.

-Kathan Brown, Crown Point Press


  • Robert Bechtle at Crown Point Press, 2011 (5 minutes)

    Artist Robert Bechtle working at Crown Point Press in San Francisco to create a color soft ground etching with aquatint, 2011.

  • Robert Bechtle Discusses Making Prints at Crown Point Press, 2007 (2 minutes)

    Painter Robert Bechtle discusses making prints at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, 2007.

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