When you hear the term "Photorealism," Robert Bechtle is not exactly the first name that springs to mind. Yet, according to Louis Meisel, the dean of Photorealist dealers, Robert Bechtle invented Photorealism somewhere between 1963 and 1964.
As most people know, Photorealism is a style in which the painter works from a snapshot to portray his subject matter in a highly realistic manner. Some, like Chuck Close, took it to an extreme. He would use an airbrush to paint giant portraits of his friends, paintings that are so realistic that you can view every blemish and pore on the "victim's" face.
Then there is Richard Estes, who concentrates on the urban landscape. Estes' twist is to paint the reflections in glass storefronts, which creates miniature abstract paintings within the picture. Other recognized practitioners include Richard McLean (horses), Charles Bell (pinball and gumball machines) and Ralph Goings (pickup trucks and diner interiors).
Although Robert Bechtle works from photographs, and paints with great precision, his work never seems as slick as the other artists. Instead, Bechtle's work feels more like pure realism. Bechtle is a meticulous painter whose work is more about atmosphere than reproduction.
Currently, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is hosting a Robert Bechtle retrospective. Many of the early pictures portray ordinary cars like Fords and Chevys. Some are parked beside white stucco middle-class homes, their owners posed in front of them. These images resonate -- anyone who ever spent time in suburbia can relate to them.
Bechtle's work is simultaneously invigorating and depressing. At first glance, you marvel at the care that toes into each picture: the controlled brushwork, the muted but accurate colors and the nicely cropped compositions. But then you're brought down by the work's coldness.
Fortunately, Bechtle developed as an artist and his work began to warm up. Although he has continued to focus on the streets and homes in San Francisco's Sunset District, his work become a bit more painterly -- without the loss of any of his wonderful atmosphere.
From a market viewpoint, the retrospective revealed that Bechtle created relatively few paintings. Most are already in private collections and only a handful are for sale. Those few works that are available were listed as "Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim and the Barbara Gladstone Gallery." When I noticed the latter, a touch of sadness came over me. After 30 years, the artist is no longer with his original sponsor, Ivan Karp of the O.K. Harris Gallery.
I gave Ivan (now 79 years old) a call and was greeted with his usual enthusiasm, "Polsky, what's happening baby?!" After some small talk, I popped the question, "Why did Robert Bechtle leave you after all of these years?" Without a touch of bitterness, but with a sense of humor, Karp blurted out, "Money! Why else?"
Money, indeed. With Karp's words ringing in my ears, I phoned Bechtle's new Manhattan dealer, the highly regarded Barbara Gladstone Gallery. I asked Gladstone about Bechtle's recent work, specifically requesting the price of a new painting. She declined to answer, saying that the gallery prefers not to give out that sort of information. But by piecing together figures provided by other sources, I was able to conclude that a new painting would run $75,000-$80,000, a new watercolor $25,000-$30,000, and a new print $2,000.
If these figures are in the ballpark, and I believe they are, then Robert Bechtle's work is a bargain.
As far as the auctions go, Bechtle is more of a bench-warmer than a player. His work rarely appears. During 2003 and 2004, nothing at all came up for sale. However, there is a secondary market. Louis Meisel claims that vintage Bechtle paintings from the 1960s and 1970s are $200,000. Once again, that's a deal. At auction, early works by Close are almost $3 million (if you can find one), an Estes is around $400,000-$600,000, and a Charles Bell goes for $300,000-$400,000. A Ralph Goings brings $150,000-$350,000 and a Richard McLean sells for $100,000-$150,000. In terms of historical significance, I would rank Bechtle above McLean and just a shade below Ralph Goings.
At 73, Bechtle is still actively working. His well-received museum show confirmed that he should stay the course. At the end of the day, chances are Bechtle will never escape his Photorealist tag. But if he does go down in art history as more of a pure realist, the value of his work could easily shoot by most of the others from the Photorealist genre.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private contemporary art dealer in San Francisco and the author of I Bought Andy Warhol. Comments can be directed to: Polskyart@msn.com