Robert Bechtle has been painting his surroundings in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 1950s. When I went to interview him the other day, it was a bit like being inside one of his photorealist works. On my way to his place in Potrero Hill I walked up some steep hills flanked by rows of sunlit flat-front houses, under crisscrosses of power lines, and in and out of morning street shadows I recognized from his paintings and drawings. I crossed the streets in 20th and Mississippi Night (2001) and a few blocks over to the east is the corner in Covered Car – Missouri Street (2001)—both charcoal on paper drawings in the Walker’s collection. He would say later, “They’re all things that I’ve noticed just living here. Things that I see on my walk in the morning, or I’m driving by and something jumps out and says, ‘Photograph me.’” He may be the most familiar with San Francisco’s architecture over the past 60 years. Sometimes he’d draw and paint the same scene several times.
When I made it up to his 3-story house overlooking the bay skyline, coming into his bright kitchen, Robert had prepared a pot of coffee with ginger scones he picked up earlier at a nearby bakery. His black cat was sleeping in the front room. We walked out the back door, past citrus trees, and down the wooden staircase through the garden that led into his spacious and tidy studio. On the wall above the couch I was sitting on hung the 36×77” painting, Potrero Table (1994), of him and his wife, art historian Whitney Chadwick. On the wall opposite was a painting he was in the midst of, depicting the nearby intersection of Texas and 20th Street. He sat back in his chair, cool and kind, and graciously took a couple hours of his day to talk with me about his work. Below are excerpts of our conversation.
Brooke: What brought you to Westport Point, Massachusetts where you made the three drawings in the Walker’s collection?
Robert: Oh, [laughs] that’s because we go there every summer. I have a studio there and usually I’ll do works on paper while we’re there. It just sort of seems to go with the summer ambiance.
Brooke: How did you choose the east coast as a place to have a studio?
Robert: I sort of fell in love with New England at one point when I visited a friend who had a house up in Maine. It was back in the early ’60s. I’d never been anywhere in New England at that point. I just thought, someday, I’m going to have a house in New England. [laughter]
I was thinking Maine at the time. But then, when it actually became feasible and Whitney and I were looking for a place, we decided we wanted to be somewhere that had more access to New York. The coast that’s on the south facing the Rhode Island border seemed to beckon.
Brooke: When you’re working there, do you draw scenes from that area as well?
Robert: No. Well, yes and no. I’ve gone out on little watercolor excursions, I do that periodically. But it’s not that serious. I’ve been taking photographs back there and I still haven’t come up with anything that I really feel that I can work with. The village that we’re in is full of charming eighteenth century houses and nineteenth century houses. I love it, it all seems very picturesque. But it’s a little like going to Italy or something like that. Even though we’ve been going back there for almost thirty years, I always still feel like a tourist.
It’s not my landscape. This is my landscape, out here.
Brooke: Referring to just around the corner from here, what was the impetus to draw 20th and Mississippi Night?
Robert: There are a number of the drawings and a couple of watercolors that involve a lot of pavement. That particular intersection, looking up the hill to the crossing of those streets gave an opportunity to do an image where two thirds or three quarters are just pavement, going up, and I got a little bit of the architecture at the top. And I periodically tried doing images that were night scenes. Some were done from photographs that were taken at night but mostly they were done from photographs that were taken during the day, and then turned into night scenes just by playing games with it a little bit, mostly just darkening the sky, but then playing, figuring out what I thought the streetlight would do on the architecture.
Years ago, in the ’60s I guess, when I was living in Berkeley, I was sort of fascinated by the possibility of doing an image that was like looking into a window at night. I tried taking photographs, going out with my camera and trying to shoot stuff. It was never satisfactory. I could never get enough information to actually do anything with them.
In the back of my mind, I started thinking, “Well, maybe I can just take some of the photographs that I made in the daytime and do something to them to turn them into night scenes.” But I never did anything about it. And 20 years later or whenever it was, 30 years later, I started thinking about that again and I thought, “OK, I’m going to actually do it.”
The first one actually was done in combination with a slide that I had taken at night and there was very little information. It was very dark. I didn’t really get the exposures and things right. So I basically had to make it up. It was one that had a big tree that filled the whole image area. There was just a big, dark blob and there was a window with the light on, and just so many indications of the building behind the tree. So it was almost abstract to begin with and it was probably, of the group of drawings from that time, the one that hung around the longest before somebody bought it. [laughs] It was definitely an odd image.
It ended up being, on the one hand, simpler than some of the other photographs that I had to work with. But in some ways, more complicated, because there was so much that had to be finessed, just guess how it might or might not look. Once I got that one to work, then it was easier. I think I did a couple of ones of houses out in the western part of San Francisco, the Sunset District. This one fell somewhere near the beginning, but not the very beginning.
Brooke: Could you talk some more about selecting the ordinary imagery depicted in your drawings?
Robert: The town that I grew up in, Alameda, was full of little bungalows. The house that we lived in was a kind of bungalow, but it had a tile trim on it, sort of “Hispanic tendencies,” as my dealer called it. When I was in high school, I used to hate the look of the house and those little bungalows. I couldn’t stand it.
Robert: It all seemed so chockablock next to each other, and repetitious, and kind of smug. In art school, I was becoming aware of the geography of Berkeley and Oakland and there is a different look to it—lots of trees and more interesting houses, and that was sort of my idea. And Alameda just sort of looked worse and worse.
So it was a great revelation to all of sudden ten years later decide that maybe there’s a reason to paint this stuff. One of the reasons being that nobody else was doing it, which was important in that I wasn’t looking over my shoulder to see how or remember how some of the artists had painted it. Then I realized that I really was connected to all of that stuff. As much as I may hate it, on a certain level, I had great affection for it in other ways.
Brooke: Covered Car – High Street, another one of the charcoal drawings on paper in the Walker’s collection, that was near your mother’s home there?
Robert: It was maybe half a dozen blocks from there. The car is under a cover that’s all starting to come apart and sort of wrapped with a rope. So it’s a very different look. It doesn’t have the sleek look that some of the other covered cars have. I did a number of them, including an oil painting of the same car but not necessarily the same image, a different angle and different inclusions and so on.
But it fascinated me, that particular one, because the car that was under there, you could see it enough that you knew that it was a car that somebody was going to restore. It was some kind of Ford Mustang GT, but it was obviously a car that had been purchased for what it was and what it might be when it was restored.
I assumed that it just sat there and sat there and sat there, and the cover gradually deteriorated and the shroud had ripped apart and so on. And there were things about the setting. The grass was very long, and it obviously hadn’t been cut very recently. It still had the Christmas lights around the trim of the house, suggesting that somebody had put them up at some point but wasn’t about to take them [laughs] down.
So it seemed like there was a little narrative in that one, but I was mainly attracted to it just by the kind of raggedy sense of the way the shroud was over it and then wrapped up.
Brooke: There’s a second charcoal drawing in the Walker’s collection—Covered Car – Missouri Street (2001). What prompted the covered car series?
Robert: It was an idea that was percolating in my head for awhile, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, and finally I took a number of photographs of cars that had those car covers on them.
The first ones I did were watercolors, so by the time I decided to try it with charcoal, I had a handle on it to some degree. It seemed to lend itself to working with charcoal because I was thinking of it as a contemporary way of making drapery studies. I have no interest in making drapery studies, but that is a category of drawings that artists used to make, traditionally, particularly in art school, learning how to do the folds…
Brooke: I remember that in art school, as well. [laughs] One of the 101 exercises is going home and drawing your curtains, or your bed cloth.
Robert: We did it because we were told to do it. I knew it was not easy to do. That was part of the reason for doing it. Also, the fact that when you cover the car up, the identifying features aren’t there anymore, so you have no idea what kind of car it is. Everybody has had some experience with seeing these things, so you know there’s something under there, and it’s an automobile. But there’s a certain mystery that’s involved. At the same time, there’s something funereal about it. It’s like a shroud wrapping this iconic object from American life.
Brooke: When did your interest in cars begin? You were drawing cars without covers for quite awhile before starting this series…
Robert: The first car came sort of by accident. It wasn’t an idea that I had, but it happened while I was working on a painting. This was back in 1963, I think, when I was living in Alameda. I had a house, a studio that faced out onto the street of a residential neighborhood. I was doing a painting that was like a composition using part of a window, a mirror that was hanging on the window molding, and a bit of a framed drawing that was sitting next to that. So it was the rectangle of the window, an oval in the mirror, and a rectangle of a framed picture that had glass on it. It was a dark picture that was in there, so it reflected as well. So, there was a self‑portrait that was between the mirror, and you’d see part of it reflected on the picture. And there were curtains on the window, halfway up—café curtains. I was basically just painting it from life, what was there. I didn’t like what was happening with the café curtain, so I took it off and painted what was out the window.
What was out the window was a stucco bungalow with a Plymouth sedan sitting there. So, I painted that. A little light bulb went off and I thought, “Gee, that was kind of interesting.” [laughs] Then I parked my car in front of the window, and painted it through the window from life, as it were.
Then I started painting my mother’s car. That was problematic, in terms of trying to work from sketches, trying to get sketches that were accurate enough to really be convincing. So, I went to the camera to make studies, and that was the slippery slope…
Brooke: What about the car was so interesting to you when you first had that moment where the light bulb went off?
Robert: I was at the stage where I was bumbling around, trying to figure out who I was as an artist, and trying to get away from the look of the Bay Area figurative painters, which I imitated because I admired them greatly. My painting at that point had gotten pretty precise, realistic. I went into that thinking that I was maybe just going to do this to learn, to teach myself to paint in a more profound way than you learned in art school, and that at some point I would start to do something else. But doors kept opening up and I kept thinking this is pretty interesting.
So the car became kind of a door. It was a way of connecting what I was doing to the world that I was familiar with, and I realized that it was a world that nobody was painting. Nobody was painting cars. There was an occasional… Rosenquist did a couple things of parts of cars—he had one called Air Hammer (1962) that was a side of a car—and Wesselmann. But for the most part it was very wide open.
Brooke: Since then, in the 60s and 70s, how have you seen your work change over the years in the way that you look at the car, and ways that it’s depicted through drawing or painting, and its meaning to you?
Robert: Well, there’ve been a [laughs] number of things that have changed that weren’t necessarily me changing but the world changing. The first cars and the whole idea that I had about using them was that they were ordinary objects; that there was nothing glamorous about them and that cars really exist as opposed to what the advertisements showed and our imagination about them. So I always chose things like Chevrolets, Chryslers, Buicks or whatever—American cars, generally wagons or family sedans. At the time, a lot of those cars, most of them, were either new or very recent vintage. They were not antiques, and there was nothing exotic about them at all. Over time, they’ve become very exotic. People look at me and say, “Oh, you’re the guy that paints the antique cars.” “No, they weren’t antiques when I painted them.”
So at that time, I think one painting had a Volkswagen in it, but that was about the most exotic use of a foreign car. Now, they’re almost all Japanese cars in the paintings. I’m not choosing them because they’re Japanese, but I’m choosing them because that’s what’s there. What used to be a Chevrolet is now a Subaru or whatever. This painting [see image below] is a VW and a Subaru. It’s this neighborhood, near the intersection of Texas and 20th Street… I’ve done a number of paintings of that intersection, and this one’s just down the hill.
I chose the image on the basis of just how it looked, and there was something interesting about the particular arrangement of houses and then the cars just being there and there’s a couple of people walking down the street, which sometimes I’ve used but other times not.
But getting back to your question about the changes, I sort of changed the way I’ve worked the paintings from the earliest ones, and that affects how the cars are painted as well. They’re much rougher now. I mean it’s all relative, but they’re rougher than they were back in the ’70s.
In the old paintings, which really grew out of painting from life, I started way back then doing an underpainting in umber—brown—sort of a grisaille to quickly establish a sense of the painting, of values, range, and so on. I would do the finished painting right on top of the brown painting.
Then I started doing a rougher lay‑in of the color in rough form, and then would do the finished painting on top of that, sort of stretching out a little bit. Over the years, the rough painting—the lay‑in—has taken longer and longer to do, because I maybe give it more attention than I did originally.
It’s paradoxical. You’re wanting to get away from a photographic look a little bit, even though that’s not possible, totally. So, I started—between finishing the lay‑in and the finished painting—putting a layer of sort of arbitrary marks. They’re not arbitrary, but it’s sort of livening it up by putting maybe some red marks in the middle of the purple area, and so on. Then doing the finished painting on top of that, trying to let those show through and trying to let the lay‑ins still show through, so the painting is more layered, not quite as tightly finished, and more interesting to do.
Brooke: In what way more interesting?
Robert: I mean it leaves a little bit to chance. If you’re working with photographs, not much is left to chance. You’ve made a lot of decisions ahead of time that propel the whole development of the painting. But by putting the arbitrary marks down, it gives the surface a bit of a shimmer that it wouldn’t have normally. In a way it destroys the look of the lay in. It’s sort of like I’m spending all this time to get this thing to look reasonably like it’s supposed to. Then I’ll spend a week and just be making these marks on it, and sometimes they land in very awkward places that I’m not thinking about what I’m going to do with them at that point. Just trying to get color that will activate whatever color is meant to be there.
Then when I start going back over it, I’m covering up some of that. I’m letting some of that show through, and sometimes a decision of how a particular area is going to look comes as a kind of surprise. I’m leaving things that maybe weren’t meant to be left originally.
Brooke: At what point did you really start exploring that way of painting? Is that something that’s happened more recently?
Robert: Not really recently. It started in the early ’90s. I guess I got tired of seeing the kind of smoothness, and I’d gotten to where I could handle that fairly well and decided maybe they needed to be a little more painterly than they had been.
…In talking to students, you come up with things talking about their work that you can use in your own. So it came a little bit from that because I was using color, and making color choices was an important aspect of what I was having students do.
I sort of figured that a painting shouldn’t be any better painted than it needs to be, whatever that means. That one can make a statement without having to cross all the t’s and dot the i’s and so on. I suppose by starting to add this extra color sense to it, it ends up allowing it to be rougher and I think that they should be even rougher, but it’s a way of pushing me in that direction. They may still be over‑finished but I’m working in the direction of not finishing too much. So that’s kind of where stretching out the length of time that I take on lay-in means that the roughness that’s in that can sometimes form the basis of the finished painting. I find that I don’t have to cover it up as much as I thought I would. I might just have to touch up something or maybe bury some of those little dabs of color a little bit. Anyway, that’s another aspect of the question I think.
Brooke: Who were some artists important to your work? You said Diebenkorn was a huge influence during the ’50s and ’60s… Were there other artists too that you were in frequent conversation with, or that influenced your work quite a bit?
Robert: Yeah, there were, and they were people that were my generation. Richard McLean, Charles Gill. We were working through some of the issues of getting away from Bay Area figurative painting and bringing photographs into the practice and trying to invent our own ways of painting. We used to get together in informal studio visits and talk about stuff. McLean was a colleague—ultimately he was a colleague at San Francisco State for a long time—so the dialogue continued for years about what we were doing.
Brooke: In what way?
Robert: In terms of subject matter. At that time, he was doing the alphabets and targets and the numbers and so on. It was sort of about what I guess he called the invisibility of subject matter, painting things that we don’t pay any attention to. That is certainly kind of spinning around in the back of all these paintings—paying attention to things that you don’t notice.
Brooke: And presently, are there painters who have emerged in recent years that have been of interest to you? Or informed your work in a different sense?
Robert: Yes, I am sure. I look at a lot of stuff and I am always open to stealing ideas if I can find some that I like. It’s interesting to get to the point where I can do that with impunity, in a sense, because it gets channeled through my own sensibility. I can look at a painting and say, “Gee, I would like to try that.” [laughs] And then find a way to do it within what I do so it’s not like copying.
Brooke: Is there an example that you can think of?
Robert: I don’t know, off the top of my head. There was a kind of under-riding current of artists…people like Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Bonnard, Matisse, Vermeer—the people who painted interiors and painted life around them that I think of as the area that I’m interested in and work with.
Brooke: You still turn to their works from time to time?
Robert: Oh, yeah. I just had a wonderful experience yesterday. I was invited to drop by one of the galleries in town, because there was a picture that was going to be there just for that one day. So, I did. It was a wonderful Edward Hopper—big, late Hopper—that I had seen before, but it was wonderful to just be in the same room with it. We were just there, the three of us, looking at this painting. It was right there. It was on the display wall in the gallery. And it was so much more interesting than seeing it up in an exhibition, because it was so much more intimate. You could just get right up next to it and practically scrape the paint off. Naturally, we wouldn’t do that. [laughter]
Brooke: Yeah, and you’re not thinking about it in the context of a show, with a theme. It’s something a lot more direct…
Robert: Right. It’s connecting with my inner memory bank of the Hopper images, and so on. Yeah, Hopper is a big influence, but you have to watch out that you don’t get too close. I have the same feeling about Matisse. He’s an artist that I love and think about a lot, but you have to be careful you don’t get too close there, really! It really destroys you. He’s too much of an individual. The kiss of death is trying to paint like Matisse.
Brooke: Is that something that you communicate to your students…not getting too close…
Robert: I think Matisse wasn’t that popular at that point. [laughs] It comes up certainly indirectly. But I remember in graduate school that there was one particular student that was just totally enamored by Matisse and was trying to paint Matisse‑like paintings. You’re not going to make that. [laughs] That’s not going to happen.
Brooke: Who do you prefer to write about your work? What has been some of the better writing about your work?
Robert: I would say Peter Schjeldahl. He’s written a couple of things, some of them early on, back in the early ’70s when he was writing for the “Village Voice.” One of which, I think it was the best review that I’d ever gotten. It was a review, but it was also like an article, and he was comparing my work (which was in a show at O.K. Harris) and work by Nancy Spero, saying that he was going to talk about my work from a political standpoint and Nancy Spero’s from an aesthetic standpoint. The opposite of how you would normally have thought of, and then he did. Very moving review.
Brooke: Does the writing about your work affect your own vision of it?
Robert: In a lot of cases I think people miss the point, and get hung up on the subject matter. That’s a danger that one has to accept if you’re going to work with subject matter that people respond to. But they’re really not about the subject matter, they’re more about the idea of how we see the kind of emotional resonance that bounces off of objects and places, things that refer to places. They use a classic still life kind of thing where, the painting, it’s about edges and about the way the light informs things and the kinds of surfaces that the paint engenders both as paint and as replication of what it’s picturing and so on.
The actual subject matter is way down on the list. They’re not about cars. They’re not about the people that are in the paintings. On one hand, they’re very accurate depictions of the people, but I don’t think of them as portraits. They are still life objects as well, even though they are going to have more emotional presence than the apples and oranges.
I guess the reason I like Peter Schjeldahl’s writings is because he gets it just right from the beginning. He had a sense of, “Yeah, this is really what it is about.” Lot’s of people they don’t. In fact, I would say most writers don’t. I think they appreciate them as art objects, but they get too hung up in the subject matter. The subject matter is important, but it’s not really what it is about.
Brooke: So when you look back on some of your paintings and drawings, do you think more about the artistic process of making them, and look at the past works more technically? Or do they bring up memories of living here decades ago, and make you think about the way the landscape has changed over the years? Because you’re always faced with the same landscapes, constantly.
Robert: Yeah, well, that’s right. I feel a kind of proprietary connection to it. There’s a house down on 20th, which is one I was describing as the first night drawing, and I’ve watched the transformation of the corner. They cut the tree down and the house has been repainted. Now, it just sits there like it’s naked—pale yellow, no greenery, etcetera. I look at it every time I go by and think about it as the transformation, and I think maybe I should do another version of it, and I think maybe not, maybe. We’ll see.
I feel very proprietary about the various things. I don’t make a big deal over it, but it feels like I have left a part of me there or I have taken a part of it and brought it in here. Yeah, it’s inevitable.