Yeah, I don’t know this artist, and I’m posting about him as I’m researching, without doing much if any reading about him. I only know him because of an attacky sort of comment someone made on one of my articles dealing with Duchamp, and the whole supposed revolution of art his urinal spawned. The guy accused me of “subscribing” to whatever Tom Wolfe wrote in “The Painted Word”. I wrote my smart-ass retort, and then dutifully looked up whatever-the-fuck Tom Wolfe had written.
Wolfe decried the demise of the visual in art, and it being replaced by theory. He boldly concluded that artists were making paintings to illustrate ideas by critics, mere props for art theory. He had this epiphany upon reading a review by art critic, Hilton Kramer, of a show of realist painters, including Bechtle. Kramer had basically asserted that without being underpinned by a cohesive theory, painting was unhinged and irrelevant. He included wonderful quotes of critics at the time savaging the realist painters.
Yup, I think Wolfe had a point there, no matter how unfashionable that point was. In my rejoinder to aforementioned little challenging comment, I accused the other party of valuing ideas about art over art, so, to his credit, he was actually correct that I agree with Wolfe (on at least some points, and likely disagree rabidly on others). So, naturally enough, I wanted to see what these artists who the art critics thought were complete shit made. I already knew Richard Estes, so did a Google image search of Bechtle, and a slide sheet of visual snippets of my childhood materialized.
When I saw the painting above I did a double take. The driveway’s going the wrong way, and the car’s a Chevrolet, but the wrong color and model, otherwise this could be my parent’s car parked in front of my grandparent’s house in the 70’s. They had just that kind of porch, which I still sometimes revisit in my dreams (the portal to my grandparent’s friendly and somewhat quaint world).
In keeping with Wolfe’s article (he wrote a whole book on the topic, but I can only find the text from the original short article in Harper’s), I’m not going to look up what the critics had to say. I don’t need them. I learned to love art and music not through the lens of theory, but through looking and listening, looking and listening. You can imagine that from the critic’s point of view, he gains importance, fame, and fortune through the notion that his or her role is more important than the artist’s. I actually like art criticism, but for this article, as I said, I’ll just go with my own impressions.
One thing I noticed right off is that the paintings look like they were done from Polaroids, which gives them a very characteristic look, which is nostalgic now, but at the time must have been a device to document not only the image in question, but the fact of the mechanical filtering process of the Polaroid. Then one can see the influence of Edward Hopper in the treatment of geometric shapes created by architecture, and specifically planes of light and shadow.
In the painting above Hopper’s even got a car in it. It’s all angles, light, shadow, and reflections. It’s quite easy to see how Bechtle follows Hopper in rendering a particular time and place, and emphasizing the little details that breathe reality into it. In Bechtle’s paintings, like “73 Malibu” you can read the address that the parking garage belongs to, as well as the numbers for the parking spaces. And in ‘Alameda Gran Torino’ you can read the license plate. As with Hopper, all the planes and lines are arranged in a coherent, and appealing way. Bechtle heavily relies on the inherent aesthetics of the automobiles themselves, which if a critic wasn’t such a dick about Duchamp, he’d realize this reflects Duchamp’s own notion that an artist can’t hope to compete with an airplane propeller. Clearly, Bechtle luxuriates in the everyday beauty of the automobile, the garage door, the strip of grass, the door handle, the side paneling, and above all, the tail light!
Above, notice how he features the tail lights, but also the rear view mirror, the door handle, and the steering wheel above the dashboard. Now, I know not everyone grew up in these sorts of cars, parked in front of these sorts of homes or hotels, like I did. Bechtle was working in San Francisco, and I grew up in L.A. So, I gather for people who don’t share this geographical environment, and didn’t have their formative years in the decades when these cars were everywhere, the impact will be different, and it won’t look so much like a home that you can never return to. Did I mention the beauty of the red staircase, and its shadow?
Here I think the car stands in for the individual. Those old cars had a lot of personality, before cars all came to look like a cross between a shark and a sporting shoe. Often the front end had a face, with the headlights as eyes and the grills as mouths. I suppose as a working class kid who spent years while I was in elementary school playing in the back parking garage with other kids in my apartment, I did a lot of looking at cars. What do you look at in your cement back parking garage? Planes, light, patches of sky, car spaces, license plates… Point I was getting at is that growing up with these cars I looked at them really a lot, and interpreted them as having personalities. So, in these works I also see them as stand-ins for people. We know the parked car belongs to someone who will return to it, sit in the driver’s seat, start it up, and sally forth in it as a sort of single unit.
Another thing I don’t need a critic to tell me is that these cars are beautiful. The compositions are carefully composed, and work as well as abstract forms as they do representational ones. For example, what is the strongest color in the image? You are right, that little red rectangle of his favorite thing, the tail light (or a reflector). Noticed that the red rectangle perfectly matches the light blue strip of sidewalk behind it. That is not a coincidence. All the lines and colors are subtly adjusted to make the most perfect picture, which kinda’ reminds me of Hockney’s California pool paintings.
Hockney stresses the formal to the point of idealized illustration, and I don’t relate to his work at all in the same way, but if someone can appreciate the formal aspects of Hockney, they may notice the same attention in Bechtle’s paintings.
The lone Impala in an otherwise vacant parking structure appears lonesome, like a dog waiting for its human companion, or a horse waiting for its rider. And this brings me to another element. When you see a lone car like this, it’s often your own, otherwise you wouldn’t give it so much attention. In this way the artist conjures our relation to our own vehicles. When I look at this there’s a small feeling of being about to open the door, settle into the security of my car, and drive home after a late night at work, or something similar.
I imagine the critic’s take on these images, well, a certain brand of critic. They are going to think primarily about the art historical context, and whether or not ’64 Valiant’ signifies in that narrative. This one’s got Hopper written all over it – sort of an updated, daytime, “Nighthawks”. The cars suggest the few people at a largely empty restaurant.
The critic won’t care that much about that aspect, or the wonderful treatment of the oil stains, the lines of paint demarcating the parking spots, the door handles, rear view mirrors, or the tail lights. Instead, he or she will try to think about what the painting is in terms of contexts and definitions. They will conclude that it is a photo-realist painting of something approximating a snap shot, and they can stop looking at the painting at that point. The real work of interpreting its relation to everything else would be the primary consideration. They will think about the subject matter – it’s inescapable – but just as another facet to interpret in the greater context. The art for them has no autonomy or inherent qualities, it is instead a statement or argument within an art historical debate, and there is a foregone conclusion which this art probably is on the losing side of – dead on arrival.
This is why critics at the time panned fellow photo realist Richard Estes with these choice denunciations: “Return to philistinism” . . .“triumph of mediocrity” . . . “a visual soap opera” . . . “incredibly dead paintings” . . . “rat-trap compositional formulas” . . . “its subject matter has been taken out of its social context and neutered” . . . “it subjects art itself to ignominy” . . .
But I don’t know if the critics took the process into consideration. Contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are so oblivious to the process of making art, that they would and have simply commissioned other artists to make such photo realist paintings for them, and then took credit for them. The critics and the artists miss a major point of this kind of art, which one may only know if one has made a photo-realist painting oneself (I’ve only made a few, but enough to get it). To paint this sort of image is a lengthy study and confrontation of reality. The artist has to look carefully at every detail of an image and try to approximate it. One finds oneself mixing muted colors with dedication. There’s a kind of putting yourself in a subordinate place to how things look independent of your own eyes and mind.
There’s a performance aspect to taking on these rather arduous tasks oneself, which is completely absent in merely assigning someone else to do it for you. And an artist – the kind of artist that has struggled with form, composition, and media – will look at a painting like ‘S. F. Cadillac’, and know Bechtle thought a lot about the weight of the car going downhill, and the angle of the tires curved in so the curb helps keep the car from rolling. The artist will have carefully considered the abstract shape of the shadow of the car, and in relation to the stairs, and the stairs in relation to the hand rail above the stairs. He will have thought about the different shades of green in the grass, and how to accentuate the variety within the sameness. He will have thought about the blue in the reflections on the hub caps and in the grey of the road… All those details are what make this work successful, and all would be absent from the critic’s appraisal.
A painter, a good painter, would look at the image above, and especially if he or she had seen some of the other cars, and be well impressed. The audacity of a snot-green car on a mostly ugly-ass beige is stunning. The bleaching sun and the faded entrance way capture the plebeian California afternoon exceptionally well. It reminds me of long walks I’d take in Glendale when staying at my brother’s house. It’s just gorgeous, and the broad, bold abstract lines of parking spaces add drama. And of course, we have again, the trademark 6 tail lights. This painting truly finds the beauty and transcendence in the seemingly innocuous. What should be a merely factual document of a parked car outside a very nondescript building, becomes a highly particular, and even charged realization of an instant. The car, you probably noticed, looks like it careened into that parking space, with the kind of suspension that makes you feel like you are in a boat.
In ’58 Rambler’ an artist would notice instantly how the lines in the road are parallel to the picture plane, interspersed with the wider, softer black lines made by car tires, and how these are echoed in the horizontal line traversing the Rambler. Notice the top third of the painting is mostly just gray (I’m guessing pollution), only interrupted by a couple nubs from the top of the house. You might notice the back wheel lines up perfectly with the awning and the peak of the chevron. There’s a way that an artist can look at this that is the same way we can look at a completely abstract painting.
Bechtle’s cars also remind me of Impressionist studies, such as Monet’s haystacks, in which you see similar subjects at different times of the day. But for the art critic, the focus needs to be on what is “radical”, so comparisons with Monet or Hopper are going to be deleterious. We must be “on the cutting edge”, “breaking new ground”, and changing forever the way people see. None of that really has much of anything to do with what is intrinsically good about art. I don’t give a flying crap load about whether any of my favorite songs are considered important, or even relevant to music history. To me that is as appropriate an approach as preparing and eating food based purely on nutritional value, and irrespective of taste.
Bechtle painted other things besides cars, and he went on to paint more modern cars with less character. All his work is solid, but the cars from the 70’s are my favorite. Many of the critics were wrong, and brimming over with their own bullshit and hype. They are like religious fanatics who automatically dismiss the culture of other religions.
All the dumb-ass rhetoric, pigeonholing, mental masturbation, and fealty to a faux linear progression of art history put aside*, the car paintings are wonderful. And I forgot to mention that I think it’s odd I’ve never heard of this artist, even though I have an MFA. The reason is, of course, that he wasn’t considered relevant to this or that narrative or agenda about which artist is important to art history. I think it’s time to toss out all that rubbish, and appreciate visual art through looking at it, and not thinking about it when we are not even looking at it.
Here’s a gallery with all Bechtle’s paintings from this post, plus a few extras, that you can click through.
* This article is art criticism, so obviously I’m not totally against it, just the variety that buys into a linear progression of art history and dismisses painting and visual language art in general as made irrelevant by conceptual art…
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