Mod God In the Details

Robert Bechtle finds a universe of order in car doors, roof lines and lawn chairs

Though hyperrealist, Bechtle's paintings come across as remarkably abstract. The objects are so solidly anonymous they become denatured anythings--identity-shorn objects that are more important for their formal play than their essential substance. In a similarly paradoxical turn, it is the photograph that delivers this abstraction. "'56 Cadillac" (1966) was the first painting Bechtle made by way of tracing the image of a projected slide on canvas. Four years later, with "'62 Chevy" (1970), the camera works its magic of abstraction with regular acuity, as cropping transforms the parking lot into a tipped-up plane of flat blackness reminiscent of the works of Degas and Cézanne. The camera functions as a sketching device for Bechtle, garnering for him snapshot precision of a world of parked cars, bland housing tracts, loved ones and the slope-hilled urban landscape of San Francisco.

Bechtle is not only interested in objects as blocks of compositional form but also the way in which sunlight plays off of them, the manner in which light transforms color and initiates a to-and-fro game of reflective surfaces. In "Xmas in Gilroy" (1971), Bechtle focuses on the bizarre play of light in a living room. In pinball syncopation, brilliantly piercing light shines on the face of his mother seated to the left, then reflectively bounces off the wood of the coffee table and finally refracts through the glasses of the woman seated at the center. In "Watsonville Chairs" (1976), skin becomes a mirror-like plane of reflection rather than a soft molten sheath containing organs. Transforming one of painting's hoary signifiers of intelligence, the man's shining forehead is more a literal reflector of the bright glare of the afternoon sun than his singular brilliance.

Robert Bechtle's "Agua Caliente Nova" (1975)
Robert Bechtle's "Agua Caliente Nova" (1975)


is on display through August 28 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 817-738-9215.

Though photographic in appearance, these are by all means paintings. When viewing, there's a physical point at which the photographic precision yields to brush stroke. Four steps back from the canvas you'll see the tight sheen of the camera's image, and two steps forward you'll find the picture plane breaking up into painterly strokes. The calibration of viewing space is par for the course when looking at a Bechtle for reasons of technique and subject matter alike. Bechtle captures a world of complicated order in everyday stuff. This is a show of delightful deliberation, where you'll want to pass minutes instead of seconds exercising the brain, eye and then brain again as you ruminate over the carefully honed order in a world of lawn sprinklers, empty pool-side loungers and striped metal awnings.

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