Mod God In the Details

On these would-be millennial times, the claim that "God is in the details" might easily be mistaken for another plug for spiritual shysters on the make--one more slogan for the verbal arsenal of God-hucksters so ready to link faith and fortune. Let us not forget that it has long been a rhetorical trope belonging to poets. To find Jehovah in the jasmine, Allah in an arabesque or Yahweh in the careful up-turn of a yak's horns is tantamount to saying that there is deliberative will and necessity in even the most infinitesimal. It is an idea of total design: a belief that life is an all-encompassing work of art. A paean to Mother Nature for some, the turn of phrase suggests that the order of the vast universe is legible in the crystalline structure of a molecule. Walt Whitman linked micro to macro, describing "a leaf of grass [as] no less than the journey-work of the stars." Karl Blossfield, photographer and master of plant-form typology, found a cosmos of structural precision in the stalk of a dandelion.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the man who rehashed Aristotle for architecture with the organic notion that "form follows function," bluntly claimed God and nature to be one. Yet when the Bauhaus maven Mies van der Rohe said that "God is in the details," the symbiosis between God and nature occurred more by way of steel, concrete and glass than wood, stone and roiling stream beds. God for Mies was a purveyor of minimalist maximalism, a power greater than us all who revealed her forces in the subtlety of a steel I-beam planted in the middle of an open, quasi-infinite space. "Less is more," Mies instructed. And God made herself present where glass pane meets glass pane and the structural detail otherwise known as "corner" disappeared.

The painter Robert Bechtle, the subject of a current retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, is a minimal maximalist who, something like Mies, finds a world of opportunity in the odds and ends of workaday life. In short, Bechtle locates a fullness of artful possibility in "almost nothing," to use a Miesian turn of phrase. While the rugged materials of modernism make up Bechtle's palette of formal play, they are decidedly the stuff of a certain American ugliness. Black asphalt and yellow lines, multicolored boxy metal newsstands, shiny aluminum lawn chairs and Brady Bunch-era pleather kitchenettes, a '63 Bel Air on the curb, a Gran Torino abutting the geometric designs of a garage door, the Kona Kai motel and the shiny orb of a Weber outdoor grill: These are the rarefied components of Bechtle's God. The shiny blue sedan sitting statically front and center in "'67 Chrysler" (1973) is only secondarily an icon of American consumerism and fast-lane car culture. Above all else it is an oblong blue mass in which the segments fuse compositionally with the salmon plane created by the picture window of the suburban house behind. The car antenna is a line of visual adhesion joining car to house, glistening metal to lean pink drainpipe. Midway along the sedan's body, a steel porch banister elides downward into the line of the car's front door, continuing the vertical pull of house into car. Light and shadow create flattened space by way of a series of horizontal lines playing off the vertical crack in the gray-green mid-road asphalt, a foreshortening device that drives one right into the center of the picture plane. Car, house, sidewalk and street create a classical grid of balanced form. There is order in our universe of plastic, stucco and aluminum. Iacocca never realized he was the midwife of a God so mod.

Hailing from a tumble of flowering hills in Oakland, California, Bechtle emerged onto the art scene in the early 1960s as one of the first generation of Photorealists. Like the work of fellow Bay-area Photorealists of the time such as Richard McLean, Chuck Close, Charles Bell, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, John Salt and Ralph Goings, Bechtle's meticulously detailed paintings of whale-scaled American cars and the redundant faces of stucco houses along suburban streets met late Ab-Ex painters and rising-star Minimalists with a healthy dose of anti-stylistic confrontation. "Realism seemed like a way of having no style at all," Bechtle claimed. Its polemic was an anti-polemic. The presentation of the bullet-like station wagon in "'71 Buick" (1972) is deadpan and flat. It is what it is--an object--no less, no more. Like a "high-definition television on stretched canvas," as Michael Auping, curator at the Modern, puts it, this painting dispassionately reports the car's material existence, its placement on the street between house and opposing sidewalk.

Bechtle's paintings went unfettered by the heroic debates of "one thing after another," "presence" and "objecthood" that preoccupied Donald Judd and Michael Fried in the same years. These paintings offer a powerful antidote to the overweening sense of artistic self that plagued many of the artists that we now lump together as "Minimalists." In retrospect, the deflation of "self," this denial of that well-worn cliché of valiant artist-genius-creator, seems well ahead of the game. It marks a strain of postmodernism in the work of Bechtle that sets the modernism of Minimalism in hindsight. In their intentionally impassive soullessness, Bechtle's paintings are the embodiment of what theorist Michael Hays has popularized (following Frederic Jameson) as the "posthumanist subject." While the grid is operative in these paintings, it offers a classicism of the machine instead of the Renaissance. In the instance of Bechtle's work, the grid is an ordering device more in keeping with the rational lattice of Moholy-Nagy's author-denying porcelain-enamel telephone paintings than Raphael's inventor-centered "School of Athens."

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.

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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Charissa N. Terranova