Bechtle's subtle observations about daily life

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Thirty years ago Robert Bechtle became famous for paintings that resembled snapshots of suburban California. "Those images are about where and how I and my family have lived," he said. "It may not be perfect, but it's not something I can turn my back on."

His painting " '61 Pontiac" was based on a photograph of himself, his first wife, and their two children. Today, when so much art either celebrates or is a satire of the banal, " '61 Pontiac" looks almost fashionable. But when Bechtle began the painting in 1968, he was striving for art that didn't resemble anything else.

During the 1960s, much of the highly regarded painting of the San Francisco Bay Area combined realistic subject matter with spectacular brushwork, as if to remind the viewer that this was art with a capital A. Bechtle chose a gentler approach: He wanted his paintings to look like snapshots, so that the viewer wouldn't feel coerced to be impressed by his work. Nor would the viewer have a ready-made opinion to deal with: Bechtle wasn't trying to make statements about suburbs or families or cars. He was trying to make very careful paintings about subjects that look so familiar, they seem almost invisible.

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Bechtle's slow pace - he finishes only four or five paintings a year - and everyday subject matter echo the work of a painter he greatly admires, Jan Vermeer, whose sober depictions of middle-class life in 17th-century Holland have much in common with Bechtle's meticulous paintings of a seemingly unimpressive environment. As with Vermeer, Bechtle offers a delicate balance between familiar subject matter and an easily overlooked playfulness with line, color, and brilliantly rendered variations of light.

Bechtle is the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until June 5. It can be seen at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth from June 26 to Aug. 28.

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