This was not an easy thing to explain. I was standing in the middle of the intersection of Mound and Calhoun streets because I had just experienced a sudden realization that I couldn’t believe: This otherwise unremarkable view of petite 1920s bungalows that I walked past every day was reproduced in exacting detail in a painting by the master photorealist painter Robert Bechtle, down to the sewer-repair scars in the asphalt.
I showed her an image of the painting on my phone and how it matched the houses across the street. She shrugged in exactly the way a 7-year-old should and ran off to Krusi Park in search of something more interesting. I, on the other hand, was awestruck. Few places in Alameda, an island city of roughly 78,000 people across the Bay from San Francisco, end up in travel guidebooks — or even on the radar of Bay Area locals. And this quiet four-way stop is definitely not one of those places. How did it end up in a Bechtle painting?
Alameda is nearly flat, ideal for long walks. At times on strolls around the island I would see an old American-made car parked in front of a little bungalow and think, “Wow, that looks almost like a Robert Bechtle painting.” I never connected the dots.
Now all I wanted to do was connect the dots, each and every one of them. If there was one Bechtle painting in Alameda, there were probably more.
If you’ve spent time in San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, you’ve likely seen one of Bechtle’s most famous works: a painting of a green and gold early ’70s Ford Gran Torino station wagon, complete with faux wood-grain siding. It’s so perfectly rendered that you have to walk up close and stare for a while to see that it’s an oil painting not a photograph. What I had failed to notice was its title, “Alameda Gran Torino.”
It’s a quintessential Bechtle painting: precisely realistic to such a degree that it forces you to boggle at his technical mastery while focusing on a subject so everyday, so blah, that it also makes you wonder why it warranted a painting in the first place. Gran Torino station wagons weren’t built to be beautiful. They were bulky, comfy and practical — unless you needed to fit in a compact parking space. It was your friend’s parents’ car with a broken 8-track player and Cheez-It crumbs in the springy back seat.
In Bechtle’s hands, though, this close-up of a bulbous American car in an unremarkable driveway makes people stop in their tracks. Mel Waldorf, a software engineer and lead guitarist for the Jewish surf-rock band Meshugga Beach Party, and Jessica Lindsey, a Bay Area antiques dealer, were on their second date together when this happened to them.
“At the time, I was new to the Bay Area and had no idea where Alameda was, but I’m a big fan of old station wagons. I’ve owned several over the years. So I knew what a Gran Torino was. Jessica on the other hand, knew Alameda, but didn’t know about Gran Torinos,” Waldorf told me.
The date, it’s safe to say, went well. Of all the art they saw that night, “Alameda Gran Torino” was their favorite. Years later, the couple were house hunting around the Bay Area when they stumbled upon a cute duet townhouse on the east end of Alameda, which they wound up buying.
“When we moved in, the previous owner had left a postcard of the painting from the SFMOMA,” said Waldorf. They remembered it well, but there was a detail in the painting that suddenly had new meaning to them: Bechtle had included the house number in the painting. It was the same as their new home.
They ran outside and held the postcard in front of the house. The trim matched. It was the same tree, the same garage door, the same pattern in the concrete of the driveway.
“No question, it was the same house! We were living in the Bechtle painting!” Waldorf said.
Like me, they hadn’t really considered the precise locations of Bechtle’s paintings. The world he paints doesn’t feel like a specific place; it’s a land of shadeless streets, cookie-cutter developments and backyard barbecues on summer-crisped lawns. They’re vaguely familiar, like the photos from a family vacation that never quite made it into an album. As a Californian, from a place where newness is the norm, the scenes immediately look recognizable. But they could be California anywhere — and in my mind they were always somewhere else, somewhere distant, somewhere more suburban and, well, soulless.
That was precisely what Bechtle was going for. There was a simple explanation for why he chose to paint a seemingly random corner in Alameda: One of the houses in the painting is the house he grew up in, a small 1928 Mediterranean-style bungalow with terracotta roof tiles and a red-painted front walk and driveway that was the fashion of the day (and still persists in Alameda). He was not a fan. Growing up in the ’30s and ’40s, the development was still new, the trees planted in Alameda’s thin, sandy soil were young and scrawny. Everything was just too dull and uniform.
“When I was in high school, I used to hate the look of the house and those little bungalows. I couldn’t stand it. It all seemed so chockablock next to each other, and repetitious, and kind of smug,” Bechtle said in a 2012 interview with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Neighborhoods aren’t born with character, it emerges over the passage of time, as does our appreciation of them. The two-bedroom, one-bath bungalows of the East End were built as affordable working-class homes. Just 10 years ago, a realtor described them to me as “starter homes” even though I couldn’t start to afford one. In today’s market, a small East End bungalow commonly sells for more than $1 million, sight unseen. Alameda takes pride in its ornate Victorians, but the humble Mediterranean bungalows have quietly become classics of California architecture to the point that their Spanish-inspired aesthetic is often copied in today’s developments that also feel too dull and uniform.
Bechtle was as surprised as anyone when he came back to Alameda after finishing his Army service based in Germany and suddenly found a new appreciation for the place from an artistic standpoint. As a young aspiring artist, he was trying to differentiate himself from a Bay Area art scene then dominated by figurative artists like Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. Studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Bechtle purposely avoided taking classes from Diebenkorn to avoid being overly influenced by him. At the time, embracing photorealism was a way to rebel against the mainstream, and Alameda’s everywhere-ness looked like open territory for creative exploration.
“It was a great revelation to all of sudden 10 years later decide that maybe there’s a reason to paint this stuff,” Bechtle said. “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.”
The more I looked through his paintings online, the more they looked like places I had been. Some, like Alameda Gran Torino, had addresses on the houses, which made them easier to track down. A few had titles that told me where to look like “Houses on Clay Street” or “Foster’s Freeze Alameda” (now Neptune’s). In others, the clues were more subtle: specific architectural features, distinctive trees.
I found myself inside some later Bechtle paintings on Sterling Avenue, a one-block street of nearly identical, impeccably preserved California craftsman bungalows and globe streetlights, a street that walks the line between charmingly historic and almost eerie in its Pleasantville uniformity. I walked into other Bechtle paintings on Burbank Street, the palm-lined street near the beach with trees so tall that they’re visible from all over the East Bay.
Over time, I tracked down the locations of more than 40 Bechtle paintings (you can explore them all on a map here). Correction: they weren’t all paintings. Some were the photorealistic oil paintings he’s best known for, others were gauzy watercolors, moody charcoal drawings, hard-ground etchings and ink sketches. The Bay Area figurative style he so carefully avoided early on sneaks into his work when he departs from realism.
I admit, the appeal of my Alameda Bechtle hunt isn’t immediately obvious. What did I expect to learn from standing in these spots? After all, a photorealistic painting is by definition an exact replica of a place. As it happens, one thing you learn is that there is more art in photorealism than initially meets the eye: choices about what gets left in and what gets left out, colors, textures, mood. In a painting of his brother and his 1960 T-Bird, Bechtle swapped a house on Calhoun Street in the background for an apartment building with a rock garden. Both look real, but at least one is a lie.
It probably passes unnoticed that the houses Bechtle painted over the years — often backdrops to cars — looked quite similar for one simple reason: They’re often the same house. He painted the little Mediterranean bungalow on Mound Street that he grew up in and where his mom lived for decades after multiple times, straight on and from various angles. He painted views looking down the street from the front of the house, or the spot around the corner where his brother parked his T-Bird. As much as Bechtle tried to escape Alameda, he found himself forever pulled back into a narrow orbit around his family home.
“Alameda’s a funny place, if you’ve ever been there, since it’s an island, literally an island,” Bechtle said in an oral history interview with the Smithsonian. “It’s connected by bridges and a tunnel, but it really has an insular personality even though it takes just five minutes to walk across a bridge to Oakland. There’s something about the islandness which to this day is part of its character.”
He said this in the late 1970s, but it still holds true today. This islandness also lends to a general feeling of a place trapped in time. Alameda is known for its well-preserved Victorian houses, but it’s equally good at preserving long-standing exclusionary housing policies and has a history of police violence. This tension courses through Bechtle’s art, and the fact that I could track down the precise locations of more than 40 of his paintings shows just how slowly things change in Alameda. An old truck from one Bechtle painting on Central Avenue still sits in the same driveway. Not everything remains precisely the same: Bechtle’s studio in the early 1960s, a waterfront cottage on Central Avenue in the West End, was torn down in a wave of development in the late 1960s, and his water view captured in “Nancy Sitting” (1964) was filled in to build condos.
There are some Bechtle paintings where the location still remains a mystery to me. He didn’t always note where they were from, at least in the titles, and even when he did he was often off by a block or two. I thought I might at some point see whether I could speak with him to ask him to tell me more about the places he painted, but I missed my chance: Just as I started to get really interested, Bechtle passed away at the age of 88.
To be honest, asking him about the precise locations of his paintings would have been like asking him about the cars he so frequently painted: missing the point entirely. He painted cars, but he really wasn’t much of a car guy. He thought people often got too hung up on the objects in his paintings — to him they were merely a way in, the language he used to talk about the world he lived in. So many of his paintings look like Alameda, but they could be from other places he lived and painted — Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, San Francisco — or moments captured from road trips to Santa Barbara or Palm Springs. That was the point: Each one depicted somewhere very specific, but they could be just about anywhere.