Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture


The San Francisco Bay Area is often considered historically and culturally anomalous: episodes and incidents like the Gold Rush, earthquakes and numerous countercultural movements appear to set it apart from the rest of the country. In fact, the region is both iconic and archetypal; a sprinkling of remarkable events and unique geography should not prevent one from seeing the mainstream on the coastal edge. Here, as with other 'Sunbelt' centres, the post-war era has largely been defined by low-density growth, shrinking manufacturing and the rise of technology and service based industries. Fierce battles over urban renewal, highway construction and gentrification in city centres are representative of similar fights across America. Likewise, the so-called standardization of the built environment persists in the Bay Area as elsewhere. Thus, while San Francisco stands at the root of the region's image and legacy, to think of this dense portion of northern California in the polarized terms of magnetic city centre and dispersed suburbs belies pivotal overlaps and interdependencies in the forms of its post-war growth. The Golden Gate may still stand as the touristic icon of the Bay Area, but the region's evolving population, industries and economies have created a broader urban fabric that is defined as much by its suburban appendages as its central urban core. Not only are the economic contributions of San Francisco's suburbs essential to the area's financial health, the built environment of the city centre is also often inflected with elements of suburb-like domesticity. These traits are not simply evidence of California sprawl, but indicators of categorical fluidity vital to the Bay Area's residential appeal and function as a greater metropolitan network. 
This sense of being at once the centre and the edge applies equally to the region's visual arts scene. San Francisco, rich with its own tradition of artists' colonies, bohemian culture and a vigorous modernist community, led the West Coast for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but was generally thought of as lesser counterpart to New York. In recent decades Los Angeles has surpassed San Francisco in its cultural reach, fostering innovative practices tied to the contemporary global economy seemingly far better than its northern neighbour. And yet, San Francisco has remained an artistic centre, its hilly topography and ocean-bounded geography providing natural fodder for continual meditations on the urban picturesque. Likewise, the city's diverse ethnic, cultural and identity-based communities and longstanding liberalism are still thought of as quintessential elements of a creative core. Even as the South Bay dominates as a technological hub for large corporations such as Apple, Facebook and Google, the rise of San Francisco's 'Multimedia Gulch' in the mid-1990s and current prestige of many SoMa, Dogpatch and Market Street companies are reminders of the city's continuing draw for inventive entrepreneurs. In the past year, conflicts over gentrification have reached a fever pitch. San Francisco is in essence too desirable: a scenic centre replete with the cultural locales attractive to a young work force but hampered by limited housing stock and strict building regulations, the city has become a prohibitively expensive place to live
Many local residents fear that current residential growth renders the city a bedroom community to the tech hubs to the south — a status contentiously symbolized by the abundant commuter buses that transport thousands of tech workers daily to Mountain View, Cupertino and Menlo Park. These shifts not only invert the older equation of labour versus domestic space in city and suburb, respectively, but also threaten the possibility of an elite monoculture that contributes little to the city it inhabits. Such demographic transformations do not imply decentralization is imminent, but suggest that the Bay Area’s current tech boom is a part of a post-industrial trajectory that produces greater diffusion of urban networks. Just as older suburbs often change in character as a metropolitan region expands, the city itself is subject to economic, cultural and architectural transitions as its fringes help to redefine the core. These altered dynamics apply not only to the well-known instances of a declining economy emptying out the centre, but also places where urban appeal has transformed the construction and use of city space.  
This essay focuses on the Bay Area as aesthetic subject through the lens of Robert Bechtle's Photorealist paintings of San Francisco. Though a familiar term in contemporary art world parlance, historically Photorealism has been subject to both profound antipathy and neglect. Arriving in the mid-1960s and gaining considerable media attention by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the style was nearly uniformly dismissed as a weak descendent of Pop art. Though it shares with that earlier style reliance on appropriated imagery and dedication to the products of consumer culture, Photorealism is distinct in aesthetic means and cultural aims. If Pop weaves a playful dialectic of critique and exultation, Photorealism resolutely refuses such commentary, faithfully reproducing ordinary scenes and objects with a minimum of commentary and deeply mining the conventions of photographic vision to reinvigorate painterly practice. Early critics perceived Photorealism as an overly slick, populist appeal–a retrograde kind of academic realism slavishly dependent on its photographic support. For these detractors, Photorealism's reliance on photographic source material and un-ironic view of middle-class subjects rendered it abhorrently philistine, incapable of advancing art's conceptual or aesthetic boundaries. Even today, despite the popularity of photographic-based painting practices across the global scene, Photorealism has yet to receive its full historical due.
Bechtle, the first painter to take up Photorealism on the West Coast, is well known locally for his devotion to Bay Area landscapes. Though perhaps not a household name on par with his contemporaries Richard Estes or Chuck Close, his work is held in a number of prominent northern Californian collections and was the subject of a large-scale retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005. In addition, certain paintings have circulated far beyond the confines of art institutions. San Francisco Nova (1979), owned by the city and county of San Francisco, presently hangs in the San Francisco International Airport and has been reproduced in a set of postcards that features local artists’ representations of the city and a map of their subjects' approximate locations. Though the artist is now in the latter phase of his career, his visibility has only increased in recent years: since 2003, Bechtle has been represented by the well-known New York dealer Barbara Gladstone, and, in addition to his 2005 retrospective, has been included in widely reviewed exhibitions like the 2008 Whitney Biennial.
Bechtle is frequently cited alongside southern Californian contemporaries like Edward Ruscha, Lewis Baltz, Robbert Flick and John Baldessari for their shared interest in ordinary environments and expansive use of the language of snapshot photography. Yet, unlike like the rich field of literature on these artists’ relationships to the vernacular landscapes of Los Angeles, little has been written on how Bechtle’s work reflects and refracts the spatial alignments of the Bay Area. This piece examines Bechtle's work in the context of defining elements of San Francisco's landscape, contra the historic assumption of Photorealism's social irrelevance. Evaluations of the style as underwhelmingly banal or mere kitsch reflect general critical distaste for realism in the wake of abstraction and, in equal measure, representations of ordinary life and mass culture not deemed witty appropriations or satirical transformations. Bechtle's works stand firmly in this (ironically) charged territory, as he consistently represents the architecture and automobiles ubiquitous in post-war Californian neighbourhoods without overt commentary. Moreover, by linking the traditionally vaunted city centre to its apparently subsidiary suburbs, the artist upends deep-rooted urban visual paradigms. He offers the viewer not iconic landmarks or arresting vistas, but rather a way to comprehend how everyday life in the city is informed by significant configurations of residential architecture, under-remarked geographic particularities and historical development that blurs the distinction between centre and periphery. 
My purpose is to shed light on Bechtle’s Photorealism in a manner akin to work by Cécile Whiting, Joshua Shannon, Rebecca Zurier and other recent historians of the city image; the shared goal of such writing is to identify how urban representation yields new understandings of the built environment. As Zurier explains, urban representation is 'a fundamental form of sense-making activity', a process that, 'entails making one’s own observations into pictures that in turn make aspects of city life visible to viewers surrounded by other images'. Zurier, Whiting and Shannon address a variety of moments and locales in American urban history — New York at the turn of the twentieth century and Los Angeles and New York in the 1960s — but all are attuned to the work of urban representation within the context of contemporary debates about city life and its relationship to perception of the built environment. Moreover, all employ diverse evidence, recognizing that the history of a city image is not simply formed within art history proper, but is bound to a network of cultural products and values. Accordingly, my examination of Bechtle’s work takes into account visions of the city from contemporary cinema, 'coffee table books' and real estate development, alongside local traditions of painting and photography.
Photorealism’s apparent visual transparency — its extreme sense of verisimilitude — often obscures a multitude of formal and social complexities at work within a composition. Likewise, Bechtle’s chosen subject matter is so commonplace its value has frequently been ignored; unlike Ruscha's or Baldessari’s conceptually aligned work, Bechtle’s iconography is not framed with wry humour and textual supplements, or filtered through the recognizable lens of commercial culture. Yet it is these very qualities that make Bechtle’s Photorealism a particularly valuable site of investigation. Photorealism reflects the height of photographic influence in post-war painting; in Bechtle’s works, the artistic strategy also recalls San Francisco’s rich tradition of photographic representation — a tradition the artist frequently inverts — and the fundamental connections between post-war suburban domestic life and snapshot photography. The apparent lack of commentary in his canvases also provides an accessible portal for viewer absorption: one not only recognizes the look of familiar neighbourhoods, but also comes to understand their construction through Bechtle’s clear distillations. 
This project includes four sections. The first and last frame its scope and spatial thematics; the middle two offer case-studies of two San Francisco neighbourhoods:

1. Painting the Bay Area
2. Potrero Hill
3. The Sunset district
4. Conclusion

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