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June 11 Art Minute: Robert Bechtle, Agua Caliente Nova

Art Minute, Art of the Week, toledo museum of art
Robert Bechtle (American, Born 1932) Agua Caliente Nova. Oil on Canvas, 1975. The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, Purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ray M. and Mary Elizabeth Lee Foundation, 1978.1

Though cars had been used for tourism since the early 20th century, the summer family road trip emerged as a distinctly American phenomenon after World War II. In the Photo-Realist painter Robert Bechtle’s family portrait Agua Caliente Nova (1975), the artist commemorates the automobile as a mainstay of modern, middle-class life. Retaining the casual immediacy of the snapshot photograph, he recreates in paint a portrait of his wife and children awkwardly posing in the parking lot at the top of Palm Canyon (part of the Agua Caliente Reservation in Southern California) as they stand beside their Chevy Nova, squinting in the desert sun. 

Bechtle’s recasting of a visual souvenir that memorializes a private family moment into a large-scale, precisely painted composition transforms the image’s content into a discerning visual commentary on late mid-century American domestic life that underscores the automobile’s essential role.

This work is currently on view in the exhibition Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture.