Robert Heinecken: Recto/Verso #2, silver dye bleach print, 8⅝ by 7⅞ inches; at MoMA.

Robert Heinecken (1931-2006) was an artist who put the medium of photography through the wringer. This expansive retrospective surveys roughly 30 years of Heinecken's career, focusing in particular on the 1960s and '70s, when, as a professor at UCLA, he challenged both conventional notions of his discipline and prevailing mores of American culture with works that meld formal experimentation and sexually explicit content.

Organized by MoMA photography curator Eva Respini, the exhibition also tracks a fundamental shift—resonant with larger trends outside of the art world—from the practice of photography to what might properly be called image-making. Heinecken produced images using a large matrix of mechanical reproduction processes within and surrounding the photographic medium. Though photography was the ground from which Heinecken's multifarious practice stemmed, he rarely used a camera in a traditional way. Even his earliest and most straightforward works—such as Shadow of Figure (1962), a diptych showing a reclining female nude, which Heinecken manipulated to appear at once overexposed and underdeveloped—challenged the established conventions of the fine-art photography that placed emphasis on sharpness, full tonal range and composition. Slightly later pieces begin to resemble Dadaist collage. Child Guidance Toys (1965), for example, juxtaposes a found image of a boy with a toy gun and an ad for a John F. Kennedy figurine, so that the youth appears to be aiming at the president.

In the mid-1960s, Heinecken stopped taking pictures altogether (he would return to picture-taking again in the late 1970s) and instead started to look elsewhere for visual material. He appropriated images before "appropriation" was a standard part of art critical vocabulary. The printed image, especially as found in glossy magazines, became a font of source material that he then selected, manipulated and re-presented. "Are You Rea" (1964-68) is a suite of 25 black-and-white photograms made by contact printing magazine pages, mostly from fashion and lifestyle publications. By superimposing the fronts and backs of the pages, Heinecken transformed the once-beautified Technicolor world represented in the magazines into a reverse-toned monochromatic miasma.

In a statement accompanying the portfolio, Heinecken claimed, "These pictures do not represent first hand experiences, but are related to the perhaps more socially important manufactured experiences which are being created by mass media." If we take this at face value, then it follows that the primary "manufactured experiences" Heinecken was interested in were sex and violence. Much attention has been paid to the subject matter of his work, especially the nude female figures he chopped up, reconfigured and distorted. He sourced his image material from soft-core porn magazines with names like Cavalcade and Werkmen, and through suppliers of stock pinup photography, including a seedy-sounding company called The Latent Image. His fixation on the female nude has drawn protests from feminist critics who suggest that the work is complicit with the objectification of the female body found in the mass media, and that his transformation of the source material through superimposition and reprinting does little to blunt its questionable salaciousness. Indeed, the female nude is still readily available to the male gaze as an object of pleasure, despite Heinecken's nods to modernist procedures of fragmentation.

At the same time, his work could include imagery so blunt as to seem borderline naive. Various works from his "Periodicals" series (1968-72) feature an image of a Cambodian soldier smiling while holding two severed heads superimposed over lifestyle and interior design magazine pages. At the same time as Martha Rosler was producing her "Bringing the War Home" series, Heinecken raised the stakes of his own provocation by putting his modified "Periodicals" back in circulation; his images were designed to be distributed far beyond the gallery.

In that sense, despite the somewhat dated, even retrograde feel of some of Heinecken's work, the exhibition overall suggests a prescient grasp of our contemporary relationship to networked images. The display highlights Heinecken's repetition of certain motifs to create often discordant juxtapositions. The sheer density of repeated images brings to mind search-engine interfaces. Indeed, Heinecken's project resonates today as an attempt to grapple with intense embodied experiences—sex and violence in particular—through disembodied, fragmented, highly mediated forms. Unlike the work of many of his Conceptualist peers and the later output of the Pictures generation, Heinecken's practice never feels mechanical or detached, despite the rigor of his investigation of image production and reproduction. Compulsions and fascinations appear to guide each act of appropriation. Taken together, the work suggests a subjectivity—a perverse one, perhaps—making sense of an overabundant image world.