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.
More than a decade before Douglas Crimp’s 1977 “Pictures” identified the appropriationist strategies of a generation, Robert Heinecken (1931–2006) set aside his camera and turned to preexisting media imagery, particularly “the influx of printed promotional material,” as he put it in a 1968 statement. Often to sharply satirical effect, he subjected these images to operations – recombination, recontextualization, excision – that deconstructed their medium and subverted their message. The human figure as shown in ads was his leitmotif, but when it came to turning consumerist propaganda on its head, Heinecken’s ear for advertising’s indisiduously bland language was as sharp as his eye.. his recent show – which included 55 pieces, created from 1964 to 1997, the year Alzheimer’s arrested Heinecken’s career – spanned a wide range of mediums, extending to figurative sculptural works consisting of dry bleach prints on foamcore.
One of his best known works, Are You Rea (1964–1968), is a suite of “photographic pictures” made by subjecting pages from glossy magazines to contact printing, a process in which a page is laid on photo paper and exposed to light, causing images from both sides to be recorded on the photograph. Thus superimposed, images and text on recto and verso comment on each other. In one, the head shot of a pouting model is made werewolflike by furry curls from the feather jacket on the reverse. Irs caption reads, “The make-up that’s Barely There.” In another, a woman leers at the camera through her legs; “ad man do it justice,” urges the truncated text.
A small selection of altered magazines displayed in vitrines hinted at the lacerating visual poetry Heinecken achieved by excising bits of the pages. In another procedure, he overprinted magazine ads with discordant, often disturbing images from porn or the news, exercising more control over his double entendres. The 1972 Polaroid Related to Periodical #5, 2/3 reproduces a cosmetic ad promising “That beautiful new face of yours…free,” overlaid with grainy halftone of grinning Vietnamese soldier proudly displaying a pair of severed hears.
The stunning black-and-white film transparency As Long As You’re Up (1965) takes possession of its source material without intervention. On the left side of a March 1965 Esquire spread, an appeal for foster parents implores “Let he love you…” beside a photo of a filthy, shoeless child standing in a slum. In an ad for Scotch on the facing page, a smartly dressed young writer somewhere in the Highlands, a typewriter in his lap, glances over his shoulder at the girl: as long as you’re up, get me a Grant’s.”
Sixteen works from a 1981 series titled “Lessons in Posing Subjects” combine Polaroid SX-70 snaps of middlebrow clothing catalogues with deadpan instructions for models and stylists on achieving appropriate affect. Standard Pose #6 (Arms Folded) offers dos and don’ts, contrasting subjects who appear relaxed and self-possessed with those appearing defensive, furtive and “overly auto-involved.” The artists’ earlier work is scathing, but this kinder, gentler Heinecken, whose provocations are as sly and subtle as the mechanisms he critiques, may ultimately have greater staying power.