Robert Heinecken (1931–2006) was an artist/photographer whose appropriation of existing imagery beginning in the 1960s made him an important precursor to the art of the Pictures generation of the late-1970s and 1980s. A self-described “paraphotographer,” Heinecken rarely used a camera, instead employing collage, assemblage, cameraless photographic techniques and slide projectors to re-present pictures taken from TV, newspapers, magazines and mail-order porn. His interest in juxtaposing these images to produce new readings seems especially relevant, anticipating as it does the work being made today by artists attuned to the way images are circulated in the world.
Heinecken’s relative obscurity in comparison to contemporaries such as Wallace Berman (a close friend), John Baldessari, and Douglas Huebler, is partially explained by his association with the world of photography, rather than art, at a time when there was more separation between the two. He founded UCLA’s influential photography program and ran it until 1991, and was also chairman of the Society for Photographic Education for two years in the 1970s. Another reason is undoubtedly Heinecken’s frequent use of sexually explicit imagery, which landed him in the middle of the 1980s culture war over obscene art.
In recent years, however, a revival of Heinecken’s work has been underway, with career surveys mounted by MoCA Chicago in 1999 and the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona in 2003. This exhibition, the first museum retrospective of Heinecken’s work since his death, spans 40 years of the artist’s career and will travel to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. A larger show than the more tightly edited mini-survey presented at Petzel Gallery in 2011, it reveals both Heinecken’s hits and misses.
The show opens with early wooden “photopuzzles” whose pieces, each mounted with a fragment of a woman’s nude body, can be moved around to form new, abstract configurations. Alongside these is a tower of octagonal wooden blocks with a different photo affixed on each of its eight sides, that can be turned to mix and match the images. Throughout his career, Heinecken would continue to look for ways to turn photographs into sculpture, but rarely with as much luck.
A highlight of the exhibition is Are You Rea from 1964-1968, a suite of photograms made by contact printing tearsheets from magazines under a strong light, so that the image on the back of each page bled through to the front. The results include such ghostly double exposures as a bikini-clad model drifting over a bowl of spaghetti and a cowboy on horseback, thundering through an ad for Lycra Spandex. Heinecken’s elision of the L in Rea encapsulated his intent to underscore the blurring of product and lifestyle by jumbling images, copy and layouts.
From 1969 until well into the 1990s, Heinecken altered magazines he bought at the store, overprinting their pages with pornographic and violent images, or cutting windows into them to reveal the content underneath. He’d sometimes put these periodicals back into circulation, returning them to newsstands or leaving them in the dentist’s waiting room.
During the 1970s Heinecken reprised his cut-up nudes, reassembling rectangular details from porno into long horizontal sequences that resembled panoramic views of mountains. Some of them are printed on canvas, while others are presented as oversized film strips, drooping across the wall. They are among his most successful efforts at sculpture.
In fact, Heinecken’s work was generally best when, in the words of curator Eva Respini, he “followed the Dada dictum of letting the material find its own form.” Pieces from the mid-1970s—overworked, overthought photopuzzles printed on canvas and embellished with chalk drawings, and crumpled photographs of lingerie and TV dinners are wholly forgettable.
The work comes to life again in the 1980s, when the increased marketing of American politics became an interest, as in Excerpt Videograms (1981), a grid of bluish prints made by pressing Cibachrome paper to a television screen during Ronald Reagan’s inauguration speech. Elsewhere, He:/She: (1977–1980), a series of Polaroid montages paired with textual interchanges (ranging from bland to explicit) between a man and a woman explores the commodification of self.
Near the end of the show, Heinecken’s gorgeous Recto/Verso (1988), reprises the technique used in Are You Rea with color images from fashion magazines. In one work, an ad for asparagus is overlaid with a picture of a woman exercising; in another, a pair of hands superimposed over a woman’s face resemble an exotic deep sea creature.
The artist who emerges here is complex. Heinecken was both alert critic of commodity culture and an avid consumer himself, alternately perceptive about and tone deaf to his times, and capable of work that was brilliant, but that was equally often only plodding. The exhibition is a must see, however, for how it shows him methodically working his way through ideas, and for the ways that his associative methods link the conceptual photography of his time both to its Surrealist past and to its Web-surfing future.