For multimedia artist Robert Heinecken, magazines hold the key to reflecting the newly constructed
Chances are that the work of Robert Heinecken didn’t make it into your art history survey class. His influence on contemporary photography practices, however, is in plain view almost everywhere you look. Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger all reference Heinecken’s work. Before digital layering and re-photography, Robert Heinecken was using razor blades, glue and offset lithography to manually alter images he culled from the mass media.
A printmaker by training, Heinecken played a pivotal role in redefining what it meant to be a photographer in the 20th century. He has been maligned in the past, his work considered misogynistic by some. Since his death last May, more critical attention has been directed his way, and his entry into the canon is becoming solidified. “Heinecken was among the first to consider himself an artist who used photographs, not a photographer who made them,” wrote Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times. Magazines, an exhibition currently on view at the Smart Museum of Art, highlights a number of his mass-media influenced works.
Heinecken belonged to a group of artists in early 1960s Los Angeles who stood firmly outside the comparatively traditional East Coast art world, forming a backlash to the formal aesthetic of photographers such as Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. It is no coincidence that a turning point in photography would take place in Los Angeles; it was there that, in the mid 1960s, Warhol had his first exhibition and Marcel Duchamp his first retrospective. The city was a relatively free-wheeling center for artists to experiment in radical new forms of art-making, serving as a haven for Ed Ruscha, Wallace Berman and Eleanor Antin, among many others. Heinecken and his peers were interested in how imagery from mass-media sources could be used against itself to reflect socio-political concerns through a familiar, though ultimately tweaked, medium. This new form of social documentation could hardly be termed “photography” when compared to the traditional New Deal era artists who came before, but Heinecken was committed to a rethinking of what photography could be. Despite having no formal training in photography, he started UCLA’s photography program and taught there for nearly thirty years. In 1964, he helped found the Society for Photography Educators, which helped elevate photography in American art schools from its former commercial uses to its current standing as an integral part of most fine art curriculums.
For Heinecken, magazines held the key to reflecting the newly constructed “consumable identity” found in everyday ads, putting this on par with more dire issues, such as the Vietnam War and gender inequality. A heavy predecessor to postmodernism’s self-aware use of pastiche, Heinecken also treaded dangerous waters by employing misogynist imagery shortly before the art world and academia were to examine the political and social ramifications of the representation of women.
To fully realize Heinecken’s impact, it is necessary to contextualize the world in which he worked. The materials he worked with—mass media magazines —give some insight. Ads and articles that Heinecken used from the late 1960s to early 1970s acknowledge the recent feminist movement, while reminding us that a woman’s power should be excised primarily through her beauty. Heinecken deliberately selected messages that alert women that “to be worthwhile has suddenly become chic,” and that freedom (“anyway you want to do it”) comes in the form of a hair-highlighting kit. Encased in the vitrines of his current exhibition, Magazines, are examples from three of Heinecken’s most important series, Are You Rea (1964-1968), Periodical #5 (1971), and Periodical #6 (1971).
The black-and-white images in Are You Rea are clearly derived from the work of photographer Man Ray, the Surrealist artist whose Rayographs demonstrated an early technique for printing photographs made by placing objects directly onto photographic paper and exposing it to light. Similarly, Heinecken used magazine pages as a negative, allowing both sides of the page to merge together, and exposing them onto an offset printing plate. Heinecken believed there was poetry in bringing together disjointed images. In the preface to Are You Rea he cites no less than André Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealist group, who wrote that “everything, in effect, is an image and that the least object which has no symbolic role assigned to it is capable of standing for absolutely anything.”
Periodical #6 consists of found magazine pages overlaid with an image of a grinning soldier, holding in each hand a decapitated head. For some editions of this series, Heinecken stole hundreds of magazines and overlaid this image on thousands of pages. He then returned the magazines to store racks, making these grisly juxtapositions available to unsuspecting readers. He termed this work the actions of “a bizarre guerilla,” who engaged in a type of “humorous warfare.” The result is not as humorous as it is revealing; it puts into sharp relief the normative boundaries that determine what imagery is acceptable where. In Periodical #6, Heinecken shows us that when these deeply ingrained boundaries are not adhered to, a profound disquiet results in the conflict between glib ad culture and the reality of what humans really do to one another.
Periodical #5 (1971) is similar to #6; here, Heinecken uses images of women in dominatrix outfits. These works are arguably just as violent as the previous example. One page presents an article encouraging women to “knit it or lace it but make it yourself.” The juxtaposed images of natural-looking young women wearing hand-woven clothing with the threatening sexuality of a crouching Dominatrix makes one question what message Heinecken is really trying to convey. Is he saying that behind every modest American girl lurks a whip-toting devil-woman? Or is he trying to expose the hypocrisy over male expectations for feminine sexuality? Can one woman be both the girl-next-door and the femme fatale?
Heinecken brought to the forefront the sexual violence that many Dadaists and Surrealists employed in their work, such as Hans Bellmer’s disfigured dolls. Feminist art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau derided this aspect of his work as “pussy porn.” It is true that, to the Surrealist notion of “defamiliarization,” Heinecken brought a distinctly American brand of 1950s masculinity, along with awareness of 1960s world politics, and a hallucinatory form of social documentation. The controversy over his work stems from the ambiguity in his use of the sexualized, distorted female body. However one interprets Heinecken’s message, the questions it poses still hold water today. A one-dimensional answer will not suffice, nor will an accusation of a Playboy-style wink on Heinecken’s behalf. It would be a worthwhile endeavor to re-examine his work in the light of post-feminist theory and with some distance from the reactionary impulses of some critics.
Magazines is a tame, condensed summary of some of Heinecken’s most influential work. A more titillating survey of his work is in the upcoming retrospective exhibition entitled Robert Heinecken, 1932-2006: Sex and Food at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College (January 19 – March 24). Heinecken will be in the rare position of having two concurrent solo exhibitions in the same city. Coincidentally, his wife, Joyce Neimanas, taught photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for several years. A prolific artist, he continued to make work well into the 1990s. As a result, there is more than enough Heinecken to go around.