Robert Heinecken: Copywork @Petzel

JTF (just the facts): A total of 56 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and displayed in the entry area, the large main gallery space, and a smaller back room. The works were made using a dizzying variety of processes: 21 works made up of Polaroids, 10 repurposed magazines, 3 collages, 6 works made of film/transparencies, 3 using lithography, 2 gelatin silver prints, 1 emulsion on canvas, and 10 dye bleach prints mounted on foamcore. The images were made between 1963 and 1994, and with exception of the foamcore prints which were executed a few years after their negative dates, nearly all are vintage. No edition information was available on the checklist. Individual sizes range from roughly 10×8 (magazines) to 96×192 (collage). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: The long entry hallway at Friedrich Petzel is covered in framed grids of Polaroids, and as I came off the street and passed from work to work, it became clear that I was in the midst of a meticulous, often hilarious, anthropological study of stock advertising photography. Facial expressions, hands on hips poses, matching clothing, nightgown lengths, the way arms are folded, how multiple models are posed together, they’re all broken down, deconstructed, and exposed for both their identifiable patterns and puzzling ridiculousness. Photography that we normally breeze by and take for granted is proven to be carefully controlled and manipulated, this conclusion delivered with a tone of subtle, chuckle-inducing mockery. As a show opener, it’s a perfect prelude to this mini-retrospective of the work of Robert Heinecken.

Heinecken’s long career (as both an influential teacher and accomplished artist) is filled with rigorous explorations and deft parsings of the many meanings of photography. While often lumped in with other California conceptualists or associated with those at the beginnings of photographic appropriation, his path took him places few others have traveled: into the depths of consumerism, unpacking, mixing, and reusing nearly every known image reproduction process, combining hard core pornography, war imagery and comically empty advertising into a heady intellectual brew.

The best of the works in this show have a vital, bomb-throwing quality to them: a soldier gleefully holding two severed heads roughly printed over magazine ads brimming with love, porn collated into the pages of the New Yorker, jaunty life-sized cardboard cutouts undermined and made silly with guns, booze, and money (not to mention a claw hand for Andre Agassi in his 1980s mullet days). All of the works on display upend expectations in one way or another, from the weirdly trashy Tuxedo Striptease to the three dimensional collages made of crumpled but recognizable ads. While not every visual deconstruction is completely successful, there are plenty of robust underlying ideas, questions, and politics to keep the work engaging.

As a sampler, this show brings together light jokes and scathing critiques, understated beauty and explicit sexuality, brainy conceptualism and ironic juxtaposition. It’s smart, witty, and caustically brash. But what I like best about this gathering of work is Heinecken’s intense investigation of the medium, his willingness to disrespectfully rip into accepted truths and pull them apart, looking for the sometimes harsh effects and unplanned outcomes of an image saturated world.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $2000 to $250000, with plenty on intermediate prices ($8000, $15000, $20000, $25000, $30000, $50000, $60000, $65000, $120000, $150000). Heinecken’s work is not routinely available in the secondary markets for photography, with only a handful of lots coming up for sale in any given year. Prices have ranged from $1000 to nearly $100000 in recent years, with a few high end outcomes coming at the Polaroid collection sale in 2010.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Libraryman (here). Clothbound hardcover (23.8 x 30.5 cm), linen threadbound, 48 pages, with 29 color plates. Authentic tipped-in image on front cover, ... Read on.

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