Robert Heinecken: Object Matter @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 148 photographic works, variously framed, matted, and displayed against white walls in a series of 7 connected gallery spaces and the adjacent entry areas. The works on view span the period between 1962 and 1999, and were made using a wide variety of processes – gelatin silver prints (some mounted on wood or Masonite), black and white transparencies, photographic emulsion on canvas (some with chalk or hand coloring), offset lithography, found magazine pages (collaged or incised), dye sublimation prints, Polaroid SX-70 prints, spiral bound books, silver dye bleach prints (some mounted on foamcore), 35mm color slides, and other variants. The exhibition was organized by Eva Respini, with assistance from Drew Sawyer. A catalog of the exhibition has been published by MoMA (here) and is available from the bookshop for $50. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back when we first started collecting, I remember being offered some works by Robert Heinecken and my knee-jerk, generally uneducated response was “way too explicit”. A quick glance around this exhibition might elicit a similar response from many – it’s hard to miss the tangle of naked bodies and exposed crotches on view on virtually every wall. But as the years have passed, I’ve started to get beyond the first level rough confrontation going on in Heinecken’s work, to see not only the appropriated pornography for what it is, but also to investigate more clearly how he was manipulating the subject matter in his own innovative ways. In a sense, it’s been a conscious effort not to immediately look away or be distracted by the raw content, but to stop and look more closely at what Heinecken was really doing photographically.

This retrospective is a concise “essence of Robert Heinecken” show; it isn’t a broad inclusive survey of every body of work he ever produced, but a tightly edited sampler of key pieces from his long career, with many of his lesser known and later works boiled off in the reduction process. It leans most heavily on his earlier work from the 1960s and 1970s, and then wanders a bit more loosely (and less effectively) through the later years of his artistic life.

The beginning of this story is a Jekyll and Hyde tug between formalism and anti-formalism, with Heinecken choosing elemental human forms and then proceeding to systematically undermine the sanctity of their lines. An abstract curve of a hip or the crook of an arm worthy of a Modernist master often provided a starting point, to be followed by a series of intricate remixing steps. Chopping the form into geometric shapes, gluing the images to sculptural blocks of wood or printing them on canvas, and then reassembling the fragments into kaleidoscopic patterns, interactive puzzles, or unexpected trompe l’oeil visual echoes broke down the original gravity of the source images, transforming them via recycling, repetition, and recombination into something more iterative and spatially fluid. In his hands, a nude became a jostling hexagon of barely identifiable body parts, or a twisting tower, or a flower, or a rolling landscape, or a mushroom cloud. As a response to the serenity of a classic Edward Weston nude, the works feel both momentarily reverential and radically and disruptively conceptual, objectifying not only the body but the physical material of the end result artwork.

Given his training as a printmaker, it seems obvious that magazines would ultimately attract Heinecken’s eye, and by the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was doing some of his best work cannibalizing mass media. Early experiments with witty found juxtapositions gave way to his landmark Are Your Rea, a series of 25 black and white images that collapsed the front and back sides of magazine pages into single hybrid frames, almost like overlapped x-rays. The process opened up several avenues for visual satire: tricky word play, unexpected combinations of the issues of the day (like pairing politics with fashion), and the simultaneous multiplicity of conflicting ideas. It also took him back to purely formal concerns, where figure and ground were flattened and intermingled, providing an opportunity for illegible uncertainty.

As the years passed, Heinecken’s clandestine magazine interventions became more and more provocative, almost like a one man guerrilla war. In a flash of curatorial flair, Eva Respini has bypassed tired vitrines and displayed spreads from these works on racked shelves like a newsstand, bombarding us with these wickedly clever remakes and recreating the shock that must have come from discovering spread legs pornography interrupting a photo essay on demure colonial garb or jungle print fashions. Whether it was an IBM ad disrupted by buxom nudes, fashion shots overlaid with a grinning soldier carrying severed heads, or covers of Time and Newsweek incised to reveal ironic see through pairings, Heinecken was constantly tweaking the everyday to show us the power of subversive and transgressive exaggeration, like a reality show gone quietly off the rails.

During subsequent years, Heinecken continued to reprocesses and reanalyze the foundational concepts of his earlier work. Images were printed on clear transparencies, reconsidering the undulating hills of his first nudes with the addition of sprocket holes and curling plastic edges or shrinking around a TV dinner, further pushing on the image/object dichotomy. An installation environment with a blaring TV reintroduced the figure/ground dialogue, this time by placing a curvy female silhouette around the viewing area of the screen. Canvas panels depicting fetish nudes were divided into squares and remixed into grids, with layers of overdrawn chalk adding to the imagery. And SX-70 Polaroids were made of rephotographed catalog images, creating incisively witty taxonomies of standard poses, facial expressions, and appropriate hair styles.

In the late 1980s, Heinecken reprised his collapsed magazine page idea, in a new series of color images entitled Recto/Verso. While the styles had changed over the intervening decades, the power of his original visual concept was undiluted. Asparagus spears clash with bent legs, lipstick ads intermingle with fashion stills, and an up close face peers through the fingers of hands with polished red fingernails. If anything, the newer appropriated scenes seem even more plastic and unreal, our fascinations made more extreme.

Heinecken’s later works are displayed more thinly in this particular retrospective edit, offering just a few typologies of female newscaster heads and foam core cutouts of undermined ads (like the jaunty, effervescent Polaroid ad interrupted by the man’s erection, shown in the outside hallway). The tacit conclusion to be drawn from these omissions is that most of these works didn’t pass muster or add much of value to the already heaping pile of ideas, at least in the context of a space constrained show.

While I’m certain that claims that Heinecken previsaged the Internet and our current surfeit of imagery are meaningfully overblown, I do think smart shows like this one clearly cement his position as an artist/photographer with important relevance to many of the current issues facing contemporary art. My key takeaways are less about Heinecken’s provocative content and more about his thoughtful investigation of process. There are dozens of lessons to be found here in the way he constructed artworks, recycled pictures, and recombined ideas, and they’re not the usual lessons taught in photography programs. He was comfortable with a photograph’s sculptural qualities, and routinely explored the limits of that objectification. He regarded the explosion of media not as a threat, but as an artistic opportunity. And he saw his art as inherently cross-disciplinary, traversing conventional boundaries with the utter disregard of a renegade. This is the retrospective of an unapologetic maverick, one that will likely offend as many as it will please, but in the end, it is an exhibit chock full of perceptive insights and cutting observations, more cunning than crude.

Collector’s POV: As this is a museum show, there are of course, no posted prices. Heinecken’s work has been not routinely available in the secondary markets for photography, with only a handful of lots coming up for sale in any given year; if my experience at recent art fairs is any indication, more of his work is slowly working its way into the market on the heels of this show. Auction 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.

Robert Heinecken, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Thoughtful stuff, as always, Loring – thank you.

    MANpodcast on Heinecken deffo worth a listen:

    http://manpodcast.com/search/robert+heinecken

    Memorable bits are hearing about Heincken’s early distribution methods – and what his female students thought of him.

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