Los Angeles

Robert Heinecken

“Many pictures,” Robert Heinecken once noted, “turn out to be limp translations of the known world instead of vital objects which create an intrinsic world of their own. There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.” This statement neatly divides the history of photography in two and leaves little doubt as to which side of that line Heinecken, who died in 2006 at the age of seventy-four, saw himself on. And, whether intentionally or not, the phrase “limp translations” suggestively points at one of his major fixations. Indeed, a succinct recent survey at Marc Selwyn Fine Art of the artist’s boundary-pushing photo-based work, which spanned over thirty years, foregrounded his formal restlessness in contrast to his consistent, even obsessive, engagement with media imagery and sexual themes, with a particular emphasis on the voluptuous female body—or is it the cliché of the male gaze he’s framing?

If early works such as Breast Bomb, 1967, in which a photograph of a nude torso is cut into nine squares and rearranged to form a surrealistic mushroom cloud, obviously objectify the female body, later works give way to more complicated meditations on the politics of heterosexual coupling. In She: I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable, 1975–78, four Polaroids, double-exposed to show a woman blowing an air kiss, are accompanied by an awkward dialogue in Heinecken’s handwriting. The sad, disjointed text—for example, SHE: LATELY YOU DON’T SEEM LIKE YOU TO ME. / HE: DID YOU KNOW YOUR TEARS ARE BRIGHT YELLOW LIKE YOUR URINE?—leaves the viewer as unnerved as the female must be.

Yet a large part of what constitutes a “vital object” for Heinecken is as much a product of formal as of thematic ambiguity. From the earliest stages of his mature career, his objects challenged what a photograph or photographic image might be—from a transparency mounted in a light box (Kodak Safety Film/Christmas Mistake, 1971) to one layered between sheets of Plexiglas to create a three-dimensional, handheld object (Venus Mirrored, 1968); from offset lithography on magazines (Periodical #6, Third Group, 1971) to large bas-relief collages of Hindu deities made with lascivious images from magazines (Shiva and Parvati Seated, Embracing, and Their Son Ganesha, 1991).

Heinecken belongs to a West Coast lineage extending back to Wallace Berman’s trippy multiple exposures from the 1950s; he has also been deemed a peer of the equally restless Robert Rauschenberg and a precursor of—if not an influence on—Richard Prince. (Heinecken’s Lessons in Posing Subjects: Standard Pose #2 [Hand/Head], 1982, follows Prince’s typological lead, though rephotography had already become a Heinecken “signature” years earlier.) Despite several major museum exhibitions in the past decade, the artist remains underappreciated if not exactly obscure. Perhaps his challenges to the thresholds of photography—a medium that, for much of his career, was itself relegated to secondary status in art institutions—placed him in uncertain territory. And, unlike John Baldessari—another West Coast artist, also born in 1931, who similarly deployed ready-made media images—Heinecken never directly participated in a “movement,” such as Conceptualism.

Which isn’t to say he was disconnected: Slow Food/Pasta Salad, 1983, a Polaroid photogram featuring a cherry tomato, bread, grapes, parsley, a fork, and a glass of wine, situates Heinecken as a bridge between Man Ray’s Rayographs and the recent floral photograms by James Welling (a professor in the UCLA photography department Heinecken founded). For better or worse, Heinecken is left to play the part of missing link—an “artist’s artist” who unexpectedly connects, say, Allen Ruppersberg’s goofy Polaroid narratives to Robert Mapplethorpe’s fetishistic photo-objects, but somehow gets overlooked in the process. Fortunately, this history is still up for grabs, and Heinecken’s ambiguous objects seem increasingly vital to it.

Michael Ned Holte