Los Angeles

Robert Heinecken, PP Estée Lauder, 1998, dye-bleach print from photogram, 14 x 11". Marc Selwyn Fine Art.

Robert Heinecken, PP Estée Lauder, 1998, dye-bleach print from photogram, 14 x 11". Marc Selwyn Fine Art.

Robert Heinecken

Robert Heinecken, PP Estée Lauder, 1998, dye-bleach print from photogram, 14 x 11". Marc Selwyn Fine Art.

Employing sophisticated strategies of appropriation and montage, Robert Heinecken (1931–2006) developed a practice that anticipated the exploration of identity and mass media subsequently taken up by many younger artists, in particular, those associated with the Pictures generation. This spring, two exhibitions in Los Angeles—at Marc Selwyn Fine Art and Cherry and Martin—afforded a comprehensive overview of the late Californian’s oeuvre.

A contemporary of John Baldessari and Wallace Berman, Heinecken was perhaps best known for his appropriative photograms—works (seen at both galleries) such as the gelatin silver print series “Are You Rea,” 1964–68, and the dye-bleach (or dye “destruction”) print series “Recto/Verso,” 1988–90—in which both faces of a given magazine leaf have been contact-printed onto the same side of a single page. Through their chance juxtapositions, these surreal amalgams of image and text collapse the magazine’s allegedly distinct categories of “commercial” and “editorial” content, awaking viewers to the mechanics of mass media and encouraging them to interrogate the forms and motifs through which the culture industry transmits information and inspires consumption.

With his Kodak Safety Film/Figure Horizon of 1971 (on view at Marc Selywn), among other transparency-based prints, Heinecken focused on the human form, defamiliarizing the parts typically shown as isolated regions of desire (if not targets for improvement) in consumer magazines. In this nearly ten-foot-long strip of lithographic film, a horizontal montage of frames depicts seven nonadjacent areas of a reclining female nude, morphing the human body into a mountainous and monstrous horizon. The effect is surreal, in that the image combines eroticism with the grotesque; it is also photographically reflexive, in that the transparency, mounted out from the wall, casts a shadow—a kind of double image or doppelgänger. The work evokes a number of photomechanical processes, linking the nude to the history of photographic reproduction and dissemination.

The body and the page often come together in Heinecken’s work, as they also did in two pieces on view at Cherry and MartinTime, 1st Group, 1969, a unique bound volume of appropriated magazine pages juxtaposed with, and sometimes altered by, offset lithography of soft-core porn; and Periodical 3, 1970, a reassembled magazine featuring fashion advertisements crossed with images of lesbian encounters culled from “men’s” publications. These are some of the “hardest” of Heinecken’s works, and the ones for which he was most harshly criticized. However, by showing the female body as yet another commodity, one that could feasibly assume the same advertising copy as was used to market an Hermes typewriter or a Pontiac Catalina coupe, Time, 1st Group would seem to deconstruct patriarchal voyeurism, not celebrate it.

In the early 1980s, Heinecken expanded his media critique to include television, translating his strategies of appropriation for a new medium: photographs of moving images on cathode-ray tubes. Two versions (nos. 2 and 3) of Untitled News Women, Suite C, ca. 1983, appear at Marc Selwyn. Using a 20 x 24format Polaroid camera, the artist shot a sequence of portraits of Jane Pauley, Diane Sawyer, and Joan Lunden from the TV screen during the newscasters’ respective regular broadcasts. Heinecken enlarged the raster-scan pattern of the television, distorting each image, creating an effect that only enhanced the strangeness of the fourth image in each portrait sequence, in which he composited the features of all three women to form a single face. As suggested by Heinecken’s self-published book on the subject, 1984: A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate TV Newswoman (A CBS Docudrama in Words and Pictures) (1985), these works highlighted the role that typecasting plays in the television news as networks select for certain physical features (recalling the use of composite photography by eugenics mastermind Francis Galton).

Back across town, Cherry and Martin offered television-based work too: Surrealism on TV, 1986, a three-channel slide projection comprising some two hundred 35-mm color slides taken from the television screen—of fires, newswomen, pet food commercials, aerobics instructors, sunsets, and religious/motivational figures—divided among three machines, each advancing its slides at a slightly different rate. Sometimes multiple examples of the same type appear—three perfectly coiffed blondes, for instance, or two cats and a newswoman—at other times the images are wholly heterogeneous. Like an Ektachrome-era approximation of the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, the work mixes typology with chance, to effect an uncanny simulacrum of American television during Reagan’s second presidential term. It also embodies what is best about Heinecken’s work: his materiality, his concern for history, and his dialectical inventiveness.

Matthew Biro