Photo Presence, Video Fantasy: The Life and Work of Robert Heinecken
Robert Heinecken: Object Matter at the Museum of Modern Art
March 15 to September 07, 2014
11 West 53rd Street (between 5th and 6th avenues)
New York, 212 708 9400
Primetime commercials, glossy print promotions: both flourish through their deployment of the coincidental and the strangely juxtaposed. While satellite up-links long ago collapsed broadcast time, allowing the world to be witnessed in all of its multifarious beauty 24 hours a day, this never-ending present comes with a price. We accept that the voice of a media outlet is so often colored by its corporate owners, but it is the often more-collusive presence of advertising that slips under the radar. Whether it is a preponderance of sponsored editorial content, or a simple overt endorsement, something is presumably being sold to us in some form or another.
Over the course of his long working and teaching life, Robert Heinecken attempted to expose the intrinsic hypocrisies of thinly veiled sexuality that forms so much advertising, while disassembling the latent commerce of images. Heinecken, through an extraordinary array of materials and processes, explored the physical and conceptual limits of photography, often describing himself as a “para-photographer,” as his work typically eluded traditional definitions of the medium. Though a decades-long examination into the foundations of commercial images, Heinecken proved himself to be more attuned to the swiftly shifting slipstream of visual media than many of his arguably better-known contemporaries. Through exceptional manipulation of appropriated photographs and video footage, Heinecken was able to pinpoint the locus of image-mediated attention, while taking aim at our more corrosive manifestations of culture and its pernicious repercussions, felt every time we tune in to our favorite shows.
“Robert Heinecken: Object Matter” is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist since his death in 2006, allowing for work scarcely seen before to be placed within a career that spanned decades and mediums. The exhibition recently closed at the Museum of Modern Art and has now traveled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Eva Respini, MoMA’s Chief Curator of Photography, assembled examples from Heinecken’s multiple intersecting bodies of work, allowing the full scope of his evolution as an artist to be seen, and demonstrating the surprising vitality still present in his output, which the passing years have scarcely dulled. The images Heinecken produced have an uncanny prescience, often appearing as examinations of the effects of our present world of multimedia, years before such a notion was conceived of.
Although the products and celebrities featured in Heinecken’s work indelibly link it to the age that bore them, the fickleness of fashion hasn’t voided the assessments they offer. More often than not, the focus of Heinecken’s early work is the media-driven distortions wrought upon women’s bodies. As seen through these appropriated images, women are contorted, reformed and altered again for mass-market consumption. Heinecken followed this universal, ravenous appetite for flesh over the course of his working life, closely following its chic permutations, while always torquing the popular for critical ends.
“Are You Rea” (1964-68), Heinecken’s series of black-and-white photograms, while iconic, still serves to provide a thorough introduction to his mode and method of working. The relatively simple construction of each print yields unusually complex images; unlike the early photograms of Man Ray and other Modernist photographers, Heinecken dispensed with three-dimensional objects and instead used the pages of popular magazines, contact-printing them directly on photographic paper. The thin paper allowed for both sides of each page to be seen at once, creating layers of images out of each ad layout and collapsing photographic space, melding the models and products into a seamless amalgam of commerce. “Are You Rea” is a title that both questions and begs for resolution. “Real” or “Ready,” each applies as the ideal woman stands, frozen in the midst of undressing. The positive and negative exist at once in these images, the standard tonality and formula of advertising, image and copy, broken and reformed into something entirely unimagined. With the commercial signifiers removed, the languid gaze and blithe sensuality so woven into the performance of retail becomes the product itself: sex selling sex.
Much of Heinecken’s early work consists of photographic objects, images incorporated into sculptural forms with varying degrees of success. Several sculptural works, many presented for the first time in this retrospective, are interactive, such as Transitional Figure Sculpture (1965), a tower of stacked sections of photographs, each able to be spun independently, but only ever partially resolving themselves into images of solarized nudes. These works are unique for their often-complex geometric formalism, as well as their participatory aspect. “Are You Rea” marked a distinct shift into the full appropriation of images; Heinecken’s later bodies of work would rarely include original photography.
Concurrent with “Are You Rea,” Heinecken began an extensive series of manipulated (he dubbed them “compromised”) magazines — cutting, overprinting, and recombining issues of various publications, both destroying the original while tearing apart the inherent fictions of advertising. In these new magazines, fresh narratives are built out of old ones, with many, many familiar characters inserted into unfamiliar roles. Periodical #5 (1971), made from clippings taken from an issue of Living Now, is unaltered save for the addition of a beaming Cambodian solider posing with two severed heads. Taken from an infamous photograph published in Time Magazine, the solider is overprinted on the pages in varying intensities throughout the issue, fading in and out of the original compositions and juxtaposed with pairs of beautiful girls, air conditioner ads, and interior decorating articles. A version of this approach, 150 Years of Photojournalism (1989-90), an altered issue of Time, is a standout; a special edition commemorating the titular milestone, this issue was sponsored solely by Kodak, which is, consequently, the only advertiser featured. The singular, cheery, deep yellow of the Kodak logo bleeds through the pages, further highlighted by Heinecken’s excisions, blending in, merging with the images, endowing the triumphs and tragedies of the century with corporate sponsorship.
Around 1980, Heinecken began working with video, specifically by photographing television screens and manipulating the results. Begun at a time when images were starting the transition away from materiality and into the subspaces of the screen (particularly in the realm of news, with the concurrent launch of CNN), Heinecken’s television-derived work seized upon this moment, transmuting the moving image to print. These works magnify, distort, and above all, play with our relationship to television, mocking and examining celebrity culture while quite seriously investigating the nature of our collective fascination with the medium.
In his early video-centric series, “Inaugural Excerpt Videograms” (1981), Heinecken captured stills from Ronald Reagan’s inauguration speech, writing below each resulting image randomly chosen fragments of either the speech itself or the selected commentary of pundits. To create the photographs, Heinecken utilized the now discontinued Cibachrome positive printing process to print directly off of the CRT screen, holding each sheet of paper onto the glass to expose it, yielding a videogram. The videogram is perhaps the perfect fusion of photography and video, reflecting the dense mediation of not only broadcast television, but also contemporary politics. Heinecken abstracted the production of the work, employing an assistant to make the actual videograms, directing the process over the telephone. This abstraction of production hints at the larger televised theater of the inauguration itself, from the speechwriters and aides engaged to craft the tone of the event, to the carefully orchestrated direction of broadcast. The images that emerge in the videograms are televisual ghosts, seeming to materialize from a fog that, while an artifact of the printing process, upends the careful production, rendering such familiar figures nearly unrecognizable.
While the “Inaugural” videograms highlight the innate complications of televised representation, much of Heinecken’s later video works consider the uniquely contrived nature of the medium itself. Surrealism on TV (1986) consists of three slide projectors, each randomly filled with images directly photographed from the TV screen, divided into rough categories: explosions, aerobic exercises, animals, newscasters, and evangelists. The work is sequenced, one projector advancing at a time, and each presentation is unique, resulting in a classically formulated surrealist narrative. At times, the projected images form strange visual equations, in one iteration, news anchors, always smiling and impeccably coiffed, are paired with a violent static-streaked explosion; later, aerobics demonstrations might bookend a dog, grabbed from a pet food commercial, caught in mid-bark. While the title of the piece makes the broadcast origins of the images clear, its construction — from the durational viewing it demands to the subtle reflections from the glass of the TV screen often captured — serves as a reminder to more cautiously consider the implications of our own passive viewing of television.
To those unfamiliar with Heinecken’s body of work, the most immediate reaction might be to its thoroughly analog nature. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Heinecken never embraced the more-computerized aspects of the media revolution he was simultaneously documenting and critiquing. At the time that he turned his attention to video as the source for his work, many other artists were seeking to reconcile past formulations of photography and image making with the increasingly pervasive role that mass media takes in our day-to-day life. Drawing upon similar concerns, Gretchen Bender created complexly staged video performance pieces that appropriated the visual vocabulary of commercial television production, and Jack Goldstein painted algorithmically determined views from radio telescopes, taking the very conception of photography to its perceptible limits. The liminal state that photography existed in towards the end of Heinecken’s life did not seem to necessarily hold his interest, but in reviewing his work, it is tempting to ask what he might have made of the never-ending stream of images and videos now uploaded every day to Tumblr and YouTube. This is a conspicuous oversight in an otherwise thorough survey, however when considering work that, despite having little in it to visually connect with the world that we now inhabit, has retained a remarkable currency, the lack of such speculation is more forgivable. There is, at the core of Heinecken’s work, a desire to expand the limits of the image, and to question the relevance of traditional boundaries imposed upon photography. Now as never before, we produce photographs and videos: the micro and macro, the bite-sized and feature length, an endless document that shadows each of our lives. When reflecting upon our world, so enamored with its own representations, we might ask as Heinecken did, Where do our images go?