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Robert Heinecken, Recto/Verso #2, 1988
© The Robert Heinecken Trust, Chicago. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Mr. and Mrs. Clark Winter Fund

The Influentially Lewd Allure of Robert Heinecken

by Andrew Berardini

A former fighter pilot during World War II and later a Marine, as an artist Robert Heinecken was a “paraphotographer.” One of his punkiest actions consisted in inserting a collage, often using erotic images, in a popular magazine that was then reinserted, on the sly, on the shelves of newsstands or in medical waiting rooms, ready to surprise the unwitting browser. Heinecken liked existing pictures and scissors more than darkrooms. Though not overlooked in his lifetime, as the founder and director of the department of Photography at UCLA, Heinecken is now the subject of renewed and more intense interest thanks to his radical way of reassembling a world saturated with images. Andrew Berardini reinterprets his provocative personality and eccentric oeuvre.
“I sometimes visualize myself as a bizarre guerrilla, investing in a kind of humorous warfare in which a series of minimal, direct, invented acts result in maximum extrinsic effect, but without consistent rationale; I might liken it to the intention of making police photographs in which there is no crime involved—but with that assumption.”— Robert Heinecken, 1974

In a dentist’s office, underneath a shadow cast from a fluorescent light on a sickly pot of browning philodendrons atop a chipped coffee table, sit stacks of old magazines. Dog-eared and well-thumbed, rustling with their cheap paper, clad with gaudy covers begging questions and enticements for a passerby to peek into their pages. Time and Glamour, Good Housekeeping and Mademoiselle, Golf Digest and Sports Illustrated, a smattering of titles beginning with Popular. Flipping through, the nervy bruxists and trenchmouthers fidget until summoned for their scrapings and cleanings, analgesics and block injections, skimming headlines about the White House and the Kennedys, 100 Great Recipes and 100 Gifts from $1.00 to $10.00, Trimmings to Make Parties Fun for Hostesses Too and When He Caught Me in Another Man’s Bedroom.
Amidst all of these tidbits and news items, tawdry page-turners and housewifely time-savers, the publishers tuck in a healthy swath of advertisements, the difference between ad and article often fluid. But within these sundry, expected, and quotidian distractions from impending root canals, there appear other unsanctioned pictures.

Robert Heinecken, Are You Rea #1, 1964-68
© The Robert Heinecken Trust, Chicago

Across from a duo of models tautly clothed in the latest Parisian fashions, a couple of quite naked ladies, tan lines ablaze, lean in for a carnal smooch. Overlaying the bottle-blonde in the brown, boat-like sedan of the Pontiac ad beckons a big-chested lass in negative exposure, naked except for a pair of knee-high go-go boots. Does one imagine an aged dowager keeling over in disgusted shock, a pizza-faced teenage boy with maximalist orthodontia vibrantly sweating as he runs through various plans to casually pocket the magazine for closer, handier examinations? Does it startle, quicken pulses, titillate pink parts, provoke outrage? Does it do anything, or is it just passively accepted, not even seen, a picture received only subliminally by that patient idly flicking through?
Sneaking doctored magazines into doctor’s offices and newsstands was only one of artist Robert Heinecken’s punkish tactics from the 1960s till his illness and death in 2007. This ex-marine fighter pilot and full-time prof enjoyed sticking his sticky fingers into the content and form of received culture, all those bombarding images selling us this and that, and usually sex (lust rarely being free for anyone in the Christian, patriarchal, and bourgeois circumstances of post-war America). He did this without using a camera but using the images themselves, beginning with a series of 25 photograms from 1964-68 titled “Are You Rea” after a chopped headline that numerous critics suggest could be “real” or “ready” and to the artist might have been a Duchampian pun on Man Ray (both Marcel and Man alongside László Moholy-Nagy were early inspirations). In this attractive portfolio, reprinted from photographic paper into lithographs, the facing pages in a magazine superimpose their negative images, conflating the two in weird, often suggestive, ways. Though his works could be occasionally ham-fisted or literal (one image he slipped into popular magazines was a particularly violent shot from 1971 of a grinning Cambodian soldier hoisting two decapitated heads), the artist mostly avoided letting his work fall into didactic investigations into media power by locating his inquiries in desire, his own desire. Even his breakdowns of news anchors and politicians sometimes have smeary Vaseline on the lens, diffusing and mixing in ways that feel lurid, though sometimes spooky. You can almost tell that the best works are the ones that got him off the most.

Robert Heinecken, Cybill Shepherd/Phone Sex, 1992
© The Robert Heinecken Trust, Chicago. Courtesy: Petzel Gallery, New York

More a cut-up than a cameraman, he preferred photograms and scissors over darkrooms and f-stops. He did properly snap a few moody nudes in the beginning and later many re-photographs (and the odd personal pornography) with Polaroids, in a long career that included founding the photography department at UCLA, which he led from its inception in the 1960s into the 1990s. Throughout his life, he wasn’t ignored but was hardly a superstar; since his death, a few fans have been stumping his images into wider circulation, with exhibitions at MoMA in New York and WIELS in Brussels simultaneously this spring.
Photography once had a ghettoizing effect on its perceived practitioners, as it seemed to have on Heinecken, a distinction still extant but now very blurry. Heinecken’s recent popularity stems from his radical, fun, and desirous reassembly of an image-saturated world. His pictures and dissections look materially savvy; those superimposed images collapsing and colliding pornography, fashion, politics and advertising, managing to x-ray through to the way they subtly depend on one another. His methods take the cold, intellectual chill of Structuralism and add something a bit hotter, though he was not without his critics for this. Once dubbed a “misogynist photographer” by a journalist, he said that he wasn’t sure “whether to be more insulted at being called a misogynist or a photographer.’”

Robert Heinecken, Vary Cliche: Lesbianism, 1978
© The Robert Heinecken Trust, Chicago. Courtesy: Petzel Gallery, New York

He mongrelized the purity of the documentary photograph at every opportunity, attempting to get at the essential limits of the medium: pictures overlaying pictures, photographs becoming objects and puzzles, re-photographing magazines with Polaroids in mock educational posters, photogramming from TV. “Many pictures turn out to be limp translations of the known world instead of vital objects which create an intrinsic world of their own,” said the artist. “There is a vast difference between taking a picture and making a photograph.” He was ready to stack whatever chance coupling of images his mind could muster, and his mind often mustered (and never limply) images of naked women.
Robert Heinecken was a horny fucker to be sure, but of the best variety. His images are often messy and regularly lewd. “The most highly developed sensibility I have is sexual, as opposed to intellectual or emotional,” he said in 1976. There is a mix of sexual and commodity fetishism, nubile bodies on offer with purchase of that deodorant or perfume, t-shirt or car, the position of allure. An almost unspeakably obvious truism at this point, but sex sells. It sells more than it is probably practiced (even when the latter is free). Through absurdity and subconscious skindives, Dada and Surrealism attempted to free the psyche from its various symbolic limitations. They delved into their deep dreams and suppressed desires, often portraying their visions with salacious pics, frequently as cut-ups and collages. With each weird and beautiful work, these early avant-gardists loosened the hold of church and state, capital and commerce. (Heinecken in “Are You Rea” quotes Surrealist godfather André Breton at length on the nature of desire.) To traditional and conservative powers, our desires are best funneled into the unequal arrangements of sanctified heterosexual and racially segregated marriage, and whatever’s left over goes into the purchasing of products with sexy ads, though not too sexy. Happily stripped of the sell, actual bodyslapping sex freely engaged in is pretty dangerous, distracting from labor and consumption, a genuine ecstatic experience that can always beat the taste of carbonated high fructose corn syrup. Sex, contrary to the jingle, is the real thing.

Robert Heinecken, Figure Horizon, Single Horizon, 1971
© The Robert Heinecken Trust, Chicago. Courtesy: Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Beverly Hills

Heinecken’s best work reveals, dismantles, reorganizes, typologizes, and collages women’s bodies. Cliché-verre/Vary Cliche: Autoeroticism, Fetishism, Lesbianism, 1978 is a kind of a masterpiece trilogy composed of found pornographic negatives, the picture plane split into numerous square shards and printed at different sizes, then sparingly colored. His dismantling and shuffling perk desire but also confuse it. Did this work reveal his own objectification of women, cutting up images of their bodies some kind of latent violence perpetuated at large by patriarchal society? Not really. You’d be hard-pressed to find a human alive that hasn’t witnessed and internalized violence against women, wondered about their role in gender relationships, and more than a few of us have reflected on how those dark traditions act within us. But it’s fallacious to reduce Heinecken to this single dimension, suppressing desire rather than examining it. His best work dismantles sexual and commercial images, structurally and conceptually, to reveal how they function both to frustrate and to channel desire, playing the line between image and object, a game in which he implicates himself.

Robert Heinecken, Lessons in Posing Subjects: Identical Garments, 1982
© The Robert Heinecken Trust, Chicago

Even plunging crotch forward, he found a way into the picture and beyond the photograph. Appropriation is a way to make the endless stream of transmitted images your own, to affect what affects you. Whether that means snapshots of art in the homes of fancy art collectors (Louise Lawler) or outright knock-offs (Sherrie Levine or most deftly Sturtevant) or rephotographing ads (Richard Prince), each claims previous territory and authorially bends its meaning. Though presaging what came after in his way, Heinecken is not the cool superior semiotician armed with continental theory to critique media, but a thoroughly enmeshed and affected participant, erupting from the concerns of the time from which he emerged. Even as they conceptually connect to both, his messy pop dissections are more Bruce Conner than Pictures Generation; a joyous, funny, messy, irreverent engagement with the tawdry stratagems of mass media, examining how they can be happily employed to our own purposes, to reveal and maybe even delight. Even the act I’m performing now, writing about art, let’s me get into the picture, become a collaborator with its meaning, to be owned by it as something that perplexes or engages me but also to own it by authoring my own meanings, interpretations, stories, finding my own pleasures in its folds.
In the pages and broadcasts, the sounds, words and images conflate, arranged so that whatever we thought we were looking at is also what we make it. Enmeshed in systems of meaning we don’t always understand, we can hope with investigation and awareness to avoid becoming victims to them. Heinecken just helps this process along. Driven by his own passions, he understood that the best way to break the control of admen and politicians is to let the real raunchy desires free, to crack the order and rearrange their images to make them ours.

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