Robert Heinecken at the Hammer and Burning Down the House at PMCA

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Robert Heinecken (1931-2006) was a mass of contradictions as a person and an artist. Object Matter, the retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, brings together a select gathering of his most iconic works but clarity remains elusive, as it does with much great art. The show continues through January 18, 2015. MoMA’s curator Eva Respini brings up his character at the outset of her catalogue essay. He was the photographer who rarely used a camera, historian who bucked the contraints of tradition, fighter pilot turned political radical, supporter of many women artists who unapologetically employed pornography in his own art. She quotes him: “The photograph is not a picture of, but an object about something.”

Getting his masters degree at UCLA in 1960, he majored in graphic art. As a photographer, he was self-taught and open to exploring the ways in which media manipulate as well as communicate. When UCLA sought to establish a photography department in 1962, he was at the helm and it became one of the most influential until his retirement in 1991.

Though Heinecken’s art was such an individual expression, the permission inherent in his procedures had an impact that resonated throughout the art world. Though it coincided with the development of Conceptual art on the West Coast, that impact appears more directly in the work of artists using photography in the ‘80s and up to today. He exploited the reproductive capabilities of photography but also xerox, polaroid and television, he borrowed from all sources of commercial art.

A few examples: This exhibition features an entire wall of magazines that he “compromised” by integrating pages from other magazines and placing them back on the rack of some unsuspected newsagent in order to surprise or appall unsuspecting readers who thought they were getting a copy of Time. Heinecken cites Marcel Duchamp — the artist's first museum show was in Pasadena in 1963 — and that irreverence rings throughout the show.

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Robert Heinecken, The S.S. Copyright Project: "On Photography”, 1978. Two collages of black-and-white instant prints attached to Homasote board with staples. Approximately 47 15/16 × 47 15/16 in. (121.8 × 121.8 cm) each. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased as the partial gift of Celeste Bartos. ? 2014 The Robert Heinecken Trust

His two large portraits of Susan Sontag, author of the influential book of essays On Photography, are comprised of tiny photographs of Sontag’s text or tiny pictures taken around Heinecken’s studio, thus deconstructing her carefully constructed arguments. The S.S. Copyright Project (1978) contradicts, quite physically, the genres of photography that Sontag explores in her book.

Text superimposed on the photographs of the naked female body? Heinecken was there in 1965, projecting words onto the bodies of female models and then giving cameras to them to photograph each other and then developing their film into pictures.

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Robert Heinecken, Recto/Verso #2, 1988. Silver dye bleach print.
8 5/8 x 7 7/8 in. (21.9 x 20 cm).
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Clark Winter Fund.
2014 The Robert Heinecken Trust

In the Recto/Verso series, he made photograms by exposing the page from a magazine so that both sides of the imagery and text, ads or editorial, collided in surreal juxtapositions. He pursued them in black and white and color.

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Robert Heinecken, Figure Horizon #1, 1971. Ten canvas panels with photographic emulsion.
11 13/16 × 11 13/16 in. (30 × 30 cm) each.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange.
2014 The Robert Heinecken Trust

In Figure/Horizon (1972), a greatly enlarged film strip of a nude woman is cropped so that her curves resemble hills of a landscape, playing with double entendre imagery and the material of film itself being obvious.

In any case, the exhibition proves just how exhilerating a mash-up of contradictions can be. For more information, go to

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Heinecken, who was long married to photographer Joyce Neimanas, never saw his use of the female nude to be other than subject matter to be explored without fear. Some of his most vocal defenders have been women including his former students.

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Eileen Cowin, Untitled from One Night Stand (1-3), 1977-78.
Archival pigment prints. 20 x 24 inches.
Courtesy of the artist

A small show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art includes two of Heinecken’s former students, Jo Ann Callis and Ellen Brooks, as well as Eileen Cowin, who was his friend and colleague. (The Museum of Modern Art catalog states that Cowin was a student of Heinecken but the artist says that is incorrect. Curators Sam Mellon and Claudia Bohn-Spector previously organized an eye-opening and intelligent exhibition of work by Heinecken with that of his close friend and sometime mentor, Wallace Berman.)

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Jo Ann Callis, Salt, Pepper, Fire, 1980.
Dye Transfer Print. 22-1/2 x 17-1/2 inches
Courtesy of Jo Ann Callis/Rose Gallery

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Ellen Brooks, Kitchen Table, 1980.
Ektacolor print, 20 x 24 inches.
Courtesy of the Artist.

The pictures in this show Burning Down the House attack the domestic roles confining women. Cowin and Callis set up constructed environments where the implied narrative of tension and even chaos ensue. Cowin’s One Night Stand (1977-78) is a trio of pictures with that humble piece of furniture on either side of a rumpled bed, possibly the site of a sexual trist. Callas’s Salt, Pepper Fire (1980) is a cup of coffee, salt and pepper shakers and a plate of flames neatly arranged on the cloth-covered table. Brooks photographed miniature figures acting out roles in domestic tableaux such as Kitchen Table (1980). Welcome though it is, a large scale exhibition of these and other women photographers of the 1970s, a period that dovetails with the Women’s Movement and the Conceptual movement in L.A., would be even better. And the role of Heinecken could be further explored. For more information, go to