The first work one encounters in Robert Heinecken: Object Matter, the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) retrospective of the renowned “para-photographer,” is a 1965 piece entitled “Visual Poem/About the Sexual Education of a Young Girl.” A set of eight gelatin silver prints mounted upon a cross, the work consists of photographic reproductions of toys; Donald Duck, Charlie Brown, an unclothed Barbie, and an array of family figurines. At the centre of the cross is a photograph of the artist’s daughter, Karol.
The work stands out from Heinecken’s oeuvre for four reasons. The artist rarely employed religious imagery or photographs of his own family. It’s also notable for its lack of sexually explicit content. Finally, unlike many of the artist’s latter collages, “About the Sexual Education of a Young Girl” has a clear didactic message, namely that toys are not neutral objects. Like religion, toys prescribe certain ideas regarding gender, hierarchies, and relationships. Thus, the position of the work at the show’s entrance amounts to a clear curatorial stance; that we should consider Heinecken’s appropriation of violent and sexual imagery as a form of socio-political critique, and not as some sort of a veil for misogyny.
The artist’s work has historically been the target of such accusations. For many viewers, his pervasive use of pornographic imagery is both inscrutable and unpalatable. In a recent review for the New York Times, Karen Rosenberg opined that much of Heinecken’s work “looked, and still looks, oblivious to the advent of feminism.” Having alluded to the artist’s sexual politics as “retrograde” Rosenberg concludes:
You can appreciate his place in photographic history and visual culture while acknowledging that his images can come across as simplistic or sexist.
The organizers of Object Matter, Curator Eva Respini and Curatorial Fellow Drew Sawyer, have approached the issue cautiously. In a discussion with MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry, Respini described her reaction to the debate as “unresolved.” Regardless, MoMA’s retrospective, the first since the artist’s death in 2006, clearly takes a firm stance. The exhibition confirms that aside from being widely innovative, Heinecken’s appropriation of mediated imagery has also been hugely influential. His conceptual and aesthetic influence can be felt in the work of numerous other artists (Douglas Gordon, Cady Noland, and Richard Prince immediately spring to mind). I suspect that the reason critics such as Rosenberg admonish the artist is due to the lack of didacticism in his latter work. Though Heinecken’s art laid bare the contrivances and contradictions of media culture, particularly the commercially driven fetishization of women, it generally avoided specific political pronouncements. It is this perceived ambivalence which has so often been misread for a complicity with exploitative imagery.
Heinecken described himself as a “para-photographer,” shunning the label ‘photographer’ on the basis that his work involved the appropriation of existing material. A key early work in the exhibition is a black-and-white film transparency entitled “Child Guidance Toys” (1965). The piece depicts an advertisement for a toy gun which was published a few weeks before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The gun happens to point toward a second advertisement, a battery powered toy of the president sitting in a rocking chair. The child holding the toy has inadvertently assumed the role of Lee Harvey Oswald. The listing reads:
1H JFK IN ROCKING CHAIR
Replica of JFK in his rocking chair reading his favorite newspaper. “Plays Happy Days are Here Again” as he rocks and reads. Operates on 2 batteries (not included) 2/25c.
May Co. Discount Price…6.87
In isolating the advertisements, Heinecken has emphasized an unintended meta narrative. How should the viewer interpret the work? Is the confluence of imagery merely a chance coincidence? Or is there a deeper insinuation? An indictment of America’s gun culture perhaps?
In a related piece displayed on the same wall, an ad for a foster charity runs parallel with another for Grant’s Whisky. A photograph of an orphan is accompanied by the text “Let her love you … ” The catchphrase for Grant’s Whisky reads “as long as you’re up get me a Grant’s.” The orphan stares forlornly at the viewer while the impeccably dressed gent depicted in the Grant’s ad gazes in her direction. When viewed together, the man’s faraway stare reads as stern and uncaring. For the internet generation, these serendipitous encounters are becoming increasingly invisible. Social media has become the great leveler of the banal and the tragic. Our feeds are regularly full of violent and trivial content. On Facebook, a holiday selfie might be positioned next to a report on the Gaza conflict. Should we be ethically concerned about the confluence of such material? What do these contrasts tell us about our society? These are the questions that Heinecken grappled with throughout his career.
Not content to wait for chance encounters, Heinecken began to experiment with overlapping imagery. The breadth of media he employed is extraordinary; transparencies, photo lithography, sculpture, installation, collage, photographic emulsion, and slideshows. A highlight of the exhibition is a cabinet display of the artist’s “compromised” magazines. Utilizing techniques such as collage and overprinting, the artist modified and inserted images into publications such as Time and Esquire. The results range from the silly (celebrities with their eyes cut out) to the disturbing (lifestyle spreads overlaid with images from the Vietnam war). Gradually the viewer begins to notice patterns within the images. It becomes apparent that the poses used by pornographic actors often mirror those used by fashion models. Heinecken compared these realizations to stumbling across a crime scene; “I might liken it to the intention of making police photographs in which there is no crime involved — but with that assumption.”
In true juvenile fashion, Heinecken frequently deposited his compromised editions in waiting rooms and on newsstands. As his career progressed, his humor became increasingly blunt. One of the artist’s foam mounted collages depicts a Polaroid ad in which a couple smile and flirt. The women’s hand is positioned suggestively by her partner’s groin. Heinecken inserted an erect penis below the tips of the women’s fingers. It’s a ridiculous image, but no more absurd than the ad itself. The artist has merely spelled out the ad’s sexual connotations.
The actress Cybil Shepard, who featured in advertisements as the “Kodak Girl,” appears regularly throughout the same series. In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) she portrayed Betsy, a woman that the lonely protagonist Travis Bickle (played by Robert DeNiro) can neither attain nor understand. Her character becomes a projection for Bickle’s personal desires. For Heinecken, I imagine that Shepard embodied a nebulous and unattainable ideal, both as an actress adopting multiple personas, and as a model for advertisements. As a foam cut out, she represents all the false promises of advertising. Celebrity fascinated Heinecken because its intimation of familiarity is completely illusory. News anchors such as Barbara Walters (a recurring subject in the artist’s work) may regularly appear on your television, but this doesn’t bring you any closer to truly knowing them.
Heinecken’s installation entitled “TV/Time Environment” (1970) recreates a suburban living room. A transparency of a female nude covers a television set, emphasizing the sexualization of its imagery. The installation is especially effective in Object Matter since the television’s noise disrupts your viewing of other works. Another piece, “Surrealism on TV” (1986), consists of three slide projectors, each projecting random snapshots taken from television screens. The work is a semiotician’s delight. Endless combinations of news anchors, political bombings, cute animals, and workout videos are thrown upon the walls, only to be replaced in an instant. It is left to the viewer to discern any patterns. During my visit, photographs of three female news anchors were projected simultaneously, one blonde, one dark haired, and one brunette. Their hair styles are virtually the same, all three conforming to the same expectation about how to present themselves. A few seconds later, one of the anchors was gone, unceremoniously replaced by a photograph of a puppy.
The tactility of Heinecken’s work probably contributed to the discomfort of critics. The exhibition displays a number of the artist’s puzzle works, gelatin silver prints mounted onto wood and carved into numerous blocks. Since most of these pieces consist of black and white segments of female nudes, there is an overbearing suggestion of violence. The puzzles mimic the chopping up and re-structuring of the human body in visual media, trivializing the insouciance of such actions by turning it into a game. For some, these works raise a difficult question. Did their creation stem from a need to fetishize the nude form, or to fetishize the medium of photography? As is true of most artists, the answer probably involves both.
Object Matter demonstrates that Heinecken was completely dedicated to expanding the field of photography. Though his creations are often hard to stomach, his methodology becomes clearer as one progresses through the exhibition. The show’s title refers to a 1965 quote by the artist. “The photograph … is not a picture of something but an object about something.” Heinecken was committed to exposing the ideologies that lurk behind the creation and manipulation of images. His art encourages us to be active viewers. Attempting to take my own installation shots, I struggled with the reflective surfaces of the displays. Most of my photographs included reflections of the scores of tourists and visitors streaming through the exhibition. They weren’t particularly good, but I’m sure Heinecken would have appreciated the effect.
Robert Heinecken: Object Matter continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 7.