The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Irony Creativity Obsession
Robert Heinecken
Object Matter
Photo by Robert Heinecken . Source:
Robert Heinecken, "Kaleidoscopic Hexagon #2" 1965

Robert Heinecken must have watched a lot of television. His retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art through September 7 feels like a sports bar on another planet, but with every screen turned to daytime TV. A slideshow serves up his collection of some two hundred images, with an uncanny fixation on vacuous talking heads.

Nearby a photo emulsion on canvas curling off the wall serves up TV dinners. Another grid of photos in the corridor outside neatly sums up his irony, creativity, and obsessions. He called it, like the slideshow, Surrealism on TV.

If anyone would recognize Surrealism on TV, he would. An eagle flies into a talk show, while another host is caught kissing a goose. A lion invades a family rec room, with everyone on the sofa, no doubt watching television. Lips on a baseball deliver an unheard sexual provocation, while a woman tosses fitfully in her sleep. Yet another woman levitates in the darkness of an old-fashioned magic act—not a bad metaphor for Heinecken's photography. The 1989 series includes not just screen captures, but also their frame in a vintage TV, for here the message is definitely the medium.

Photo by Robert Heinecken . Source:
Robert Heinecken, "MANSMAG: Homage to Werkman and Cavalcade" 1969

He cherished the medium enough to make it the center of a pretend living room, with his choices constantly on the air. One image lurks out from beneath another, and who is to say which is found and which is manipulated? The same applies to his "compromised media," some thirty years of glossy magazines—with strong helpings of what another work labels autoeroticism and fetishism.

MoMA's title, "Object Matter," sounds pedantic by comparison, but that, too, may have a point. In 1964 Heinecken founded the photography program at UCLA, where he remained until 1991. Clearly he had neither the time nor the inclination to teach the history of photography. Those years took Southern California from Pop Art and conceptual art to the 1980s. And with Heinecken the violence of James Rosenquist meets the detachment of John Baldessari, while the appropriations of Sherrie Levine meet the baby-doll poses of Laurie Simmons. His Baldessari side comes out in the text accompanying photographs for Lessons in Posing, while the implicit violence permeates almost every image of the female body.

Photo by Robert Heinecken . Source:
Robert Heinecken, "Are You Rea" 1964-68.

There are plenty. Not exclusively, for Heinecken also has his Tuxedo Striptease and two dozen blurred and bleached blue images of the Reagan inauguration. Yet his girls and women suffer the most and have the most authority, like a single mother as Shiva, the Hindu destroyer. A baby girl, posed on a cross as Buddha, could be presiding over the crucifixion or her own sexual education. Women also define another of Heinecken's obsessions—pushing photography teasingly toward other media. He called himself a "para-photographer," where the Web savvy today might prefer "meta," but it suits his stance between paratrooper and experimenter.

Heinecken died in 2006, but nothing dates later than his years at UCLA. The experiments start with echoes of Irving Penn nudes in Shadows of a Figure from 1961, perhaps the photographer's last reliance on a camera. They include hybrids of photography and painting, like the emulsions on canvas, or of photography and sculpture, like Shiva formed from ads for Tide, Sanka, Pledge, and Spray 'n' Wash. They include wood panels cut up and reassembled like a puzzle, the blistering whiteness of photographic negatives, overprinted color photograms from both sides of a magazine page, portraits assembled from fragments of light and darkness akin to the work of Chuck Close, and "vanishing photographs" arrested at successive stages of development.

Photo by Robert Heinecken . Source:
Robert Heinecken, "Breast/Bomb #6" 1967

Heinecken can seem way too taken with the media, male leering, and his own cleverness—as with a series that puns on cliché verre, as Cliché Vary. Well before the show's end, one may be glorying in his imagery, with more to come at Petzel Gallery through June 21, or weary of his insistent point of view. One may admire no end his ability to take the mass media apart and put them back together. Or one may wonder why he spent so much time watching TV.

Robert Heinecken
Object Matter
Curators: Eva Respini and Drew Sawyer

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