Artist Robert Heinecken (1931-2006) is best-known for cleverly manipulating found photographs plucked from mass media, which meant to undermine their authority in America’s exploding image-culture.
He’s not included among the 36 artists in the historical group exhibition “Take It or Leave It” currently at the UCLA Hammer Museum, but he probably should be. A self-styled “para-photographer,” Heinecken made pictures that crossed appropriation art with institutional critique, the Hammer show’s theme.
More to the point, he was doing it long before most of the exhibition’s artists, who generally emerged in the 1980s. “Are You Re?,” a pivotal series Heinecken made between 1964 and 1968, is emblematic.
It’s composed from photograms, or camera-less photographs, that simultaneously capture the front and back of popular magazine and newspaper pages. Like layered negatives, the sometimes sultry, sometimes sinister work fuses human figures and news events with commercial products to be bought and sold.
As the artist once described it, “[These] pictures do not represent first-hand experiences, but are related to the perhaps more socially important manufactured experiences which are being created daily by the mass media.” Appropriation, in other words, crossed with institutional critique.
One institution he criticized was the Museum of Modern Art — especially its powerful photography curator, John Szarkowski, who emphasized self-expressive camerawork. In 1985, Heinecken made a very funny image by jiggling a CBS television picture of the curator standing next to a large and notably still color photograph of a still life: “John Szarkowski showing Charles Kuralt how to hold a watermelon when eating it left to right.”
So, given all that, there’s a certain irony to “Robert Heinecken: Object Matter,” a retrospective of about 150 works opening today at … MoMA. (Curator Eva Respini talked about the show on last Thursday’s “Modern Art Notes” podcast.) Billed as the first of its kind since the artist’s death, the show follows the 1999 retrospective organized at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000.
Heinecken’s omission from the current Hammer group show and its catalog contains its own irony: He founded the photography program at UCLA. Maybe it can be explained by one primary drawback in the otherwise provocative show: As I noted in my review, “Take It or Leave It” is generally oblivious to how New York-centric its worldview is. And when the retrospective concludes at MoMA in September, it will travel — to the UCLA Hammer Museum.