The magazine of photography and ideas
Robert Heinecken: Paraphotographer
Arthur Ou speaks with Eva Respini, curator of Robert Heinecken: Object Matter, about this restless artist’s pioneering work.
Los Angeles-based conceptualist Robert Heinecken (1931-2006) worked primarily with photography but rarely used a camera. His cross-disciplinary work employed found images culled from mass media that were then reanimated through a variety of materials and techniques—gelatin-silver prints, collage, photo-sculpture, canvases covered with photographic emulsion, among them. A self-described “paraphotographer,” Heinecken’s expanded notion of photography is evident in his oft-cited comment: “The photograph is not a picture, but an object about something.” A comprehensive exhibition of Heinecken’s output, spanning the early 1960s through the 1990s, has just opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Aperture asked artist Arthur Ou to speak with Eva Respini, curator of Robert Heinecken: Object Matter, about this restless artist’s pioneering work and how his capacious definition of photography feels especially relevant today.
Arthur Ou: Why a Robert Heinecken show now?
Eva Respini: I realized that there hadn’t been a large-scale Heinecken retrospective on the East Coast since 1976, at the George Eastman House. He’s certainly been in group and gallery shows. He’s one of these figures with a cult following. But there are many people that don’t know his work, especially on the East Coast. It seemed like a good opportunity to show the larger scope of his career. Even if people know some of the work, they certainly don’t know everything.
AO: His career overlaps with many other art historical movements, such as the Pictures Generation. Can you speak to those connections and how his influence may have been delayed? Are you trying to bring his work into the present discourse on image making?
ER: Yes, I definitely am, or I do hope that the show will bring his practice with images more into the dialogue of contemporary art. In the Los Angeles area he’s known because of his legacy in teaching, which is very important, but I think where people don’t know him is in the realm of contemporary art. A lot of what he was doing in terms of using found images from magazines, newspapers, and television, certainly predated what we now call the Pictures Generation, but it also came out of the context in which he was working, post-Pop in Los Angeles, under the specter of the film industry. He certainly wasn’t alone. Think of Wallace Berman. You can go even further back to Warhol and Rauschenberg.
AO: What kind influence did he have on his students and the Los Angeles photography community?
ER: I think he was a huge presence. He was a deeply respected teacher. He was also an outsized personality and, from anecdotal accounts, a gregarious kind of guy. And I think it’s a testament to him that his former students are diverse in their practice; he didn’t just turn out many Heineckens. He seemed to encourage critical thinking about images, but that didn’t necessarily mean working in the way that he did. In fact, many of the students (especially the early ones) that I spoke to weren’t even aware of his practice and how pioneering or experimental it was (that he basically never made his own images, or used a camera in the traditional sense). Now, of course, things are different with access to the Internet; everybody knows immediately what you’re doing.
AO: What was it like working with his archive? Was it challenging to construct a narrative that would make sense as a portrait of an artist?
ER: Well, it was really fun, sort of like archaeological work. But it was certainly a challenge, because one of the things that defined how Heinecken thought about making artwork was his training as a printmaker. All of his work exists in multiple iterations: one set of images were made as lithographs, then he would make them as gelatin-silver prints, then he would use the same source material and put that on photo emulsion on canvas, then he would use some of that as a preparatory work in collage form, and it goes on and on. So the challenge was deciding, well, what is the work?
And after some time, I realized that’s actually the wrong question to ask about Heinecken. He wasn’t an artist who would make one masterpiece, one that is clearly the work that we should have in the show. Obviously, we have very important works in the show that were influential in their time and continue to be influential now, but he was very iterative in his thinking and art-making; there are moments in the exhibition where we also accumulate a number of works that are related, where you see this iterative process and see him literally working through different materials. It is a way of working that was very much against the fine-art tradition of photography. If you think about that tradition and giants of West Coast photography, like Edward Weston or Ansel Adams, there is one master print. Heinecken worked completely against that idea.
With this realization, my work became less challenging. But there’s a lot of material out there and he was very prolific, working until the end of his life, even though he was ill. It’s amazing how much he produced.
AO: Variation, or multiple iterations of one work, seems to connect with our digital experience of photographs now.
ER: It’s a very contemporary idea that an image can be anything and be translated into any medium. Now we think, “oh yeah, it’s an image on my phone, it’s an image on my screen, it’s an image on the wall, it’s an image in a magazine.” He was just thinking of photography in the mediums of his time period. But the attitude, I think, is utterly contemporary.
AO: Throughout his career he was continually drawn to the female figure. Could you speak about that aspect of his work?
ER: When you see the whole body of work this is a consistent thread, not just the female figure but female sexuality. He was very interested in addressing sexuality in mass media and pornography, and how sex was basically used to sell practically anything. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, his use of pornographic material becomes quite problematic and he was attacked by a number of feminists. Martha Rosler famously dismissed his work as “pussy porn.” There was a push back to his brazen use of the pornographic image. Even though he intended it as a critique, it wasn’t necessarily read that way. Hopefully, this show will be an opportunity for us to reassess that work. Our relationship to pornography is now very different than it was, even in the ‘80s, just because pornographic images are so much more widely available. And when I look at the images he was using, they seem very tame by today’s standards. In conjunction with the show, we’re having a panel on art and pornography. I’ve invited a number of artists who have dealt with related issues in their work to speak, and I plan to be quite open about my own issues with Heinecken and the subject, which is not 100% resolved for me.
AO: There will be interesting overlaps with the Heinecken show and MoMA’s two concurrent shows: the retrospective exhibition of Sigmar Polke, who worked across media, including photography, and A World of One’s Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio, Quentin Bajac’s survey exhibition of photographers working in the studio environment.
ER: We’re all looking forward to having all three on view. It’s great when these things happen, and they’re not always planned. Schedules in the museum are a very complicated thing. But when these synergies happen, it’s really great, because looking at Heinecken with Polke, it’s sort of what I was saying in the beginning here, where what I hope the show will do is to place Heinecken within a larger discussion of art since the ’60s.
Arthur Ou is Assistant Professor at Parsons the New School for Design.
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