Few American photographers are as influential as Robert Heinecken, yet the man rarely picked up a camera. The late artist—whose thoroughgoing exhibition is on view at Chelsea’s Friedrich Petzel Gallery—was a restless creator who produced hundreds of objects that include collages, lithographs, Polaroids, silver gelatin prints, photograms, and something he called “cutouts” (life-size figures of men, women, and animals in the grips of the artist’s own absurd consumerist riddles). A creator devoted to pointing out the essential difference between our modern-day empire of pictures and the realities it depicts, Heinecken led a one-man campaign to frustrate the cowing effects of mechanical reproduction. Less a strict practitioner of photography than a devoted tinkerer, this West Coast visionary turned some of the more manipulative processes of Madison Avenue into a volatile, visceral, even racy portrait of his chosen medium.
Arthur Danto once referred to Heinecken as a “photographist.” By this, the philosopher meant to invoke a crucial dictum—one that defines the artist’s responsibility as “creating art that functions as a reflection on its own nature.” Today, Heinecken’s objects remain a signal model of critical thinking at its fidgety, roving best. Starting where surrealist juxtaposition left off (André Breton is quoted at length in the artist’s best-known work, a print series enigmatically titled “Are you Rea”), Heinecken made it his mission to craft from discarded magazines, product catalogs, and other media what he called visual gestalts—”picture circumstances, which bring together disparate images or ideas so as to form new meanings and new configurations.” Sarcastic, trenchant unmaskings of straight consumerist commands, these picture-and-text combinations repeatedly defaced America’s forced Pepsodent Smile.
Taking consumerist demand as modernity’s gospel, Heinecken identified the holy troika of sex, fame, and status objects as the key buttons to push in his exploration of commercial reproduction’s many deceptions. Consider the relief collages the artist made in the 1980s and ’90s on view at Petzel. Crumpling advertisements ripped from Time or Women’s Wear Daily, Heinecken fashioned bitingly funny exquisite corpses from nothing more than throwaway print pages. Other works like 1984’s Tuxedo Striptease—large-scale Polaroid photographs of existing images of women in progressive states of undress—and the more explicit Porno Film Strip #4 pictured craven desire in a same but different guise. An unabashed leveling of consumerism with pornography, Heinecken set up an important early equation of hardcore porn with hard-nosed corniness in advertising.
As a figure, Heinecken has long been linked to the breezy conceptualism of L.A. artists like Wallace Berman, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari; additionally, his fingerprints are all over the appropriationist strategies of the 1980s Pictures Generation (cue Sherrie Levine’s current Whitney Museum retrospective and Cindy Sherman’s star turn at MOMA next February). Yet Heinecken is no mere historical stepping-stone. As his current exhibition demonstrates, there’s every reason in the world today to revisit the book of his substantial influence. Its collaged, densely packed pages give ample evidence of this artist’s skittish energy, sustained resourcefulness, and nettlesome original thinking.