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Robert Heinecken: Still Inspiring Debate

By Brendan Flaherty

Published Dec 1, 2014 8:00 AM

The work of the groundbreaking artist and UCLA professor still raises questions.


Photograph courtesy Hammer Museum

The founder of UCLA’s photography program died in 2006, but his work continues to inspire debate. At the time of his passing, The New York Times described Heinecken as “an artist and teacher whose eclectic and challenging work radically expanded the range of possibilities for photography as art.” Since then, scholars have begun to see him as an increasingly influential figure in contemporary art. A survey of his major works, from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, was recently on view at the Hammer Museum.

The exhibition, titled Robert Heinecken: Object Matter, was originally organized by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. But its arrival in L.A. was a homecoming of sorts. Heinecken spent many years living and working in Southern California. Though he was born in Denver in 1931, he grew up in Riverside. After serving in the military, he enrolled at UCLA, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art. He then founded the university’s photography program in 1964 and remained on the faculty for nearly 30 years.

While teaching, Heinecken created many iconoclastic works that raised prescient questions about the effects of mass media and popular culture on society. The representation of women in the media is a particularly polarizing theme in his art. For example, in his first large-scale sculptural installation, “TV/Time Environment,” originally from 1970, he created a middle-class living room and placed a transparency of a nude female torso over a television screen tuned to contemporary broadcasts. The installation has been recreated at the Hammer Museum, and the narrative accompanying it explains that “Heinecken invited viewers to consider the sexualized nature of consumption in American culture.” The artist himself noted that “social satire is rather rampant” in this work. Projects like this one have generated mixed responses from viewers, and Heinecken has been simultaneously derided as a misogynist and lauded as a feminist.


Photograph courtesy Hammer Museum

Regardless of opinion, though, one thing remains certain: Heinecken is not easily categorized. Though he is often identified as a photographer, he described himself as a “para-photographer” whose work was beside or beyond traditional ideas of the medium. After all, he was rarely behind the camera himself. Instead, he used already produced images from sources such as newspaper advertisements, consumer magazines, pornography and television. He then altered and recontextualized this "found" material through darkroom experimentation and techniques ranging from collage to sculpture. Though this practice of appropriation — making new work from preexisting images and contexts — is common today, Heinecken was at the forefront decades ago.

In his “Are You Rea” series from the mid- to late 1960s, he created 25 photograms, each of which compounded two magazine pages into a single image. The result is a doubleimage, in black-and-white negative, juxtaposed against itself. The series was groundbreaking in its time and explored the multiple meanings of images within the context of a commercialized, media-saturated culture.

In “Lessons in Posing Subjects,” one of the few projects where he was behind the lens, Heinecken had models re-create the poses and facial expressions he found in clothing catalogs. He then rephotographed them with a Polaroid camera and explained the images with text that mimicked the tone of a textbook, humorously reducing fashion to a series of repetitive, symbolic gestures. Both “Are You Rea” and “Lessons in Posing Subjects” were included in the Hammer exhibition.