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Robert Heinecken, Time (1st Group), 1969, offset lithography on found magazine, 11 x 8" closed.

IN 1968, ROBERT HEINECKEN released one of the signal works of his career: Are You Rea, a portfolio of twenty-five grainy, ghostly, tonally reversed photograms taken from the pages of popular magazines. His introductory text leaves no doubt as to why he is today considered one of the most prescient forerunners of appropriation. Disclosing his debt to Surrealist theory, he professes his interest in “the multiplicity of meanings inherent in aleatory ideas and images” and declares that “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.” He then quotes André Breton at length (“Everything, in effect is an image . . .”). One could hardly ask for a more concise articulation of the genealogy linking Dada and Surrealism, the assemblage and montage practices of West Coast artists such as Wallace Berman, Edward Kienholz, and John Baldessari, and the strategies of postmodern photography associated with Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, et al. Indeed, Heinecken’s work seems a more direct ancestor to the Pictures generation than that of his contemporaries.

Yet rather than viewing the art Heinecken (1931–2006) created between the 1960s and ’90s exclusively through the lens of postmodernism, it is perhaps best to understand the artist first and foremost in his own paradoxical terms—namely, as a “documentarian” of “manufactured experience.” His is an eye that reveals, that describes experience not as given or spontaneous but as preconditioned and fabricated, and that sees contemporary existence as a process of consumption. At the same time, Heinecken also recognized that it was impossible to criticize consumer ideology from without. Acknowledging his own implication within the systems that sustain and are sustained by this ideology, he frequently incorporated his own particular obsessions and biography into his art. In this respect, he finds common ground with the documentary photographers of the 1960s (e.g., Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand) in that his work, like theirs, constitutes an individualistic selection of motifs and details, a social statement from an unabashedly subjective point of view. But he took the implications of subjectivity considerably farther than they did, laying bare his own tastes and affinities in an often shocking and always unflinching way.

Heinecken’s practice ranged from (photo-based) painting and sculpture to collage, installation, and time-based work with TVs and slide projectors. Though his formal training was in printmaking, he began to explore photography in the early ’60s, when he was hired to teach it at his alma mater, UCLA. His earliest photographs, shot with a 35-mm camera, are his “straightest” or least manipulated, but he was already flouting the modernist photographic tradition most powerfully embodied on the West Coast by Ansel Adams and Group f/64, with its emphasis on medium specificity, objective depiction, structure, and sharp focus. Many of his works from this period employ techniques of “bad photography,” such as shooting against the light, motion blur, and underexposure. Or they bring together opposites that the West Coast modernists preferred to keep separate, as in one image in which the cropped silhouette of an airplane reveals a vaguely nipplelike contour, melding the organic and the technological. By the mid-’60s, Heinecken was committing even greater affronts against photographic purity, producing photo-sculpture hybrids—black-and-white prints of female nudes, segmented and reassembled like puzzle pieces or laminated onto the sides of wooden cubes. His Fractured Figure Sections of 1967, for example, is essentially a three-dimensional exquisite corpse, a tower of stacked sections that can be roatated to produce impossible composites of the human form.

Heinecken’s “Are You Rea” series (from which the portfolio, a distinct work, emerged), 1964–68, was roughly contemporaneous with the sculptures, and in some ways complements them. Inspired by Surrealism’s use of the photogram, or cameraless photograph, as a technique of chance and automatism, the artist proofed some two thousand pages over the course of four years, removing leaves from Time, Newsweek, Woman’s Day, the New York Times, and other publications and contact-printing them. The photogram process captured both the front and the back of each magazine page, superimposing one image on the other. In the resulting X-ray-like prints, spectral figures interact not only with one another but also with text and commodities. A woman wearing a bra and skirt hovers against a case of No-Cal Orange bottles that seem to both surround and suffuse her; the slogan NEW POWERNET WITH LYCRA SPANDEX shares a page with a cowboy about to lasso a steer. Playing between readability and nonsense, the images point to the media’s tactical use of constant repetition, to the power of its labels and definitions, and to the fact that we respond to its cues in a disjointed, distracted, and visceral way.