‘Robert Heinecken: Object Matter’ at the Museum of Modern Art

'Tuxedo Striptease' (1984) by Heinecken. (Courtesy Cherry and Martin Gallery, Los Angeles. © 2014 The Robert Heinecken Trust/ Robert Wedemeyer)

‘Tuxedo Striptease’ (1984) by Heinecken. (Courtesy Cherry and Martin Gallery, Los Angeles. © 2014 The Robert Heinecken Trust/ Robert Wedemeyer)

This retrospective, curated by Eva Respini, gathers together installations, sculptural works, large-scale collages, photography, lithography and ephemera by the late Los Angeles artist Robert Heinecken. It is tiny but revelatory.

Heinecken, who taught at UCLA from the 1960s to the ’90s, was, like most photographers, interested in the ontological status of his medium. One of his earliest realizations was that there were already enough pictures in the world. His role as an artist wasn’t to take new pictures but to make them. Starting in the 1960s, Heinecken altered popular magazines to create cut and reassembled collage pieces. A wall of 120 of these are on view, forming a display of spread-eagled copies of magazines including Good Housekeeping, Time and Playboy.

Spread-eagled is a good verb for Heinecken. His investigation of popular culture in the 1970s involves a lot of boobs and bush, and many of his found-image collages and double exposures are sourced from porn. (Between this show and the Gauguin exhibit upstairs, there has perhaps never been so much full-frontal nudity at MoMA.) In the assemblage Lingerie for a Feminist Suntan #5 (1979), bras made of photo-sensitive linen and a naked woman’s prominent bikini lines make the parallel between a sun tan and the photographic process. The series of Polaroid photos She: You have a beautiful cock … (1977) plays on the self-processing nature of Polaroid film, putting on display five shots of the artist’s erection: He, like the patented film, is exposing himself. The show is lewd—and even more obscenely full of puns—but with reason.

'Cybill Shepherd/Phone Sex' (1992)  by Heinecken. Petzel Gallery, New York. (© 2014 The Robert Heinecken Trust)

‘Cybill Shepherd/Phone Sex’ (1992)
by Heinecken. Petzel Gallery, New York. (© 2014 The Robert Heinecken Trust)

Heinecken was best known for works like Recto/Verso (1988), photograms that superimpose magazine pages to revel in the visual collision of advertising and articles: “Asparagus: A Taste of Spring” reads the text under one woman’s aerobicized butt as asparagus spears and leg lifts blur. The series Are You Rea (1968) utilizes a similar strategy, double-exposing the front and back covers of popular magazines to create single images with unexpected juxtapositions. They imagine a magazine as a single surface composed of images flickering past.

Such works foreshadow the Internet. Heinecken’s uses of photography anticipate the image culture we live in today, in which a screen delivers an overload of images on a single surface and you mix your own experience of media. His combination of high and low culture, pop and philosophy is reminiscent of other pioneers, like Michel Majerus, whose very good show is currently on view at Matthew Marks. It anticipates artists from John Kelsey to Lucas Blalock. In other ways, the materials Heinecken uses are marked with age: His world is one of local TV weathermen, televangelists and leopard-print leotards. The stapled photos in his image collages are yellowing. His work also shows its conceptual age, at times. Heinecken wasn’t a first-rate artist, but the show finds something relevant and important in his project.

(Through Sept. 7, 2014)

‘Robert Heinecken: Object Matter’ at the Museum of Modern Art