This is an article from the fall 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Thirty years before Photoshop, artist Robert Heinecken used scissors, paste, and Con-Tact paper to transform advertising images from popular magazines into arresting works of art. As the art world reconsiders Heinecken’s legacy, History of Art Professor Matt Biro is hard at work writing the first book-length treatment of his life and work.
Reach out and touch someone. Obey your thirst. Don’t squeeze the Charmin.
Advertisements are designed for one purpose—to get us to spend money. But ads and commercials often end up having another, more subtle effect, says History of Art Professor Matt Biro: They can change how we think about ourselves.
The idea that things like movies, TV shows, magazines, and advertisements both cater to us and, in some ways, create us, is a powerful one. Biro encountered this concept while studying postmodern photography in the 1980s, where art world stars like Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger remixed and repurposed mass media objects, applying pop art ideas to the field of photography with dramatic results.
By the mid-1990s, histories were already being written around the major figures of postmodern photography. But there was one artist included in these histories whose work Biro didn’t recognize.
Biro would eventually discover that the artist was an early pioneer of the remix strategies of appropriation art, an artist who spent much of his creative life reclaiming personal meaning from cold and calculating images published in the mass media. The man was a visionary who created transfixing imagery by combining photographs from articles and advertising decades before Photoshop.
But back in the 1980s, all Biro knew about the artist was one blurry photograph of the news anchor Connie Chung in an anthology. He didn’t even recognize the name. Who was Robert Heinecken?
Impossible Is Nothing
Heinecken was born in 1931. After moving around during his very early years, he grew up in Riverside, California, and enrolled at UCLA after high school. But Heinecken struggled to keep his grades up in college. On the verge of losing his university deferment at the height of the Korean War, he applied with some friends to become a marine pilot, a move that everyone in the group thought gave them a better chance of surviving the war than being drafted into the infantry.
Heinecken was half an inch too short to qualify for pilot training, but he snuck past the tester with a trick that predicted his future standing in the art world: He filled his shoes with cut-out magazine pages.
By the time his training was finished, the war was already over, and Heinecken took advantage of the G.I. Bill to head back to school. Following a strong interest in graphic design, Heinecken got his bachelor’s and then his M.F.A. in printmaking. After school, he taught photography in downtown Los Angeles and was later hired as a professor at UCLA’s main campus, which was going through a sustained expansion as soldiers like Heinecken used the G.I. Bill to advance their education.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Heinecken began to do some of his most challenging work as an artist. He covered spinning cubes with chopped-up pictures of human bodies and made palimpsest pieces from then-current magazines, combining photojournalism and advertisements, war coverage and fashion-mag glamour shots. Heinecken’s work was shocking, politically charged, and filled with startling swerves and unforgettable juxtapositions. He was just getting started.
Have It Your Way
The 1960s saw a radical transformation of the magazine business in the United States. Before, most magazines were general interest items that appealed to a generic, largely undifferentiated subscriber base. Then, all of that changed.
“They used to be mostly general news or entertainment magazines,” Biro explains. “Suddenly, in the ’60s, there were magazines for teens. There were magazines for hunters. There were magazines for golfers and for car lovers and for camera aficionados. And the advertisements were directed at those consumers, but they were also constructing those consumers. And Heinecken responds to that in his work.”
Twenty-first-century audiences are largely accustomed to personalized advertisements that draw information from their Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds. But in the 1960s, this kind of demographic targeting of consumers was revolutionary.
During this period, Heinecken produced a series of dramatic art projects that addressed these cultural shifts. One is Are You Rea (1964–1968), which featured photograms—photographs created without a camera—of magazine and newspaper pages. The photograms combined images from opposing sides of the magazine page, resulting in prints that Biro describes as having an “x-ray” quality to them. Human forms commingle with advertising copy and brand-name consumer products, making figures that don’t just seem as if they are composed of products, but seem to have been colonized or diluted by them.
For his piece Periodical #1 (1969), Heinecken pulled 29 magazines apart and frankensteined them together into 19 new “variants,” magazine-like objects filled with interrupted articles and advertisements that didn’t seem to fit with the surrounding pages. Ads from glamour magazines shilling high-end perfume were juxtaposed with down-home cooking recipes from Good Housekeeping. The effect was to disorient a reader with articles that emerged from nothing and then went nowhere, and with imagery that, stripped of context, demanded new interpretations.
“Heinecken took this radically divergent array of sources, including Glamour and Guns and Ammo and Playboy and Newsweek, and, by editing them together, he makes an object that speaks to a consumer that doesn’t yet exist,” Biro says. “Paging through it, the reader sees and feels that, and we respond by imagining new lifestyles and new forms of consumption that haven’t been categorized or defined yet.”
Another piece, Periodical #5 (1971), involved copying a single image of brutal violence from American Vietnam War coverage and superimposing it on a series of pages in various glamour magazine advertisements. Heinecken then took the recreated magazines and smuggled them onto newsstands and into dentists’ offices so that people would encounter them unexpectedly—an abrupt reminder that America was fighting a war in a far away country.
“Heinecken was an ex-soldier,” Biro says, “and he had a very complex relationship with war. He had never been in a battle, but, like many people of the era, he was shocked and appalled by the Vietnam War and very critical of it.
“The magazines [in Periodical #5] were his way of protesting Vietnam in a very Heinecken fashion, following his artistic interests and getting us to examine how news shows and magazines affect our understanding of the war, and pointing out where we expect to see war imagery and where we don’t.”
You've Come a Long Way, Baby
Heinecken’s work continued to evolve and eventually included increasingly complicated photographic sculptures, film strips, installation pieces, “videograms”—photographs created by pressing photosensitive paper to the surface of a television set—and different forms of composite photographs, many of which explored the increasing influence of television in everyday life. As Biro researched Heinecken’s story and art, it became clear how much of a pioneer Heinecken truly was, using strategies in the 1960s and 1970s that didn’t become art-world mainstays until two decades later.
But Heinecken’s significance as a pioneer—one of the “roots,” Biro says—of appropriation art wasn’t largely recognized, and there were a few different reasons why. He was a West Coast artist, working largely in Los Angeles, while the most famous postmodern photographers were all based in New York. Heinecken also didn’t link his work with any particular philosophical movement, like the New York postmodernists did.
And while there were ways in which Heinecken was ahead of his time, there were also ways in which he seemed old fashioned, and not in a good way. As the women’s liberation movement was gaining more and more popular support in the ’60s and ’70s, Heinecken was producing work replete with nude images taken from “men’s magazines” of the era. Part of the value in this part of Heinecken’s work, Biro says, is that it explores the boundaries between beauty and profanity, re-interrogating millennia-old questions about the difference between “naked” and “nude,” and exploring the social effects of pornography. But to an audience concerned about objectifying imagery and sexual exploitation, large portions of Heinecken’s work seemed deaf to the issues of the era.
The time has come to fully examine Heinecken’s work and legacy, Biro says, warts and all, and he is currently working on the first book-length treatment of Heinecken’s life and work.
To research the project, Biro explored Heinecken’s estate, which is split between the Heinecken Trust in Chicago and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. He read through a 600-page transcript of Heinecken’s own oral history and sifted through dozens of lectures and classes that Heinecken taught that were recorded, all of which allow Biro to “get very close,” he says, to what Heinecken actually intended with his art.
And more people are paying attention to that art. The number of recent shows featuring Heinecken’s work is increasing, Biro says, including an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014. The prices for his work are also going up, another sign of an artist’s growing popularity and relevance.
But maybe the surest proof that Heinecken’s career deserves real attention is the work itself. In an era when Twitter and Tumblr feeds are stuffed with images remixed in Photoshop, Heinecken’s images still have the power to upset and disarm us. The sight of human bodies composed of car parts, ad copy, and designer clothes makes explicit the blurry boundaries between mass media and personal identity, forcing us to reconsider how much power advertisements have over us—and how we can take that power back.
“Photography is a social force,” Biro says. “Heinecken didn’t take his own photographs, but his life, his interests, his political beliefs were all clearly present in his art. And all of that is very much about what’s happening today, about people finding things that speak to them and creating a very personal meaning out of imagery that you didn’t create yourself.”