Summer Reading

Summer Reading: The Influentially Lewd Allure of Robert Heinecken

As the editors of Art Practical and Daily Serving get ready to take their end-of-summer vacations, we find ourselves swapping reading lists—the articles we’ll dive into once have some uninterrupted time to catch up on what our colleagues have been writing. We’ve gotten so excited about what’s on our lists that we want to share them with our readers. Between now and Labor Day, Daily Serving will feature the efforts of our fellow chroniclers of art and culture as part of our Summer Reading series. Today we are pleased to bring you Andrew Berardini’s essay on the work of artist Robert Heinecken. This article was originally published in Issue #44 of Mousse Magazine, and we thank their editors for making this series possible. Enjoy!

Robert Heinecken. Recto/Verso #2, 1988;  Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Mr. and Mrs. Clark Winter Fund.

Robert Heinecken. Recto/Verso #2, 1988. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Mr. and Mrs. Clark Winter Fund.

In a dentist’s office, underneath a shadow cast from a fluorescent light on a sickly pot of browning philodendrons atop a chipped coffee table, sit stacks of old magazines. Dog-eared and well-thumbed, rustling with their cheap paper, clad with gaudy covers begging questions and enticements for a passerby to peek into their pages. Time and GlamourGood Housekeeping and MademoiselleGolf Digest and Sports Illustrated, a smattering of titles beginning with “Popular.” Flipping through, the nervy bruxists and trenchmouthers fidget until summoned for their scrapings and cleanings, analgesics and block injections, skimming headlines about the White House and the Kennedys, 100 Great Recipes and 100 Gifts from $1.00 to $10.00, Trimmings to Make Parties Fun for Hostesses Too and When He Caught Me in Another Man’s Bedroom. Amidst all of these tidbits and news items, tawdry page-turners and housewifely time-savers, the publishers tuck in a healthy swath of advertisements, the difference between ad and article often fluid. But within these sundry, expected, and quotidian distractions from impending root canals, there appear other unsanctioned pictures.

Across from a duo of models tautly clothed in the latest Parisian fashions, a couple of quite naked ladies, tan lines ablaze, lean in for a carnal smooch. Overlaying the bottle blonde in the brown, boat-like sedan of the Pontiac ad beckons a big-chested lass in negative exposure, naked except for a pair of knee-high go-go boots. Does one imagine an aged dowager keeling over in disgusted shock, a pizza-faced teenage boy with maximalist orthodontia vibrantly sweating as he runs through various plans to casually pocket the magazine for closer, handier examinations? Does it startle, quicken pulses, titillate pink parts, provoke outrage? Does it do anything, or is it just passively accepted, not even seen, a picture received only subliminally by that patient idly flicking through? Sneaking doctored magazines into doctor’s offices and newsstands was only one of artist Robert Heinecken’s punkish tactics from the 1960s till his illness and death in 2007. This ex-marine fighter pilot and full-time prof enjoyed sticking his sticky fingers into the content and form of received culture, all those bombarding images selling us this and that, and usually sex (lust rarely being free for anyone in the Christian, patriarchal, and bourgeois circumstances of postwar America). He did this without using a camera but using the images themselves, beginning with a series of twenty-five photograms from 1964–68 titled Are You Rea after a chopped headline that numerous critics suggest could be “real” or “ready” and to the artist might have been a Duchampian pun on Man Ray. (Both Marcel and Man alongside László Moholy-Nagy were early inspirations.) In this attractive portfolio, reprinted from photographic paper into lithographs, the facing pages in a magazine superimpose their negative images, conflating the two in weird, often suggestive ways. Though his works could be occasionally ham-fisted or literal (one image he slipped into popular magazines was a particularly violent shot from 1971 of a grinning Cambodian soldier hoisting two decapitated heads), the artist mostly avoided letting his work fall into didactic investigations into media power by locating his inquiries in desire, his own desire. Even his breakdowns of news anchors and politicians sometimes have smeary Vaseline on the lens, diffusing and mixing in ways that feel lurid, though sometimes spooky. You can almost tell that the best works are the ones that got him off the most.

Read the full article here.