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Robert Heinecken, 74; Pioneered Use of Commercial Photographs to Create Art

May 21, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Robert Heinecken, an artist who was instrumental in changing the way photographs are considered in the American cultural landscape, died Friday at a nursing home in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 74.

Heinecken, who had relocated to New Mexico after living and working principally in Los Angeles for more than 50 years, had suffered from the effects of Alzheimer's disease since 1994, according to his wife, Joyce Neimanas.

In the 1960s, Heinecken began to develop an approach to photographs that was distinctive in the history of the medium. He sometimes described himself as a para-photographer, because his work stood "beside" or "beyond" traditional ideas associated with photography.

Essentially, the artist decided that in the wake of the media explosion that had come to characterize contemporary life, enough photographs already existed. Rather than make more, he would manipulate existing ones. His art became an attempt to clarify, reveal and sometimes confound the subliminal social, political and artistic codes they contain.

Heinecken was among the first to consider himself an artist who used photographs, not a photographer who made them. Today that approach is common. But in the late 1960s, when Heinecken published an influential portfolio of 25 prints titled "Are You Rea," the radical nature of the experiment was largely unprecedented.

"Are You Rea," featured in a major traveling retrospective of Heinecken's work that was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000, was made after lengthy analysis of hundreds of commercially published news, fashion, lifestyle and other magazines. Heinecken found that, when magazine pages were placed on a light table, the images on both sides of the sheet visually merged in unexpected ways.

Sometimes the resulting montages, although not planned by the layouts' designers, were pictorially and conceptually stimulating. In one, the text of a cigarette ad declaring "More than a million people like what Lark does" was overlaid on an iconic, Christlike figure draped with beads and of indeterminate sex. In another, a monstrously deformed portrait emerged from the fusion of a patterned dress over a grinning face adjacent to the text "Lynda Bird Johnson's Hollywood Beauty Treatment."

The title "Are You Rea" came from a brassiere advertisement that originally spread across two magazine pages. On the single page Heinecken chose to work with, the word "Real" or "Really" was truncated. The resulting wordplay has multiple layers.

"Rea" is an anagram of the first word in the title, and only "You" separates the two words from each other. "Are" is a plural form of "to be," the verb that establishes a person's vital identity. Heinecken's portfolio of layered prints proposes that, in the modern flood of commercial imagery, any notion that you are human inevitably gets scrambled. His art is partly an attempt to cut the Gordian knot of mass media.

"Rea" can also be pronounced "ray." The black-and-white images of Heinecken's innovative series pay homage to photographer Man Ray, the Surrealist artist who was among the innovators of an early technique for printing photographs made without a camera. Ray instead placed objects directly on a negative and exposed it to light.

Similarly, Heinecken treated the two sides of a magazine page as if it were a found negative, which he then exposed directly onto an offset printing plate. The result was a layered black-and-white image, in which the original areas of dark and light were reversed. The portfolio, in addition to acknowledging the artistic legacy of Man Ray, had the appearance and function of a social X-ray.

Robert Friedli Heinecken was born in Denver on Dec. 29, 1931, the son of a Lutheran minister. The family moved to Southern California in 1942, and he was raised in Riverside.

In 1951 Heinecken entered UCLA, but he did not graduate until 1959. He enlisted as a Naval Aviation Cadet in 1953 and the next year was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Discharged four years later, he returned to college but remained in the USMC Active Reserve until 1966. By then, a growing interest in developing his art, coupled with opposition to the war in Vietnam, made military duty untenable for him.

Married in 1955 to Janet M. Storey (they separated in 1975 and divorced in 1980), Heinecken finished graduate school at UCLA in 1960 and immediately took a position on the art department faculty. He taught at UCLA for the next 31 years, accepting an emeritus position in 1991. Among the notable students he mentored in the photography program that he started at the school were John Divola, Judith Golden, Jo Ann Callis and Patrick Nagatani.

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