Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

PST by the book: ‘Speaking in Tongues’

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Perhaps the least publicized element of Pacific Standard Time is the scholarship and catalogues published in conjunction with many of the PST exhibitions. Many of them contribute mightily to our understanding of post-war art in America. This is the first in a series of posts in which I’ll feature excerpts from catalogues published as part of Pacific Standard Time. First up: “Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken, 1961-76,” an exhibition that charted how Heinecken and Berman both developed conceptual strategies built around photographs and photo-making techniques. The show, which opens at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz. next month, was one of the top shows of the series — and featured an equally strong, limited-edition catalogue.

The standard art-historical line on Robert Heinecken, the underrated, mostly  Los Angeles-based artist who literally elevated sociocultural media critique to an art form, is that his work is anti-feminist, that it reduces women to sexual objects. (And true: Heinecken was more than a little bit willing to include porn in his work.) I perused some of the Heinecken literature over the weekend and found that assumptions of Heinecken’s misogyny were so taken-for-granted that authors and editors rarely even cited sources detailing such. (Martha Rosler famously called his work “pussy porn.”)

The show and its catalogue both posit that Heinecken’s critique, his work, was about media’s fascination with women, with revealing the way media slotted gender into roles. The show’s curators, Sam Mellon and Claudia Bohn-Spector, and their collaborators seem to realize that to rehabilitate Heinecken, they need to attack the ‘misogynist’ line head-on. And they do. You can purchase the catalogue through Amazon here for $17 off. (The writing is strong, but the book is somewhat image-light.)

From an introductory essay by Colin Westerbeck, former photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and long-time historian of and writer about photography:

Silkscreening imagery from magazines and newspapers onto canvas,Warhol upgraded a printmaker’s technique to the more prestigious (andlucrative) medium of painting. Heinecken hatched, I believe, the same plans for the hot new medium of photography, hoping to give it a similar boost in status. Nor was it lost on him (again, perhaps, being sensitive to the exampleset by Warhol) that the result of this transfer-image process should be a rather crude, muddy, dirty picture. His one, great innovation was that it should not only be dirty in the sense of being roughly done and hard to make out, like Warhol’s smudged newsprint imagery, but in the sense of“dirty pictures”—images whose content was as culturally and morally shocking as their aesthetics. And this was his one great blunder, the bridge too far that he crossed, thereby offending another powerfully new set of ideas that was just then arriving: feminism.

In porn, sex is a dish served cold, like revenge. By engaging in a kind of arch aesthetic play with such imagery, Heinecken brought down on himself a feminist equivalent of the Wrath of God. Sexploitation photographs he presented as art made it seem as if he were exploiting the women in them all over again. Charges that he was trading in smut, which pursued him throughout his career, he sometimes tried to answer in a forthright way and at other times retreated from in statements that revealed his self-doubt on this issue. On the one hand, in an interview he did with Charles Hagen in 1976, he tried to forestall criticism by saying that “the most highly developed sensibility I have is sexual, as opposed to intellectual or emotional, and I think it’s a matter of…accepting that and not trying to alter myself.” But then, only a few moments later, he admitted to having more conflicted feelings about the issue. When Hagen mentioned how Heinecken’s pornographic source material disturbed viewers, after again trying to dismiss the charge by saying, “it’s not my business to really worry about it,” he continued more introspectively, admitting that “these rather self-indulgent perversion pictures…may be a fantasy of my own, a misplacement of value.” [Image: Heinecken, Vary Cliche/Lesbianism, 1974.]

Here we see Heinecken contemplating one of the self-contradictions that made him, ultimately, an interesting artist. The star-crossed character of the man comes out most clearly when you compare the personality of the artist to that of the teacher, as reflected in the eyes of his students. The controversial, aggressive, ambitious, self-absorbed, and self-asserting artist is nowhere to be found in the teacher. Judging by the letters and reminiscences that his former students have contributed to his archive at the Center for Creative Photography, they all felt a tremendous debt of gratitude to him for the way he helped them discover their own visions rather than imposing his on them (as gifted artists often do when they turn to teaching). Based on conversations he had with Heinecken for his essay in the catalogue for the 1999 [MCA Chicago] retrospective, A. D. Coleman said, “Heinecken himself has suggested that it is by his teaching that he hopes, eventually, to be judged.”

“On some levels I feel like you saved my life—my creative spiritual life,” former student Sheila Pinkel told Heinecken in a 1989 note to him, “and I remain ever grateful for your generosity & understanding. I look to your model as a standard for my own conduct as an artist & teacher.” Likewise, Scott Rankin writes in a letter, “Patrick [Nagatani] and I, once, over a pool table, lamely tried to express our gratitude. You said, ‘That’s my job.’ So, now you can’t be modest in return….I hope you take full credit. You are a part of us all. A code. A standard.” When Graham Howe organized a 1984 tribute to Heinecken in the form of a portfolio entitled 20 / 20, for which he needed twenty former students to contribute a print each, twenty-three insisted on being included.

Even though Heinecken frequently socialized with his students, their testimonials at first seem disappointing because they contain almost no vivid memories of him. But then you realize that that is because in his interactions with the students, he absented himself, setting his own personality aside in order to help them bring out theirs. In my interview with her for this essay, Ellen Brooks mentioned that in her experience Heinecken didn’t show his students his own work; she didn’t see it until she went to an exhibition he had. If Heinecken were the Male Chauvinist Pig some feminists accused him of being, we might expect to find that his male students followed suit while the female students rebelled against him. But it is primarily the work by the women that raises the issue of sexuality, and it does so in a way that is proactive, not reactive. From the explicit sex in Brooks’s own miniature tableaux to the veiled female nudity in Judy Coleman’s work and the still more oblique eroticism in that by Jo Ann Callis, Heinecken’s female students seem to have been encouraged by his teaching rather than degraded by his art. Thus their work might stand as a rebuttal to his feminist critics.”

Related: New York’s Friedrich Petzel Gallery featured this Heinecken show last November. Salon and Imprint ran an excellent Michael Dooley interview with the exhibition’s curators.

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  1. […] (In a related story, I might as well have just asked Westerbeck to do MAN this week: This is the second time I’ve excerpted him here.) When [photographer Wynn] Bullock proved unresponsive to the new […]

  2. […] on view now. One of the best shows of Pacific Standard Time featured Heinecken and Wallace Berman. The catalogue was super. « The Modern Art Notes Podcast: Shirin Neshat Blog Home Uncategorized Pin It […]

  3. […] Time exhibition for the Armory Center for the Arts. I published two posts on that exhibition: Here and here. « Tuesday links Blog Home Uncategorized Pin It Tweet […]

  4. […] at the Hammer Museum, a 2007 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and this Heinecken exhibition during Pacific Standard Time was one of the biggest critical hits of 2011. And as a teacher, […]

  5. […] today. Given yesterday’s post about Robert Heinecken, it seems a good time to refer folks to this post about the terrific Robert Heinecken-Wallace Berman exhibition that was at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts as a part of the Getty’s Pacific […]

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