As both of the guests on last week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast predicted, another Robert Heinecken exhibition has brought new charges that Heinecken was a misogynist, an anti-feminist, and so on. I’m no Heinecken expert, but Respini and Tucker are. They both scoffed at the calcifying stereotype of Heinecken as cro-magnon.
However, Respini suggested that she thinks Heinecken meanders libindously in one particular group of work, namely a series of early 1970s photographic emulsion works on canvas. Here’s how Respini describes that body of work in her catalogue essay (which you may read for free, in its entirety, here):
In the early 1970s Heinecken began using photographic emulsion on canvas, also known as photo-linen, to produce hybrid photographic paintings, including the Figure Horizon works [three of which are in the MoMA exhibition]. For these, Heinecken reprised the cut-and-reassemble techniques from his puzzles and photo-sculptures, sequencing images of sections of the nude female body (culled from The Latent Image negatives) like a filmstrip, to create impossible, undulating landscapes. [The Latent Image was a mail-order business that sold unprocessed rolls of film of pin-ups and soft-core porn that could be developed in your home, thus circumventing laws that banned the shipping of sexually explicit pictures over state lines.]
I understand why critics look at the totality of Heinecken’s oeuvre and reflexively pronounce him to be a misogynist anti-feminist. There are a lot of female nudes there, many of them built from images at which the art world likes to scoff because they’re mostly derived from the lesser sphere of visual culture. One of Heinecken’s strengths was finding ways to use the overwhelming volume of images that Americans made and loved to say something about America. So to really think about Heinecken and his accomplishment, I think it’s useful to do a deep-dive into individual works. Here goes.
One of the photo-emulsion works to which Respini referred — the best of the bunch, I think — is at the top of the post. It’s Heinecken’s Space/Time Metamorphosis No.1 (1975), and it’s in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. (It is not one of the photo-emulsion works that comes from a Latent Image picture, and it’s not in the MoMA retrospective.) I think Space/Time was Heinecken’s attempt to create A Great American Nude, a pointedly American — and especially a Californian — address of a European tradition. As Respini and Tucker pointed out on The MAN Podcast, Heinecken wasn’t just a consumer of contemporary media, he was an acute student of art history. Here’s how I read Space/Time Metamorphosis No. 1 (and how I suspect Heinecken thought it through).
A s we all know, the reclining nude in a landscape is a European tradition that goes back at least to Giorgione.
Giorgione (landscape and sky finished by Titian), Sleeping Venus, 1510. Collection of the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.
That is one mighty suggestive left hand. I wasn’t around in the 16th century, but it sure seems to me like that left hand is more shocking in the context of its time than anything in this Heinecken is in the context of the late 20th century. (In a related story: In an interview with Arthur Ou on Aperture’s website, Respini referred to the way once outre images become tamer over time.)
Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians, 1523-26. Collection of the Prado, Madrid.
Inspired, and no doubt motivated, by Giorgione’s painting, Titian created a number of classical-referencing Venuses. The Andrians doesn’t just feature a reclining nude, itself one of the most remarkable figures in all art, it features a swirl of movement behind that figure. The sense is of a party in motion, many moments caught in a single frame. Titian achieves that sense of movement and celebration from how he constructed the painting. Titian built The Andrians with a complicated set of overlapping diagonals, diagonals that pull us into the scene and hold us there. There isn’t a single horizontal line or line-of-sight in the entire painting. (Not one!)
Just as The Andrians is built on diagonals, so too is Heinecken’s Space/Time. It even includes one diagonal that seems particularly cribbed from The Andrians: The diagonal at the top of the image that serves to gently contain the action. In the Titian, that top diagonal runs from the satyr in the upper-right of the canvas down to the jug-carrier on the left edge of the painting. In Space/Time it runs along the model’s outstretched arms. And just as Titian built his composition without any horizontals, so too did Heinecken.
That’s not to suggest Heinecken is hewing only to 16th-century Venice. Take Heinecken’s presentation of his model’s gaze. In the Giorgione and in the Titan, the nude’s eyes are closed or are otherwise avoiding the viewer. In the Heinecken, the nude is looking right back out at us, and with fierceness. There’s plenty of art historical precedent for that, including in Titian, in Goya, and in Manet.
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538. Collection of the Uffizi, Florence.
Francisco de Goya, The Nude Maja, ca. 1797-1800. Collection of the Prado, Madrid.
Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863. Collection of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
The tradition of the European nude continued into the twentieth century, most notably with Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and Bonnard. I suspect there are references to Matisse and Picasso in Space/Time.
Pablo Picasso, Three Women, 1907. Collection of The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
Consider the under-known Three Women, Picasso’s updating of a classical standard: the three graces picture. The Heinecken features three primary figures (and hides a fourth, a woman in the lower left-hand corner who reclines with her hand behind her head, a thoroughly classical pose). Like the Picasso, Space/Time features one woman three times.
The more direct crib from Picasso comes in the left foreground, where both artists bend the rules of physics: In Three Women, Picasso includes what seems to be the fold of a curtain or some rocks in a way that either breaks up or joins two of his three women. In that section a woman’s body seems to occupy the same space as does the drapery or the rock. Heinecken does the same thing, in almost the exact same part of the canvas. (And remember: Heinecken is using his language, photography, to address a standard of painting, the nude, on painting’s surface, canvas.)
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), 1907. Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Then there’s Matisse. One of the revolutionary things about Matisse’s great Blue Nude is the pentimenti, not just that they’re there, but that they’re fundamental to the painting (and that they pictorially tie the painting to the sculpture on which it was based). The pentimenti in Blue Nude is almost exaggerated: Matisse hasn’t just left pentimenti in place, he’s practically used a highlighter to direct our gaze to the nude’s ‘left breast, her right upper-arm and to her left lower-leg.
There is no pentimenti in Heinecken’s picture — at least not exactly. Heinecken may be pointedly working on canvas, but he’s not using oils. So he uses his chosen medium to do what Matisse did with his, to create ghost-like, pentimenti-referring presences below and to the left of his ‘primary’ nude.
That’s a lot of references to a lot of nudes. But Heinecken isn’t done. If his project with this piece (and with plenty of others) was to Americanize the European nude, the next question is how to do that? Answer: To ground the nude within the greatest subject of American art, both painting and photography: landscape.
Carleton Watkins, First View of the Valley, ca. 1866. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Carleton Watkins, View from the Sentinel Dome, 1865-66. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Ansel Adams, Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1944. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Heinecken was a Californian through and through. He was raised in Riverside, earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of California, Los Angeles and later established the photography program there. Heinecken knew California. He knew that California’s trademark feature was her mountains and that her trademark mountain topography was the Yosemite Valley. The Valley is glacier-carved granite, a super-hard rock from which much of the Sierra is formed. Granite has a particular look, especially in the bright sunlight when it bounces back so much light that to be in a Sierra granitescape can feel like being next to the sea. That’s why Californian John Muir called the Sierra the “Range of Light.”
Heinecken also knew California’s art history. And in that art history granite, the Sierra, and Yosemite are all front-and-center. The first great landscapes made in California were made in Yosemite by Carleton Watkins in 1861. For the rest of his career Watkins would return to the Sierra to photograph granite and the pictorial effects that could be coaxed from its remarkable surfaces and the light it reflected. Ansel Adams, a huge Watkins fan, also photographed lots and lots of granite, and not just in Yosemite. Virtually every prominent artist in the West has made work of and about Yosemite, including William Henry Jackson, Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Hill, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Anne Brigman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Chiura Obata, David Hockney, and Wayne Thiebaud (more on him in a minute).
So Heinecken posed his Great American Nude in the only landscape that a Californian possibly could: In Yosemite, on granite.
Oh, and about that nude. For what may have been his greatest American nude, Heinecken chose a model who was at hand, as it were. Her name is Twinka Thiebaud. In 1975, when Heinecken made Space/Time, he and Thiebaud were an item. (This relationship would eventually lead to the end of Heinecken’s relationship with his wife, Janet.) Thiebaud possessed the necessary physical gifts to be a Great American Nude, but Heinecken must also have realized she fit in other ways too: Twinka is the daughter of Wayne, and thus was a member of one of American and Californian art’s royal families.
Wayne Thiebaud, Supine Woman, 1963. Collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark.
Wayne occasionally painted his daughter, such as here, when she was 18. Twinka posed for other artists too, including for Mary Ellen Mark and Ralph Gibson. In 1974 she was one of two models in a famous Judy Dater photograph titled Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite. The other model was indeed that Imogen, Cunningham (herself a Westerner who worked for Edward Curtis and later with Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange). Dater’s picture — which, the next year, would become famous as the first picture of frontally nude woman in Life magazine — was a send-up of the relationship between artist and model, American prudery, American art’s preference for landscape over the nude (Cunningham looks utterly perplexed by the nude she has discovered) and the related question of which is the greater beauty.
Judy Dater, Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite, 1974. Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Heinecken appreciated the landscape’s role in American art, but he preferred the European subject. I suspect he had a particularly good chuckle at Dater’s picture and that he wanted to top it. As luck would have it, just about when that issue of Life magazine came out, Heinecken and Thiebaud were in Yosemite for a nude photography seminar that Heinecken had organized. (A photograph of the happy couple at Yosemite is on page 164 of Respini’s Heinecken catalogue.) This may have been when Heinecken thought of how to one-up Dater as it were, to speed past Puckish and to make a more serious Great American Nude.
And so he did. The resulting picture is one of Heinecken’s masterpieces, a thoroughly arresting picture of the requisite beautiful woman with the much-admired body of the time presented in ways that reference half a millennium of art history.
I understand why Heinecken’s oeuvre is critically sideswiped as reflexively misogynistic. Like every artist, some of his pictures are better and more thoughtful than others. But when I lock in on individual Heineckens, I find an abundance of intelligence and intent.