Are You Rea 1969 is a set of twenty-five lithograph prints made in 1968 by the American photographic artist Robert Heinecken in an edition of 500, of which Tate’s copy is number 417 (Tate L03612–L03636). They were made from the original gelatin silver print photographs taken the same year. Featuring dense layers of text and images of women, the Are You Rea lithographs are an example of Heinecken’s experiments with replication of photographs made using the contact printing technique with which he experimented throughout his career. He would place a page from a magazine directly on top of photographic paper and then shine a light through the page to expose the images on both its recto and verso directly onto the photographic paper. In this case, the use of silver gelatin photographic paper results in black and white images; in later works, such as Recto/Verso 1988 (Tate L03600–L03611), Cibachrome paper was used to give colour images. Pronounced ‘Are You Ray’, the set was made as a tribute to the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray (1890–1976) – who pioneered the use of photogram and camera-less photographic techniques – and is one of Heinecken’s earliest experiments with contact printing. Considered as the artist’s breakthrough work, the original silver gelatin print portfolio is held by the artist’s estate.
Heinecken began his artistic career in Los Angeles in the 1960s at a time when, against a backdrop of social and political unrest, conceptualism and pop art were transforming the landscape of artistic production. He has since come to be regarded as one of the most important conceptual artists working with photography at this time, though he almost never used a camera and did not consider himself a photographer in the traditional sense. Instead he preferred the terms ‘para-photographer’ or ‘photographist’ to describe a technique that involved extensive use of images culled from pop culture together with darkroom experimentation in order to create works that explored the infiltration of manufacture and consumerism of modern life in a bold, irreverent, and often controversial way. Influenced by the collage of dada and surrealism and working within the context of California’s radical conceptual avant-garde of the time, Heinecken developed a photographic practice dominated by provocative and overtly sexualized mass-media imagery, and the use of seriality and repetition.
Though his subject matter was profoundly modern, Heinecken’s influences were rooted in early twentieth-century European practices, particularly surrealist artists’ use of manipulation, and the politically-motivated photomontage by artists associated with dada. However, according to curator Kevin Moore, Heinecken’s stimulus – in contrast to that of his predecessors – ‘was not to precipitate political change [but to] reveal the conditions of social life’ (Moore 2012, p.187). The works in Recto/Verso exemplify this, illustrating how Heinecken lifted images intended to promote a cultural ideal and brought them together in a deliberately jarring manner, thereby exposing an unappealing side of American consumer culture.
In 1974, in an example of the statements on his practice that he produced from early on his career, Heineken described this approach follows:
I am interested in what I term gestalts – picture circumstances that bring together disparate images or ideas so as to form new meanings and new configurations. This often involves the integration of words and typographic elements. In this vein, it is the incongruous, the ironic, and the satirical that interest me, particularly in socio/political or sexual/erotic contexts. I sometimes visualize myself as a bizarre guerrilla, investing in a kind of humorous warfare in which a series of minimal, direct, invented acts result in a maximum extrinsic effect, but without consistent rationale.
(Robert Heinecken, ‘I Am Involved in Learning to Perceive and Use Light’ 1974, cited in Moore 2012, p.7.)
In the introduction to the catalogue ‘A Fine Experiment: A Tribute to Robert Heinecken’, published to accompany the exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles in 2006, contemporary artist and curator of the exhibition James Welling described what he saw as the historical importance of Heinecken’s experimental work: ‘Anticipating the work of image appropriates Martha Rosler, Richard Prince, Silvia Kolbowski, and others, Heinecken (along with his peers, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol) ushered postmodernism in with a bang. That photography is now on an equal footing with painting and sculpture, video and performance art is, in no small part, due to Heinecken’s groundbreaking work.’ (James Welling, ‘A Fine Experiment: A Tribute to Robert Heinecken’, introduction to exhibition catalogue, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles 2006, http://jameswelling.net/assets/uploaded/pdf/heinecken_hammer_sm.pdf, accessed March 2014.)
Kevin Moore, Robert Heinecken: Copy Work, London 2012.
Robert Heinecken, Robert Heinecken: Object Matter, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2014
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