ROBERT HEINECKEN (POLAROID PROJECT III)

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These texts are taken from the Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletter & Journal of Critical Opinion vol. 1, no. 3 (December 1983); which was an informal “newsletter” that Susie and I wrote to send to the “collaborators” during the course of this project (See the Robert Frank post for more information.)

Heinecken at the Museum School
Robert flew into Boston on November 16th to give a lecture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He had arranged to spend the 17th and 18th with John Reuter and the 20″X24″ Polaroid camera – now housed at the School – to complete or at least continue a project that he began when the camera was temporarily set up at the Center for Photographic Arts in San Diego last fall. Susie and I attended the lecture and then Robert spent the evening at our place. We talked about the Project and showed him the slides that we’d made of Frank’s work, John’s work, and Dave’s new series. We arranged to spend the 17th observing Robert at work as a preliminary to the larger event this summer. The next morning Robert and I arrived at the Museum School around 10:00 and we soon found John Reuter and the studio. Susie joined us a little later.
Heinecken hoped to complete three projects during the two day session. First he wanted to create a suite of eight to ten prints that I call the “Tuxedo Series”. Then he wanted to make a series of composit portraits of television newscasters. (Susie describes this effort more fully in her “Letter to Eelco”.) Finally, he wanted to create some “food photograms” after the manner of those that he made in the early 1970’s.
Robert never got to the food photograms during that two day session; but one of my fondest memories of the day was watching the delicate negotiations that Robert undertook with the faintly incredulous food vendor at the school for the delivery of a dozen or so additional sandwiches for the next day. Careful consideration was given by both parties to the available menu: “ham and cheese on white”, “pastrami on dark or light rye, hold the pickle…”and so forth. The vendor was dubious but blasé to the bizarre requests of his art school clientele. Robert seemed earnest but abstracted, as if he could not quite previsualize the effects of mustard on the subsequent photogram. This gentle imbroglio of art and commerce held, for me, both risible and metaphoric overtones.
The “Tuxedo Series” is a group of portraits of models dressed in variations of the traditional male formal tuxedo ranging from a high-fashion evening outfit to bikini underpants. As in previous work, Robert has drawn his images from a wide variety of mail-order clothing and underwear catalogues – where the reproductions are usually published about 2″X3″ in size. He then paints out distracting lettering or backgrounds or enhances small details such as more clearly defining the edges of bowties, etc. These pages were then brought to the 20″X24″; which is being used in this case as a large copy camera. The force of the idea in this piece resides in the original selection of the images and the idea of representing them in this very large format. So there is little manipulation of the imagery necessary or available in the process of this work other than the slight adjustments of camera position to bring the images to the same scale and slight adjustments of exposure to alter the color balance of the Polaroid prints.
So, in this instance, the completion of this project simply requires care and patience. The process reminded me of the British Household Guard’s formal marching step: step – pause – drag – step – pause – drag – step -, and so on. The tension of force against restraint was constant throughout the day and, for me, wearing on the nerves.
I was impressed by the careful, courteous and patient manner in which Robert developed the working day in partnership with John Reuter. They had already spent two days working together with the 20″X24″ in California and Heinecken had come away with a sense of respect for Reuter’s skill at handling the machinery of the camera and his ability to help realize and further an idea. On this day the partnership was again successful and the day proceeded with a smooth efficiency that was pleasant to see. In attempting to present the feel of this day’s efforts I want to choose adjectives that convey a sense of purpose and order and even of the mundane for the day was dominated by the qualities of hard work, balance and efficiency. There were a series of muted emotional surges as each print was pulled from the camera and added to the suite and as one saw the gradual completion of the effort extend across the wall of the studio. But these excitements were constrained and restricted to the greater need to complete the project in good time. Any sense of a roiling, driving creative energy was contained and structured to the needs of this project and it’s machinery. This energy surfaced only in small but significant fragments. As far as I could tell Robert ate nothing during the entire day; even when everyone else would drop out briefly for a sandwich. Instead, he fueled himself with countless cups of coffee. Even more interesting, on this day Robert, a chain smoker, almost stopped smoking during long stretches of the day.
However, I felt the entire day crystallized during a brief period after the first print was pulled from the camera and placed on the viewing easel. Robert settled into a fierce concentrated regard of that first print. Thirty seconds, a minute went by as he looked at the print. That tense angle of his head never appeared during the remainder of the day. Finally, after this long appraisal, satisfied that the idea might work, Robert turned away and began the long day’s labor.
As Susie and I had to leave for Arizona the next day, we did not follow that day’s events or see all of the finished work. However we felt that the day that we spent there was a valuable experience.
* * *Addendum* * *
Robert returned to Boston again at the end of December and he and John met on the 29th to complete the projected suite of composit portraits of TV newscasters and to try again to make some food photograms, They had run into a series of technical and administrative difficulties with the school’s TV monitor on the 18th and run out of time before they could complete all that they had hoped to. Susie and I again spent the day observing these efforts. We picked up Robert and Carl’s television set and met John at the Museum School at 9:00 A.M. The School was closed for the winter vacation and, except for an occasional distant, figure in the hallway; we had the building to ourselves.
On this day the pace was different – quicker and more resolved than before. The morning was given over to finishing the composit portraits. By now Robert, knew exactly which split-second of each portion of the video tape that he wanted to use; the routine was perfected, the equipment functioned with few problems and Robert and John smoothly finished the desired number of prints. In this case, a group of three individual portraits of blonde female newscasters and a composit of the three superimposed together. I was struck again at Robert’s perceptiveness as I watched him speed up and slow down the videotapes to get to the exact image he wanted. He just seems to see faster than the rest of us. At normal speed the tape shows a segment   of an attractive woman reading some news bulletin; slowed down, suddenly every nuance and moue of facial expression is apparent. These ladies are definitely selling – at a level just slightly below our conscious perceptions (and to be fair to them, probably slightly below their own).But it is really there. Since there is a certain element of chance in the overlapping process, made three composit portraits before they achieved one that Robert felt would work. This all took until about 11:30. Then they turned to the new project.
Robert decided that the food photograms should consist of a series of two “meals” presented side by side on each 20″X24″ print. One half of the image would consist of the documentary trace, (Or the shadow or whatever it is that a photogram is.) of a meal available at the cafeteria located in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts across the street)and one half of the image would have the documentary record of the food available from the vendor at the Museum School, Thus each image would contain a typical lunch available to the artist side by side with the lunch available to the art patron.
At this point some background helps… The Museum School, as do most artist’s schools, has a small group of crotchety vending machines in the basement which dispense coffee, soft drinks or candy. In addition, during the school sessions, a food vendor, (The sort that drives those silver-paneled trucks up to construction sites.) brings in a selection of sandwiches, snacks, and drinks and sets up in a room in the school each day for lunch. The arrangement is actually rather luxurious by my own experience with art school food facilities, but naturally the selection is limited. On the other hand, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has recently added a multimillion dollar wing to it’s building and a significant portion of that space is given over to an elegant(and very good) restaurant, a slightly less formal coffee and desert area, and a basement cafeteria that serves hot lunches, wine, and so on. This arrangement seems to provide an additional measure of pleasure to the museum’s visitors and apparently a good source of income for the museum.
So, to implement Robert’s idea we all went over to the Museum where Robert selected a lunch from the menu – linguini, green peas and rice, a quiche, the salad bar and a selection from the dessert cart of a whipped cream and chocolate roll, a moca-almond cake, and a glacé fruit tart. Then we were able to convince the staff to saran-wrap the lot and, under the watchful eyes of the museum guards, we ferried the lot out of the Museum, across the street and into the Museum School. (Where Robert became positively dictatorial about nibbles and snacks.) Then Robert was fortunate, (Because of the intersession.) to just catch the Museum School’s food vendor. He acquired a typical, if diminished, selection of sandwiches, peanuts, chips, and a lethal looking jelly donut.
Then we had lunch. (From, I must report, the vendor’s selections. And Robert was again, in my opinion, pretty hard-nosed about the Fritos). After lunch we moved ourselves, the food, and the Polaroid camera (which stands, when folded closed, about seven feet tall, four feet wide and three feet deep on its wire and metal wheels) down four floors into the basement darkroom. Unanticipated problems that one runs into in this sort of project include things like standing in a freight elevator that refuses to run in a deserted building until a certain amount of desperate banging somehow activates the circuit.
The darkroom – following a logic common to all art schools – is reached by going through the ceramics studio’s storeroom which is piled high with 100 pound bags of dirt that are destined to be mixed into potter’s clay. The camera was placed with its back to the open darkroom door amid these piles of bags;   the food was perched precariously on a small table-saw (the only available horizontal surface) and while John began looking for the enlarger’s lens and flipping switches to see what turned what on, Robert began to unwrap the food and to arrange it on the plexiglass sheets he had brought; along.
The photograms are created by removing the roll of negative material (a thin, tough plastic-based material about 22″ wide) from the camera, then placing this film (still rolled, of course) under the enlarger.    By now, Robert has arranged the food on the plexiglass, and brought it into the darkroom. The lights are turned out, John unrolls the film across the baseboard of the enlarger, Robert by feel places the tray of food onto the negative material, and the enlarger is turned on. After the exposure, Robert removes the tray of food and John rerolls the film. Then John replaces the film into the camera in the next room, and processes it in the conventional manner.
After a few trials to determine the proper exposure and to determine the final arrangement of the food on the plexi (which Robert accomplishes with deft jabs of a plastic fork, or too impatient for that, with his fingers) the final version of the image is achieved.   Once again Robert and John work together easily to produce an “edition” of prints. This time the run was three sets of three prints each. It is not the least accomplishment of the day –given the dark and crowded conditions– that Robert did not once drop the plexi or even spill any food.
Two more observations, and a final statement:
…the tiny, almost imperceptible but violent tremor in Robert’s hands as he began to distribute the food on the plexiglass… that disappeared as Robert found the composition and pushed the materials into the right order…
…Robert would swing back and forth between the darkroom and the adjoining storeroom, honoring the restriction on smoking:   a cigarette constantly burning in the storeroom, stubbed out against the concrete block as he reentered the darkroom, alight again on the return.
The final statement is a confession:   I seriously underestimated the day’s project.   When Robert described what he intended to do I felt that it was an amusing and not terribly serious extension of his already established body of commentary on the nature of human appetites and the curious ways they are played out within the social order. I underestimated the sheer beauty that infuses so much of Robert’s work which for me extends it beyond the realm of so much of what many others working with the same subjects manage to produce.   These food photograms are simply lovely. The Polaroid paper base is a clear white that provides a luminescent space for the crystalline colors that float on its face like shards from a mosaic. In a way that I still don’t understand, the shadow (or is it the substance?) of the food that is photogrammed is the same color as the original food: beets are maroon, lettuce is pale green, Fritos are yellow.   The shapes of the images distinctly allude to the original food (one recognizes a tomato, a bun, even the grim outline of that deadly jelly cruller) but the colors are clear and modulated with an almost ethereal quality. The almost programmatic arrangement of the subject, presented flat across the plane of the image, called up for me comparisons with medieval herbals, and even more strongly, the “quick brush” techniques of Japanese watercolors and ink drawings.    The Fritos retained their identity as crisp, curly shapes and yet they irresistibly infer Japanese calligraphy, with all the grace, power and energy of that wonderful alphabet.   The linguini, floating on its lucent ground, swirled into configurations that must be what linguini dreams of becoming in its afterlife.
So, once again, in that dingy, underground cave, surrounded by bags of cl piled to the ceiling, I was forcefully reminded of the transformative quality of good art — which is, I guess, what its all about anyway.
The end of the day was hurried. Rushing because we were late, cleaning up, wrestling the camera into that cranky elevator and back into the studio, wrapping up the prints, negotiating the extremely complex exit from the closed building with the janitor, saying goodbye to John, and later to Robert, and then home for us to an exhausted sleep.

Letter to Eelco
Dear Eelco,
Bill and I have known Robert Heinecken for several years, in a variety of circumstances ranging from the lecture hall to the poker table, but we have never had the opportunity to see him work. Even in the several lengthy interviews we’ve had with him in his house in Los Angeles, and last winter in Chicago, the studio was an area that we sat in, looking at work in progress perhaps, but not penetrating its active spirit. So watching Heinecken work on the 20 x 24 camera at the Museum School was a new insight. I know him too well to have expected a performance á la beret and smock, but having pierced what I had imagined as a private realm, a reserve for intense preoccupation, I saw Heinecken address his task with business-like determination and orderly procedure.
No interaction with Heinecken is ordinary. The beat of the drummer to which he marches is not only different, but double-time. Seeing him in the roles of teacher, conversationalist, curator, I have watched, and distinctly felt, his decisive pace of judgment/act/judgement/act. But on this occasion of his responding to materials and equipment as well as to people; of making judgement calls about color, form and texture as well as subject, there were extra beats: syncopations, Chaplin-like pauses. I don’t imply the comic or frenetic by this reference to silent film. Rather, Heinecken demonstrated the temporal distinction between human act and machine act in a way that reinvested the human with reality in a culture, and in a specific situation, that proposes, supposes the machine to be the more dominant. And here is the crux: Heinecken has a special relationship with the; machines he uses.
Let me describe the scene for you. Heinecken’s project was to produce a picture of an “ideal, non-white, female TV newscaster.” He had previously taped and edited about 30 separate spots of oriental, Hispanic and black women delivering the news. The “ideal” would result from the superimposition of the features of three close-ups, each paused on the TV monitor, multiply-exposed within the 20 x 24 camera.
Simple in conception, the idea follows from Heinecken’s Magazines of the 60s and 70s, which proposed that sequential images superimpose (and interact) in the mind. In those pieces, the superimposition was still imaginary, however much assisted by Heinecken’s rearrangement of pictures. To achieve an actual fusion of images (sort of Are You Rea with control) required a lot more “business.”
A TV monitor, turned 90° so that its screen was in proportion to the vertical 20 x 24 ground glass, was positioned facing the big camera apparatus. For each exposure, the two larger than human structures of angular glass, metal and wood were slowly raised and lowered, cranked forward and away from each other until the monitor’s image was correctly aligned on the ground glass. In the darkened room, it looked and felt like a machine cabala, a conspiracy of electrical and light sensitive pulses whose intentions were served by docile, fidgety human servants. Like Erich Solomon’s heads of state in conference, the cubicles were aloof, imposing, but here: adjusting their postures with grave electronic diplomacy.
As potentially frightening as this scenario can be (and as easily turned to farce) it is a cliche, as insufficient an engagement with technology as the film War Games. Like the movie, my description too readily gives power to anthropomorphized, intentioned machines, and too easily heroicizes the eccentric who can harness them. The loss of individual and human identity to technology is obviously an expressed fear, but seems to me no more and no less than an update of the tension of the “social contract”: the extent to which the individual gives over his selfhood to society.
But since Heinecken’s art had dealt consistently with the social contract (society expressed as its media images; the individual as the responsive viewer) it is in this instance only the newness, grandeur and complexity of the tools, and the size of the picture, that leads me to tilt the power toward the machine. In truth, Heinecken is not intimidated by machines. Neither has he chosen, as some artists of the past two decades have, to bypass the machine in favor of the “natural” processes and materials (the photographer’s version of clay and fiber being the lensless camera, hand-sensitized paper, sun-developed prints). For Heinecken, advanced reproductive technologies are challenging jousting partners.
Heinecken’s willingness to engage the newest machines insures that consistent themes in his work (such as the “intercourse” between sexuality and persuasion) are always current. And, of course, bending the manufacturer’s specifications to extend the codes and purposes of materials is another of his aesthetic products. But watching him work that day, I realized that however successful (or not) his product might be, the engagement itself was a necessary, vitalizing experience for him.
A brief digression: Heinecken used to be a Marine Corps fighter pilot, and an instructor of pilots. He has come close to death on several occasions, due sometimes to machine failure, sometimes to human frailty. The anecdotes he lives to tell have this in common: in each brush with death Heinecken had to decide very quickly how much of the failing Other could be used to save his life. These are instances when abandoning the Other was also certain death. Self-reliance, yes; but also a necessary and thrilling interdependence.
Physical and emotional survival of intimacy with death requires (or perhaps endows) a strength of personal identity. As in the best of sexual intimacies, the individual aware of his/her own capabilities and boundaries can permit of the greatest contact without the threat of being dependent or overwhelmed. Heinecken knows who he is, and where he ends; he knows where the machine begins, but not always what it can do. But the distinction between himself and it allows him to accept the machine’s potential, and to push for it. He can claim the success as his own, the result of his initiation; but the machine’s failure is not his failure.
In a society as complex as ours, the privileged among us (the adequately fed and educated) get to pick the arena in which we negotiate our social contract. Artists, who in myth flaunt and ignore social conventions, are in fact among the ablest of the “loyal opposition,” returning to the society the evidence of their sessions at the bargaining table. Heinecken’s arena is the technology threat to identity. But unlike the cliche which offers only an either/or, Heinecken’s art re-assures us all about a doubt expressed by E.B White:
   We have tended to assume that the machine and the human are in conflict.
   Now the fear is that they are indistinguishable.
Heinecken suggests that neither has to be true. Both conflict and oblivion can be avoided by acknowledging the machine image as the product of interdependence.
P.S. December 29. Food and Appetites.
Throughout the afternoon of watching Heinecken make photograms of food, I was compelled to over-serious metaphor and nervous laughter. I wanted to transform these very literal pictures of food stuffs into something more “meaningful” than bread, beets and salami. The flowing linguini, for instance, I compared to the sinuous tresses of Alphonse Mucha’s Job Cigarette Girl. I described Robert’s pushing the linguini around on the plexiglass as heavy impasta, pun intended. Bill’s references include allusion to medieval herbals, to ideograms.
Part of the compulsion had to do with the “observing” itself, which is an awkward business. Bill and I were neither part of the ongoing conception or procedure (though we tried to be useful) nor were we a good audience (though we could make suggestions without offending either Robert or John). The space was small and the time was limited. We were in no way indispensible, but we’d been invited, and our presence was not in dispute. Still, our role was undefined and perhaps the need to speak, to comment, was a justification for being there.
But there is more to this, and best said straight: I was more embarrassed by the handling and picturing of food than I have ever been by the most explicit of Robert’s personal/sexual images. Given the structure provided by sex books and sexy movies, even observing the making of Robert’ images of sexual contact (from life) would have been easier than this hands-on maneuvering of lettuce, jelly and cheese.
I don’t know why this is, and I’m nervous about saying it here in case I’m making a too personal confession. But I think its harder to tell an adult he has spinach between his teeth than that his fly is unzipped.
And parents are easier at explaining a child’s sexual preoccupations than they are  with that same child’s inability to keep his fingers out of the mashed potatoes.
I can only guess that the “sexual revolution” has been won, (Or at least its battlegrounds defined and coded.) but that the equally basic drive to satisfy the appetite is still bound in intellectual, dissimulating metaphor. Robert’s food-o-grams simultaneously call up the taboos with each exposure, and disarm them with each delicately colored composition.
Susie.

 

Comments

  1. Do you know if anyone else is still using the giant Polaroid camera besides Elsa Dorfman?

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