Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken, 1961-1976

Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken, 1961-1976 brings two seminal yet under-studied Los Angeles artists into close conversation with one another for the first time. The archive of Robert Heinecken resides at the Center for Creative Photography and this is the first major exhibition of his work to be shown at the Center. Organized by the curatorial team of Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon, with supporting research by Carolyn Peter, this exhibition examines how these two artists bridged modernist and emerging post-modernist trends by ushering in the use of photography as a key element of contemporary avant-garde art. Focusing on language and the creation of new visual codes, as well as on the little-known friendship between Berman and Heinecken, their works are explored within the unique cultural milieu of 1960s and 1970s Southern California, as it fueled and amplified each artist’s highly original approach to making images.

The exhibition comes to the Center for Creative Photography after opening at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California, as part of the celebrated ‘Pacific Standard Time’, an unprecedented collaboration of 70 museums and galleries tracing different histories of Southern Californian art between 1945 and 1980. This is the last chance to see the artists exhibited together.

Through an interdisciplinary display of original art works and ephemera, the exhibition captures the spirit of irreverence and innovation that permeated this important era in Southern California art. Notes curator Claudia Bohn-Spector: “Our exhibition hopes to show that Berman and Heinecken were transitional figures, who took as their point of departure the art of the historical avant-garde and updated its subjects, techniques, and irreverent stance for contemporary use. Their friendship adds a new chapter to the story of how post-modernism arrived in Southern California.”

Throughout his career, Robert Heinecken (1931-2006) amused, educated, and often shocked viewers with his pointed, irreverent photographic works. So provocative were Heinecken’s subjects—the Vietnam War, pornography, sexual politics, the media marketplace—that many critics and other observers rank either as avid fans or staunch detractors.

Heinecken was born in Denver, Colorado. In 1942 the family moved to Southern California. Following a stint in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot, Heinecken earned his MA from UCLA. He stayed on in the Department of Art, founding the department of photography in 1962.

When Heinecken emerged in the Southern California art scene in the mid-1960s, he was one of a growing number of artists who had begun to incorporate photographs and other images into their art as a way to renegotiate the nature and meaning of contemporary art. It has always been difficult to call him a “photographer” in the strict sense of the word, because he rarely used a camera to make his pictures. Rather, Heinecken worked on the fringes of the photographic medium, and in the margins of what might be considered acceptable subject matter, as an artist who used photography only as a means to an artistic end.

Wallace Berman (1926-1976) was born in Staten Island, New York and came to Los Angeles with his parents when he was four years old. In 1955 he founded the small but influential mail art publication Semina – a brilliant, loose-leaf compilation of the most advanced artists and poets of his time, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jess (Collins) to name a few. Today, Berman is best known for his Verifax collages, softly sepia-colored works created with a forerunner of the photocopy machine. Influenced by surrealism, assemblage, and contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Andy Warhol, Berman produced multi-layered works that combined the picture of a hand-held transistor radio with images culled from newspapers and popular magazines.

Works in the exhibition will include some of Berman’s earliest experiments in composite imagery, such as his individual Verifax collages of hands holding a transistor radio with inlaid photographs, and his explorations of the interstices between image and text. It also shows Heinecken’s Are You Rea portfolio, his early projection pieces and collages of pin-ups, which articulated his desire to excavate cultural meaning through multi-layered imagery. In addition examples of Berman’s mail art and Semina publication will be exhibited, as well as Heinecken’s magazine interventions and photo sculptures, Le Voyeur/Robbe-Grillet and Cliché Vary series, among others.

Release date: 
Friday, March 2, 2012