Lunchtime Art Talk Recap: Robert Heinecken's Iconographic Art Lunches #3

August 25, 2014
– By January Parkos Arnall, curatorial assistant, public engagement

Circles glowing with orange and brown tones, light and dark playing across their surface like hills and hollows on the face of a celestial body, sharp yellow curves with ragged edges resembling some foreign calligraphy, small dots of iridescent green, points and pocks on the bright white surface, and flowing organic yellow lines twisting their way almost touching but not quite bridging the gap between the two distinct compositions differing in shape and color.

Light versus dark; smooth versus rough; appetizing versus unappealing; expensive versus cheap:

Salami and Cheese Sandwich with Fritos and Oatmeal Cookies


Fettucini Primavera with Chocolate Marble Cake

Patron vs. Artist

Iconographic Art Lunches #3

I won’t go too deeply into Robert Heinecken as an artist or his biography, because you will have a chance to review those facts and his greater body of work quite thoroughly starting on October 3 when the Hammer Museum presents an exhibition on Heinecken, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This week, however, we were quite lucky to be able to pull a wonderful large Polaroid work by Heinecken from the Grunwald Center’s archives that will not be included in the exhibition! 

Obviously, Heinecken was not the first artist to use the burgeoning Polaroid technology of the day, but he was using the media in a very different way than his contemporaries. Whereas Heinecken’s partner, Joyce Neimanas, or other Polaroid artists like Lucas Samaras or David Hockney, were expanding the capabilities of the medium, Heinecken was quite fascinated by its status and significance as a consumer-level technology, a “bedroom camera” he called it, and he used the small SX-70 for multiple projects including his He/She series as well as the television newscasters (you’ll get a chance to see these in October!). For Heinecken, the photographic object was not precious, it was not a window into another world (a picture OF something), but it was rather an object ABOUT something and in that way he felt quite free to manipulate photographic images to produce collages and games, he would often include writing with the polaroids and create narrative with the form. One attendee at this week’s art talk recalled having Heinecken as a professor at UCLA, where he taught for many years and actually initiated the photography curriculum, and she told us that she never used a camera the entire time she was in his class yet she remembers it as the best photography class she ever took. 

Campbell’s Soup Can (Won Ton Soup)
Lessons in Posing Subjects/Matching Facial Expressions

As a devoted educator, Heinecken was very involved with SPE (Society for Photographic Education) and through the organization he met art historians Bill Johnson and Susie Cohen who, in 1982, connected him with the Polaroid Corporation. Through this connection, Heinecken was one of the first artists to use the large and unwieldy 20” x 24” large format Polaroid camera only recently created. Standing at 7 ft. by 4 ft. by 3ft, the camera required multiple adults to use, and Johnson fastidiously documented Heinecken’s process, working with John Reuter at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to create the Iconographic Art Lunches:

“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 mocha-almond cake, and a glacé fruit tart… 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.

The camera was placed with its back to the open darkroom door…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.” (

The resulting images, most likely influenced by Heinecken’s interest in artists like Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy Nagy, were not the typical dark negative traces one would expect knowing the photograms of these two artists. Instead, Heinecken’s “documentary traces” consisted of glowing transparencies with accurately transposed colors and forms emerging from the luminescent white surface of the Polaroid paper. For each of these Iconographic Art Lunches, Heinecken created a set of nine prints and I can only imagine that there must have been a pea moving here or there as he placed and re-placed that large piece of plexi, perching it on the small table saw as the artists processed the great sheets of Polaroid. Someday perhaps we will see the works side by side but for now, I must appease myself with the rather vivid image of the challenge Heinecken faced in these circumstances, and the beauty of the politically charged work that he created!