Just What is Appropriation in Art? An Historical Overview

Art provokes thought. It reflects where we are societally, both socio-economically and politically. It’s a means for artists to realize their creative ambitions. For the most part the subjects of artworks are the focus of attention, but when it comes Appropriation Art, the focus shifts to the materials or items chosen for use by the artist.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal”

Steve Jobs and Salvador Dalí

“Appropriation in art is the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them”, as defined by the Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. When put into the context of the visual arts, to appropriate means to borrow, recycle, reuse, adapt, or sample parts of, or entire, forms.

To appropriate is to take possession of something, literally, and that’s why many of the images associated with the technique are filled with very recognizable imagery. Artists who are known for creating appropriation art will use the familiarity of their subjects to grab the viewer’s attention.

Andy Warhol’s Can Campbell’s Soup Can (1962) is a great example of this. Warhol uses his lunch staple of 20 years, Campbell’s Soup, as inspiration, but copied the labels exactly. It was instantly recognizable. In choosing Campbell’s Soup for his subject, Warhol refutes the concept of pure originality.

Andy Warhol - Campbell's Soup II (F. & S. II.54-63) ten color screenprints, 1969.

Andy Warhol – Campbell’s Soup II (F. & S. II.54-63) ten color screenprints, 1969. Sold for $134,500 via Christie’s (Oct 2010).

It is important to note that Appropriation artists would not simply copy and paste ideas and concepts. They would add context and perspective, in turn helping to change the way the subject is perceived or understood.

As is to be expected, the art form isn’t entirely without controversy. After all, many appropriation artists use their work to prompt viewers to reimagine familiar imagery, or beloved pieces. In turn, forcing audiences to question the nature and purpose of art in the modern world. Such art reinforces the need for viewers to stop and think about what they’re seeing. Where might its ownership start and stop? What is originality anyway? Is reworking it in such a way even ethical?

History and Origins of Appropriation in Art

One could speculate that for as long as there has been art, there has been appropriation. Looking back to 1856, when Ingres painted his famous portrait of Madame Moitessier. Her posture had been appropriated from the classic antique Roman artwork, ‘Herakles Finding His Son Telephas’ from the early 2nd century BCE.

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (print).

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (print). Sold for £55 via Lots Road Auctions (Aug 2013).

Artists creating references to their influences is commonplace. Other notable artists who are known to appropriate, creating associations – conscious or unconscious – to other art movements include Delacroix and Millet. Modern masters like Picasso and Braque appropriated objects, like newspapers, to signify themselves in the works.

After that, the practice of appropriation became a more accepted art form. And in 1913, when Duchamp showed his “Fountain” at Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York, the art world changed irrevocably. Duchamp dubbed his appropriative pieces his “readymades.” The term readymades refers to works that reframe of prefabricated, mass-produced objects as works of art.

Although widely reviled in their day, Duchamp’s readymades have become so accepted into the canon of art history that today, any artist can create a readymade artwork. This change in perspective speaks to the acceptance, growth, application and cultural significance given to these works.

Indeed by the late 1930s,  Salvador Dalí had created his history-making Lobster Telephone. When the ’50s arrived, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were extensively appropriating imagery and objects into their work, which also spilled over into Pop Art.

Despite all this history, when you hear the term “Appropriation Art” today, the chances are you may think about a group of American artists from the 1980s. The best known among them are Sherrie Levine and the Neo-Geo Group (which includes Jeff Koons). Levine is known for reproducing classic works of art as her own work. The artists she appropriated include Claude Monet and Kasimir Malevich. Her main goal? To bring new meaning, or sets of meanings, to familiar, existing imagery.

Since the 1908s, Appropriation has been used widely by all types of artists, creators and makers-of-things. Whether it’s in modern street art, contemporary art or even something more avant-garde, the idea of appropriation is part of the modern art zeitgeist, and as Steve Jobs famously said, whilst quoting (appropriating?) Dalí “Good artists copy, Great artists steal.”

The Movements that Made Appropriation Commonplace

When ordinary objects became artworks and the centerpieces of exhibits, artists, galleries and institutions asked a lot of their audiences. After all, for most of history, art had existed to showcase qualities such as the technical skills of draftsmanship, painting and the ability to capture a likeness or a moment. When viewers started seeing everyday objects in art galleries and museums presented as ‘art’ it asked them to question concepts like imitation, originality, “high art”, authorship, and uniqueness.  This ability to make viewers question is what puts it squarely into the “modernist” movement. Modernism, particularly in fine art, rejects traditional representation in art, looking instead to include the philosophical perspective of the artist.

If Modernism can be defined as the endless search for a new means of expression, then it lends itself infinitely to Appropriation. The viewer thinks about what they’re seeing, while ensuring that anything can be seen as art, and that we should never stop questioning what art is and what it does for us. Modernism arose when industrialization and advances in science were propelling western civilization forward, and wars were changing the structure of society. When combined with unrest by artists of the time who felt limited by – and incompatible with – “old fashioned” morality and convention. Society’s eyes were opened to philosophy, new political theories, and psychology, resulting in a boom of new, exciting and unique artworks, movements and methods.

Readymades are, as mentioned, the use of existing objects reframed as artworks and in 2023, it will be 110 years since Marcel Duchamp made the entire world question how it sees art, and why. By submitting his Fountain for exhibition, Duchamp questioned what should constitute art by intentionally creating absurd, exciting, anti-art that was subversive and reimagined what art could be. This single piece established Duchamp as one of the modern greats alongside Picasso and Matisse. His Fountain developed what the world considers to be art in the context of content versus concept. He drove the world to ask the question that has become synonymous with modern and contemporary art… IS it art? 

Pop Art later emerged out of modern, popular culture in the late 1950s and 1960s. It rose from the ashes Dada (1916-22), a movement driven by absurdity and humor, whose proponents (Marcel Duchamp among them) also believed that anything can constitute art. The first time the term “Pop Art” was used was by British art critic, Lawrence Alloway when he described Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? In 1956. Pop Art took modern and recognizable images, introduced them into fine art. This seemingly simple shift dramatically altered the course of art. The “Independent Group” in 1940s London used collages created from magazine images depicting American popular culture to critique British society. America’s post-war economic boom fuelled consumer culture, and Pop Art in turn. Artists on either side of the Atlantic used this boom as inspiration.

Some of Pop Art’s most notable characteristics include:

The appropriation of images from the mass media – This is clearest to see in works of Andy Warhol, and specifically his use of American pop culture’s most recognisable images, ie. images from advertisements or tabloid magazines, and even people including Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. 

Elevating everyday objects – Andy Warhol, again, transformed the humble Campbell’s Soup can into a globally renowned piece of art, when the artists were picking which objects to appropriate, they would prioritize banal, kitsch and ubiquitous

Repetition – Sticking with Warhol’s soup cans, these single images were often turned into all over prints and with very good reason. It was to celebrate and critique the modernisation of mass production and marketing in contemporary culture. 

After the Pop Art movement, appropriation in art became a lot more prevalent. It is argued that artists in the 1980s used the practice more than at any other time. This is where another shift in Appropriation began. Prior to the ’80s the practice of appropriation focused on repurposing everyday objects as art. But’80s, at the hands of artists that include Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, “quoting” know works by established artists became a much more regular part of the appropriation process. This is the concept that artists can reproduce works in their own way, for example Sherrie Levine’s work reframing famous paintings by the likes of Edgar Degas, Gustave CourbetWalker Evans, Eliot Porter and Edward Weston through the medium of photography. A lot of Levine’s work was directly appropriated from notable artists, including those listed above, as well as Marcel Duchamp, and Constantin Brâncuși.

Then the Neo-Geo movement happened. The name is from Neo-Geometric Conceptualism. As the late ’80s saw artists fed up with consumerism and commercialization, Neo-Geo was deemed to be the “next big thing” in the art world.  The movement would draw on lessons learnt from early modernist artistic practice (heavily influenced by European philosophy) and use them to critique society at the time, taking issue with aspects such as social isolation, growing love for consumer goods and the simulation of experience (at the expense of the “genuine”).

A Brief Chronology of Appropriation in Art

Marcel Duchamp – Fountain (1917)

Duchamp's Fountain, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz, featured in Blind Man.

Duchamp’s Fountain, photographed by Alfred Steiglitz, featured in Blind Man.

Arguably where appropriation knowingly started. Duchamp’s 1917 readymade sculpture consists of a porcelain urinal, signed “R.Mutt”. It was an everyday urinal, appropriated by Duchamp, and transformed into an art piece. Social commentary and the question “what is art?” are at the heart of the piece. In total there have been 17 authorized editions of Fountain, and two of them, including the original, are lost. 

Marcel Duchamp – L.H.O.O.Q (1919)

Marcel Duchamp - L.H.O.O.Q.

Marcel Duchamp – L.H.O.O.Q. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The name of the piece, L.H.O.O.Q is what’s referred to as a gramogram. That is when the letter pronounced sounds like a word. In French it reads “Elle a chaud au cu” and according to in an interview, Duchamp gave it a loose translation of “there is a fire down below” – a crude pun, especially in Duchamp’s day! Duchamp first conceived the idea in 1919, and classified it as one of his readymades. In this case, Duchamp had a cheap postcard with the Mona Lisa on, and he drew both a mustache and beard on the postcard, in pencil. 

Jasper Johns – Flag (1954)

Jasper Johns - Flag.

Jasper Johns – Flag. Sold for $28,642,500 via Christie’s (May 2010).

According to Johns it all started with him painting a picture of an American flag. Flag was made on a cut bedsheet using oil paint and then he used a method involving pigmented melted wax, called encaustic. Johns would dip cloth and newsprint in the hot wax, before binding them to the sheet to fill out a pencil outline of the flag. According to MOMA “the result is a picture whose process is registered on its surface, a focus on materiality at odds with the expressionistic gestures dominant in painting at the time of Flag’s making. Johns went on to use encaustic to render familiar forms—flags, targets, numbers, letters, and a map of the United States—time and again throughout his career.”

The piece represents both an”authentic” object (a flag) and the representation of the object (a painting of a flag). This ambiguity is the core of the piece’s innovation and provocation. 

Andy Warhol – Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)

Although the work represents the mass-produced, printed advertisements that inspired the artist, each canvas is also hand-painted with details that include a hand-stamped fleur-de-lys pattern around the bottom of each can. With this piece, Warhol copied the uniformity and repetition of advertising by painstakingly recreating the same image across all the canvases, only distinguishing them by soup variety. Warhol once said about Campbell’s soup, “I used to drink it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years, I guess, the same thing over and over again.”

Roy Lichtenstein – Drowning Girl (1963)

Created by redrawing at scale a single frame from one of Tony Abruzzo’s instantly recognizable comics to show a woman caught up in a threatening wave. Abruzzo’s original caption reads “I don’t care if I have a cramp! I’d rather sink than call Mal for help”, which Lichtenstein changed to “I don’t care! I’d rather sink than call Brad for help!” Lichtenstein added: “My work is actually different from comic strips in that every mark is really in a different place, however slight the difference seems to some. The difference is often not great, but it is crucial.”

After Walker Evans – Sherrie Levine (1981)

SHERRIE LEVINE After Edgar Degas, 1987.

Sherrie Levine – After Edgar Degas, 1987. Auction passed (est: $4,000 – $5,000) via Santa Monica Auctions (Mar 2019).

In 1936 Walker Evans photographed a family of sharecroppers, the Burroughs, in Depression era Alabama. Sherrie Levine then rephotographed Evans’ originals and released them as the series entitled After Walker Evans. This was when the “Pictures Generation” was born. 

Gerhard Richter – 18 Oktober 1977 (1988)

Gerhard Richter - Abstraktes Bild (abstract painting).

Gerhard Richter – Abstraktes Bild (abstract painting). Sold for €390,400 via Kunsthaus Lempertz KG (May 2012).

In October of 1977, three men (Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin) were found dead in a Stuttgart prison. All three were members of the Red Army Faction, which was a coalition of young political radicals famously led by Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In the late 1960s, the group turned to violence and the Baader-Meinhof group became Germany’s most feared terrorists. 

The 15 works that make up 18 Oktober 1977 are blurry paintings of photographs. Each captures fragments of the lives and deaths of the Baader-Meinhof group. It also reaffirms Richter’s mistrust of the ability of painting to truthfully visualize the world. 

According to MOMA, “Produced during a prosperous, politically conservative era eleven years after the events, and insisting that this painful and controversial subject be remembered, these paintings are widely regarded as among the most challenging works of Richter’s career so far.”

Jon Rafman – Nine Eyes

In a very modern take of appropriation, Jon Rafman takes sets from the most popular sitcoms of the last 30 years and recreates them in the style of some of the most famous artists of all time. In so doing, he creates images that are familiar in and yet foreign, blending together what is considered high and low art forms.

Appropriation in art has long been important in helping to push viewers to challenge how they view, interact and engage with art. Art is no longer about technique and profound execution, it’s about changing the way people see art and changing the way artists make art, but most of all, it’s about helping us all challenge ourselves to appreciate the things – and in life – that we might not necessarily be looking for.