Artists do not create in a vacuum, but are influenced by their predecessors and peers whose work inspires, and informs, their own practice. Art movements progress as artists respond to work by other artists, adopting certain traits, or using an idea as a launchpad from which they develop their own work further. Influence, however, is a very different kettle of fish to appropriation. When an artist appropriates a work by another artist, (s)he makes direct use of the preceding artist’s work or an image that already exists in the public domain. Appropriation goes beyond mere copying; appropriation is often used as a subversive or political weapon to comment on social problems or to critique the very nature of art institutions which place emphasis on authenticity, authorship, and the hand of the artist. Conversely, it can also pay homage to another artist’s work and re-contextualize it for a contemporary generation.
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919
Marcel Duchamp, arguably the most influential artist of the twentieth-century, created the conceptual ‘readymade’ artwork fifty years before the advent of the Conceptualism as an art historical movement. The readymade anticipates the idea of appropriating another artist’s work, except rather than an actual artwork, the readymade is an object from everyday life that is re-contextualized as an art object. Duchamp also created ‘assisted readymade,’ which comprised a found object or objects that he then augmented or adapted in some way. A prime example is L.H.O.O.Q., a reproduction postcard of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn on her face. This playful intervention was read by some as a subversion of the art historical canon. The reproduction itself is a challenge to the original artwork, as through reproduction the artwork loses what critical theorist Walter Benjamin termed its “aura,” its uniqueness in space and time. Duchamp takes the negation even further, subverting the original with an iconoclastic gesture.
Richard Prince, Untitled (cowboy), 1989, chromogenic print; 50 x 70 in.
Original Marlboro advert
Prince is quoted as saying, “I started taking pictures of the cowboys. You don’t see them out in public anymore—you can’t ride down a highway and see them on a billboard. But at Time Life, I was working with seven or eight magazines, and Marlboro had ads in almost all of them. Every week, I’d see one and be like, ‘Oh, that’s mine. Thank you.’ It’s sort of like beachcombing.” Artists are often drawn to subject matter representative of their time, and by rephotographing the Marlboro ads, Prince preserves a particular moment when advertising had become a part of everyday life. Following in the tradition of Pop Art, Prince takes a subject directly from the popular media and appropriates it, turning it into a work of art. The aesthetics of advertising become the aesthetic of fine art.
Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 4, 1981, gelatin silver print, 12.8 x 9.8 cm
Walker Evans, Albama Tennant Farmer, 1936, gelatin silver print, 20.9 x 14.4 cm
Sherrie Levine is also renowned for harnessing the strategy of appropriation in her work, this time with a slightly more political agenda. She recreates and rephotographs the work of canonical male artists, such as Walker Evans and Edward Weston, as a comment on the place of the woman artist in the art world. By recuperating the work of male artists and designating a new, female authorship, Levine undermines the patriarchy of the art historical canon, which has traditionally been white and male. She also recreated Duchamp’s infamous Fountain piece; the original Duchamp has been lost, but it was an ordinary urinal signed “R. Mutt” submitted by Duchamp to the exhibition Society of Independent Artists. While Duchamp’s work was an actual piece of plumbing hardware, Levine’s work is cast in a semi-precious metal reserved for fine art sculptures. It plays into notions of worth as well as authorship, and questions the value put on various works of art.
Sherrie Levine,Fountain (Buddha), 1996,bronze
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917 (1964 replica), porcelain
The 5STooGES work also makes use of appropriation. An artist collective, they cull their source material for THE COLLECTOR’s extensive collection of original artworks. Using a collaborative technique, the members create prints from the original artwork and rework them using graffiti and street art aesthetic. In doing so, they take works from bygone eras and contemporize them and make them relevant to today’s fast-paced culture. For example, Beautiful Dirty Rich appropriates a painting of Wallace Simpson, the divorced woman for whom Kind Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry. She then became the Duchess of Windsor. A classic subject is recontextualized for a contemporary generation by using the graffiti technique of stenciling.
The 5 STooGES, Beautiful Dirty Rich