To appropriate is to borrow. Appropriation is the practice of creating a new work by taking a pre-existing image from another context—art history, advertising, the media—and combining that appropriated image with new ones. Or, a well-known artwork by someone else may be represented as the appropriator’s own. Such borrowings can be regarded as the two-dimensional equivalent of the found object. But instead of, say, incorporating that “found” image into a new collage, the postmodern appropriator redraws, repaints, or rephotographs it. This provocative act of taking possession flouts the modernist reverence for originality. While modern artists often tipped their hats to their art historical forebears (Edouard Manet borrowed a well-known composition from Raphael, and Pablo Picasso paid homage to Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velázquez), they rarely put such gleanings at the intellectual center of their work. A sea change occurred when Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes began to inspire artworks; Pop art was appropriation’s precursor and Andy Warhol its godfather.
Like collage, appropriation is simply a technique or a method of working. As such, it is the vehicle for a variety of viewpoints about contemporary society, both celebratory and critical. In perhaps the most extreme instances of recent appropriation, Sherrie Levine rephotographed photographs by Edward Weston and made precisely rendered facsimiles of Piet Mondrian’s watercolors. Her work questions conventional notions of what constitutes a masterpiece, a master, and indeed, art history itself. By choosing to appropriate only the work of male artists, this feminist artist asks viewers to consider the place of women within the art-historical canon, and, in the case of Weston’s nude photographs of his young son, to consider whether the gender of the photographer affects how pictures are viewed.
Jeff Koons, one of the few appropriators working in three dimensions, has his sculptures fabricated in stainless steel or porcelain to replicate giveaway liquor decanters or kitsch figurines. Other artists, such as David Salle and Julian Schnabel, use appropriation to create a dense network of images from history, contemporary art, and popular culture. The multilayered pictorial equivalent of free association, their art frequently defies logical analysis.
Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.