What Is Appropriation Art?

Andy Warhol's appropriated Campbell's soup artwork with a torn and shredded label

The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection

To "appropriate" is to take possession of something. Appropriation artists deliberately copy images to take possession of them in their art. They are not stealing or plagiarizing, nor are they passing off these images as their very own. This artistic approach does stir up controversy because some people view appropriation as unoriginal or theft. This is why it's important to understand why artists appropriate the artwork of others.

What's the Intent of Appropriation Art? 

Appropriation artists want the viewer to recognize the images they copy. They hope that the viewer will bring all of his original associations with the image to the artist's new context, be it a painting, a sculpture, a collage, a combine, or an entire installation.

The deliberate "borrowing" of an image for this new context is called "recontextualization." Recontextualization helps the artist comment on the image's original meaning and the viewer's association with either the original image or the real thing.

An Iconic Example of Appropriation

Let's consider Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Can" series (1961). It is probably one of the best-known examples of appropriation art.

The images of Campbell soup cans are clearly appropriated. He copied the original labels exactly but filled up the entire picture plane with their iconic appearance. Unlike other garden-variety still-lifes, these works look like portraits of a soup can.

The brand is the image's identity. Warhol isolated the image of these products to stimulate product recognition (as is done in advertising) and stir up associations with the idea of Campbell's soup. He wanted you to think of that "Mmm Mmm Good" feeling. 

At the same time, he also tapped into a whole bunch of other associations, such as consumerism, commercialism, big business, fast food, middle-class values, and food representing love. As an appropriated image, these specific soup labels could resonate with meaning (like a stone tossed into a pond) and so much more.

Warhol's use of popular imagery became part of the Pop Art movement. All appropriation art is not Pop Art, though.

Whose Photograph Is It?

Sherrie Levine's "After Walker Evans" (1981) is a photograph of a famous Depression-era photograph. The original was taken by Walker Evans in 1936 and titled "Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife." In her piece, Levine photographed a reproduction of Evans' work. She did not use the original negative or print to create her silver gelatin print.

Levine is challenging the concept of ownership: if she photographed the photograph, whose photograph was it, really? It is a common question that has been raised in photography for years and Levine is bringing this debate to the forefront.

This is something that she and fellow artists Cindy Sherman and Richard Price studied in the 1970s and 80s. The group became known as the "Pictures" generation and their goal was to examine the effect of mass media—advertisements, films, and photography—on the public. 

In addition, Levine is a feminist artist. In work like "After Walker Evans," she was also addressing the predominance of male artists in the textbook version of art history.

More Examples of Appropriation Art

Other well-known appropriation artists are Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Louise Lawler, Gerhard Richter, Yasumasa Morimura, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Kathleen Gilje. Gilje appropriates masterpieces in order to comment on the original content and propose another. In "Bacchus, Restored" (1992), she appropriated Caravaggio's "Bacchus" (ca. 1595) and added open condoms to the festive offerings of wine and fruit on the table. Painted when AIDS had taken the lives of so many artists, the artist was commenting on unprotected sex as the new forbidden fruit.

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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "What Is Appropriation Art?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/appropriation-appropriation-art-183190. Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2023, April 5). What Is Appropriation Art? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/appropriation-appropriation-art-183190 Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "What Is Appropriation Art?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/appropriation-appropriation-art-183190 (accessed June 2, 2023).