Betsy Balch

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 4, 1981. Gelatin Silver Print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Figure 1. Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 4 (1981) Gelatin Silver Print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Appropriation is the conscious adoption of previously produced material, commonly practiced throughout art history.1 When an artist appropriates, he or she incorporates another artist’s work into a new context, with or without altering it, thereby changing or commenting on previous ideas to create new meanings. Although the recycling of another artist’s work is usually explicitly acknowledged on the part of the appropriating artist, it often raises controversial questions about copyright and plagiarism. The contemporary artist Jeff Koons, for example, was sued in 2015 for having plagiarized from a clothing brand advertisement for his 1988 work Fait d’Hiver; his legal defense was that the work is an act of artistic appropriation.

Appropriation Art emerged as a dominant practice in the 1970s and 1980s by contemporary artists who belonged to the larger postmodern movement.2 Postmodern artists used appropriation to critically unpack “the claim that important artists are original, and the claim that aesthetic value inheres in the form of the work.”3 In this way, appropriation can be seen as conceptual art, which stresses the idea-based nature of artistic practice, as opposed to object production.

In his examination of appropriation, Robert Nelson argues that it is most successful when “it maintains but shifts the former connotations to create the new sign and accomplishes all this covertly, making the process appear ordinary or natural.”4 Although this may be true, many appropriation artists make their adoption of previous material quite explicit. Sherrie Levine, for example, is best known for her series After Walker Evans, rephotographed works—canonical depictions of American poverty during the Great Depression—exhibited in 1980 with little or no alteration to the original images. Levine’s After Walker Evans: 4 [Figure 1] is appropriated entirely from Walker Evans’s Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (1936) [Figure 2]. Douglas Crimp argues that Levine’s work is significant only in its critique of photography as an art form, and how its meanings are acquired.5

Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife, 1936. Gelatin Silver Print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Figure 2. Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (1936) Gelatin Silver Print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

By using this method, Levine comments on both authorship and intention.6 Evans’s series was produced to inspire social justice in Depression-era America, and to elevate the status of photography as a form of fine art.7 Levine’s photograph does not have the same intentions as its original predecessor. Instead, she highlights the posed nature of Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife by rephotographing it, therefore augmenting the overtly constructed aspects of photography as a medium. Levine remarked, “The pictures I make are really ghosts of ghosts…I wanted to put a picture on top of a picture so that there are times when both pictures disappear and other times when they’re both manifest.”8

Appropriation is a practice that is particularly relevant to contemporary society. Douglas Crimp argues that appropriation “extends to virtually every aspect of our culture.”9 It is a practice that we find in all forms of media, ranging from television commercials to fashion design to the sampling of hip hop music. Appropriation art has just recently reached what many art historians and art critics consider its peak, and the ongoing controversies of appropriation is of contemporary interest, as artists and critics continue to debate the authorial originality and legality behind appropriation art. It remains for the viewer to determine whether appropriation is a critically condoned form of plagiarism, or an engaged commentary about authorial originality as a construction.





  1. Crispin Sartwell and Gloria Phares, “Appropriation,” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Oxford Art Online, Oxford University Press.
  2. Tom Williams, “Appropriation art,” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online, Oxford University Press.
  3. Sartwell and Phares, “Appropriation.”
  4. Robert S. Nelson, “Appropriation,” in Critical Terms for Art History, Second Edition, eds. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 164.
  5. Douglas Crimp, “Appropriating Appropriation,” in On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 129-134.
  6. Peter Kalb, Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (Pearson and Lawrence King: New York and London, 2013), 48.
  7. Ibid., 49.
  8. Sherrie Levine in Kalb, Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary, 49.
  9. Crimp, “Appropriating Appropriation,” 126.