The Art of Copying: Ten Masters of Appropriation

In time for the Hammer Museum’s new exhibition “Take It or Leave It,” which examines the intersection and overlap of artists working in appropriation and institutional critique, we thought we’d take a look at some of our favorite appropriation artists. From Pop Art to The Pictures Generation to hotly contested courtroom battles, these ten artists have been instrumental in the art world’s acceptance of appropriated material (and even direct copying) as legitimate, if controversial, artistic practice.


Nam June Paik

Not only is he the father of video art, but Paik is also one of the fathers of modern appropriation art. His best-known works, made in partnership with Jud Yalkut, compressed and electronically distorted mass-media footage of Beatles concerts, presidential speeches, and the like.


Sigmar Polke

Working in his style of “Capitalist Realism,” Polke offered an ironic critique of consumerism in post-war Germany. Some of his best-known works were his collages of imagery from pop culture and advertising, like his “Supermarkets” scene of super heroes shopping at a grocery store.


Barbara Kruger

At the forefront of The Pictures Generation, Kruger has been superimposing appropriated imagery with bold, assertive texts since her first show at MoMA P.S.1 in 1979. Her quotes are both visual—as in depictions of celebrities and politicians—and textual, like a body of work that quoted Malcolm X, Courtney Love, and H.L. Mencken.


Richard Prince

Few artists are more associated with the practice of appropriation than Prince, whose entire oeuvre is characterized by finding and re-framing existing imagery—whether in re-photographed Marlborough ads or scanned and overpainted pulp novel covers. “Advertising images aren’t associated with an author,” he says. “They look like they have no history to them—like they showed up all at once. They look like what art always wants to look like.”


Yasumasa Morimura

Likening his practice to “reconstituting freeze-dried tofu and serving it up again to eat now,” Morimura has been embedding himself into iconic images appropriated from art history, mass media, and popular culture since the early 1980s. To create his works, Morimura uses elaborate costumes, makeup, and staging, drawing comparisons to Cindy Sherman.


Louise Lawler

Lawler’s photographs question the nature and display of art, offering behind-the-scenes views of art in private collections and public institutions. She’s shot images of Warhol Brillo boxes in storage, a Picasso sculpture wrapped in plastic, Richter paintings in transport, as well as unusual or abstracted juxtapositions of artworks in exhibitions.


Wang Guangyi

A main exponent of Political Pop, Wang repurposes historical images of Chinese propaganda, mashing them up with branded symbols, texts, and other imagery from Western advertisements. “By finding a harmonious and powerful fusion of these two ideologies and visual systems,” Christie’s writes, “Wang exposes not only the irony of this union but also the ways in which these supposedly antithetical systems are nonetheless visually complementary.”


Deborah Kass

“I’ve had the appropriation urge for a long time,” Kass says. “It’s who I am.” Walking the line between respectful homage and brazen copying, Kass mimics and reworks the signature styles of some of the 20th century’s most iconic male artists—a feminist project meant to insert a female voice into the macho, male-dominated contemporary art world.


Sister Mary Corita

One of the underappreciated masters of Pop Art, Corita began her adult life as a nun and art instructor before devoting her life to full-time art-making. Her works span from the more playful and literary—her favorite quotations mixed with corporate logos—to the more incisively political, as in her body of work that spliced imagery of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.


Richard Pettibone

Pettibone is often seen as having paved the way for contemporary appropriation art, with his meticulous miniature recreations of iconic works by everyone from Constantin Brancusi to Andy Warhol. “I wanted to be a great painter,” he has said. “What better way to do that than to copy a great painting?”


Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology” is on view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Feb. 9–May 18, 2014.

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