Andy Warhol and the Art of Appropriation

Andy Warhol and the Art of Appropriation

Andy Warhol is known for his stylization of imagery derived from brands, logos, pictures and newspaper articles, reflecting the popular culture of the time. He re-stylized ready-made images (usually with repetition or the addition of colors) to transform them into works of his own. This process is referred to as appropriation, a practice that was not foreign to the art world but became much more complex at the onset of Warhol’s artistic career.

While appropriation in art has been around for ages, it began to gain popularity in the 20th century. Most notably with “Dada” artists like Marcel Duchamp, who championed the art of the “ready mades”. Andy Warhol continued the tradition of appropriation, but the times were changing, and borrowing images to create new ones became more controversial with the onset of consumerism.

Towards the mid twentieth century, mass production made branding a necessity for companies who were now competing against each other for business. Once a brand was born, it needed to be protected so that the no one else could profit from the idea. Copyright, or legal ownership of artistic material (in this case), suddenly made the art of appropriation a lot more complicated.

Andy Warhol and Appropriation

Mass Appropriation: Banksy’s appropriation of Andy Warhol’s appropriation of a Marilyn Monroe photograph.

In 1962, Andy Warhol created his famous Marilyn series, based off of a publicity shot for her 1953 film, Niagra. While he transformed the image by transferring it onto screenprints and canvases, the image used as a stencil was not legally his. He owned the rights to his artwork, but not to the image that the art was dependent on.

Similarly, he “borrowed” the logo from Campbell’s Soup cans, but repurposed it by applying it to canvases and screenprints. Wary at first about the blatant use of their classic logo, the company soon realized that the free publicity was rewarding. In fact, to show Warhol the company’s gratitude, the marketing manager sent Warhol some of their famous products with the note: “I have since learned that you like Tomato Soup so I am taking the liberty of having a couple cases of our Tomato Soup delivered to you”.

Andy Warhol was not so fortunate after he created his Flowers series. In 1966, he became the subject of a lawsuit brought on by photographer, Patricia Caufield for the use of her photos of hibiscus flowers. The suit was settled out of court, but as a result Warhol decided that he would rather use his own images when he could, which inadvertently launched him into experimenting with a new medium — photography.

His longtime assistant, Gerard Malanga, said after the lawsuit, “Andy realized that he had to be very careful about appropriating for the fear of being sued again. He opted to start taking his own photographs. His entry into photography vis a vis his creation of silkscreen paintings was done out of necessity.”

With this in mind, maybe Andy Warhol’s famous quote about art being “what you can get away with” really meant “art is what you can get away with(out being sued)”.

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