Sherrie Levine, Appropriation and Copyright

Sherrie Levine, Appropriation and Copyright
©Werner Hammerstingl,1998

The topic introduces us to such diverse issues as:

  • «art as a commodity» the concept of owning ideas (originating from 17th century British law)
  • «artists working against art»
  • «the relationship between money and art»

The idea of a critical postmodernism or «oppositional» postmodernism was first raised by Hal Foster (The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern culture, Hal Foster Ed.).

Position: Art photography had carved a nieche for itself as a modernist art-form. This resulted in academised,comodified, reified and idealized images which beckoned if not an attack per se, at the very least a challenge from post modern artists inspired by critics such as:

  • Benjamin Buchloh
  • Douglas Crimp
  • Rosalind Krauss

Michael Foucault and Roland Barthes had produced writings that directly suggested the idea of «Death of the author» as a central post-modern concept. This invited artistic practices to subvert the modernist ideals and artists including :

  • Barbara Kruger
  • Sherrie Levine
  • Jenny Holtzer
  • Vikkie Alexander
  • Jim Welling
  • Richard Prince
  • Sarah Charlesworth
  • Silvia Kolbowski
  • Laurie Simmons

followed the call.

Sherrie Levine began to show re-photographed images by great and revered modernist photographers such as :

  • Edward Weston (his nudes of his son Neil),
  • Eliot Porter(landscapes) and
  • Walker Evans(Farm Security Administration Work)

from as early as 1981.

Yes, her choices were made quite deliberately amongst the gentrified god-like, up there male names, she played a shooting gallery game. She picked the most canonized names and the most culturally and ideologically dense works» the classical nude, the beautiful nature, the dignified depression poor.

So, Sherrie Levine’s practice at this time has all the right theorethical drapery. It addresses feminist issues, it is de-constructive practice and it is arguably «literally trangressive».

Yet Levine finds herself attacked by feminist critic Martha Rosler («Notes on Quotes» Wedge 3, 1982, page 72) for the inadequacy of simple»quotation» as a political «strategy».

Paraphrasing, Rosler basically said: quoting and drawing attention to work by others out of social and political motification is not enough, because such work fails to deliver and alternative.

Levine and others did however inspire the practice of «Image scavenging» popular around art-schools even today where images are shot or recorded from extant material found on TV and elsewhere.

This wave of appropriation and pastiche which began in the early 80’s is still a popular practice today, but arguably nowhere near as valiant in motivation as the «first-time around» manifestation during the first few decades of the century when DADA and Surrealist artists used the everyday object and transformed into the art object to unify and re-concile art and life. Postmodern uses of appropriation makes no effort at healing the rift between art and life, keeping it’s dialogues in the rarified and often exclusive domain of the gallery and it’s critically informed public. Moreover, pastiche using glossy magazine cutouts or TV material became a style in itself, accepted to be typicall «postmodern» and in that sense killing off the little remaing potential of these devices as wepons of critique. Post-modernism had shot itself in the foot by evolving a style of sorts. Mass culture was re-absorbing the post-modern critiques of itself, rendering the gestures limp and impotent.

Further recommended reading: Abigail Solomon-Godeau:Living with contradictions. Critical practices in the age of supply-side aesthetics. in Carol Squiers (Ed.)The Critical image. Essays on contemporary Photography, Bay Press, seattle, 1990 pp59-79

Some quotations to warm us up to the topic:

«Why there is any aesthetic difference between a deceptive forgery and an original work challenges a basic premise on which the very functions of collector, museum, and art historian depend.»
Nelson Goodman, The Languages of Art, 1976

«Repetition distinguishes [art] from science. The language of science is dominated by symbolic exchange based on equality: each term can be replaced by its equivalent. In the language of the arts, however, each term is irreplaceable…for there is no equivalence or exchangeability possible if the integrity of the the work of art is to be preserved.»
Daniela Salvioni,The Transgressions of Sherrie Levine, 1992

«The essential characteristic of digital information is that it can be manipulated easily and very rapidly by computer. Certainly the computer extends the capabilities of photography. What has not been recognized is how photography limits the capabilities of the computer.».
William Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye, 1992

«In photography, exhibition value begins to replace cult value all along the line. But cult value does not give way without resistance….».
Walter Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1939

By the early to mid-1980’s Australian artists began to use a new creative tool called » appropriation»

Davila and Brown Rrap followed the footsteps of US artist: Sherrey Levine who has at this point already pushed the envelope of appropriation to the limit with a a work entitled: «After Walker Evans»


SHERRIE LEVINE Born 1947, Hazleton, Pensylvania Lives in new York

General Background:

The history of corporate art collecting in the US really only dates back to the 1960’s with the Chase Manhattan bank’s establishement of an art buying program.

Until the 80’s the only art collected by corporations adourned the managers offices and usually reflected personal taste.

In 1983 Michael Brenson points out

«that there are somewhere between 40 and 90000 artists in New York. Probably fewer than 20 met with critical and financial success (1/2000 th chance of success) This fact and the increased cost of living in town created a boiler or competition with artists tryn to mature faster, paint faster, become more confident, assertive etc».

In 1986 the Wall Street Journal cites that

the number of corporations collecting art has risen by 50% in the past 5 years to about 1000 («Boom in Art market lifts Prices sharply, Stirrs Fears of a Bust» W.S.J. Nov.1986, p.1).

These collections are mainly around contemporary collections since such work is plentyful and affordable and usually large (foyers etc) Corporate curators, art advisors etc sprang into being. During the Ronald Regan era of the 80’s art changed for a number of reasons: The corporate style painting-large, colourful, unproblematic etc

A interest in regional art (regional art centers springing up) The beginning of feminist art’s «strong phase» New media accepted such as photography as art , installation art, language art and conceptual art. The beginning of the «culture industry’ Artists are benefitting from the financial boom Most artists are tertiary educated. Punck-Rock emerges Figures as David Byrne and Patti Smith start performing in clubs such as the Libo Lounge and the Mudd club in NY and music became half performance. Much of the work became de-constructionist and evolved towards anti-consumerist art only to find itsef being consumed. Collectors were buying art aimed against them.

page 385 Irving Sandler: Art of the Postmodern Era

Money filled tile cultural cracks in consumer society. But why did collectors but art aimed against them? Perhaps as Haacke said it was because the «art World . . . has been so saturated be the products of’ a phony individualism and coy rebellion that for no better reason than out of boredom the audience wants something different.»

On the other hand Ratcliff pointed out that emblems of individuality were so prized that there was a growing artworld demand «for images that insist sometimes belligerently that thev don’t want to be consumed. That makes them irresistible consumable.» Ratcliff likened deconstruction art to Marxism which also had «curency among Western Critics not because it shorts a way beyond the mechanics of capitalism but because, with their challenges to that market machinery certain Marxist critiques take on a particulal saleable aura of courageous individuality Each new Marxist challenge, no less than the most off- putting innovations of Carl Andre or Hales Haacke, is an alluring image of an entrepreneurial self. When We learn to see this not as an ironic peculiarity but as a straightforward fact, we will have begun to get a clear view or our culture and it’s art» And collectors paid handsomely for art that abused them.

Douglas Davis reported:

Collector Gilbert Silxeriliall of Detroit bid $90,000 for Hans Haacke’s ‘On social grease’ last year at Christies without the slightest hesitation, though the work directly mocks six major corporate and political figures (including David Rockefeller Douglas Dillon and Richard Nixon) by quoting each of them on a separate metal plaque advocating support of the arts as a «social lubricant»

Much as it meant to critizise the »culture industry» deconstruction art validated its benevolence.

In all the debates political artists had the last word. They simpiy had to do what they had to do. Did it matter whether it teas effective? Of course, but who could predict? Even if there \vas only the remotest chance that their art would havean effect on society the artists had to make the effort..

It was their social and moral responsibility But deconstruction art had another purpose: to reveal American life as it was experienced be the artist. Thus it served a traditional artistic function. Indeed it was this function, not the virtuousness of its political messages or its effectiveness in generating social change that commandedand continued to demand attention.

SHERRIE LEVINE has consistently produced work that «celebrates doubt and uncertainty,» unsettling the principles that have upheld the (male-dominated) conventions of mass culture’s images or of Modernist representations. Levine’s work in photography, painting, drawing, and printmaking has addressed issues of originality and authorship in an attempt to engage critically the history with which a woman artist is faced. Hers is a practice motivated by alienation the alienation of lives from direct experience, the alienation of desires the melancholic aftermath of unachievable pleasure. Levine wrote about this motivation: Certainly the best thing in life is ordinary sexual love. But we find unsanctioned sexual activity like unsanctioned violence, frightening as well as exhilarating, because without manners or form, it yields no meaning or hope It has no stake in the future. Reluctant moralists, we make art that suggests our simultaneous longing for anarchy and order to have nothing andeverything An uneasy peace is made between the reassuring mythologies society and culture provide and our wish to see ourselves as free agents. The very best in art makes public our private anguish in the face of this ineluctable conflict. We want images and stories which present us with ideals but at the same time are not innocent of the other side of the coin our desire to have no ideals, no fetters whatsoever We aspire to the best of both worlds.

Early on Levine attempted to address this alienation by appropriating as her own rephotographed images of work by male artists into such series as :

  • «After Edward Weston» (1981),
  • «After Walker Evans» (1981),
  • «After Alexander Rodchenko» (1985- 87).

These images instill an uneasiness in the viewer through the artist’s intervention of authorship: «it did seem embarrassing to be caught looking at these pictures too closely. You felt that the meaning of Levine’s curiously covert art had to lie elsewhere, perhaps in the circumstances of its exhibition rather than in the images themselves.»

Other series of photographic «collages» followed, including

  • «After Franz Marc» (1982), in which Levine collaged reproductions of Marc’s paintings, and a large series of watercolors and drawings,
  • «After Leger,»
  • «After Mondrian,»
  • «After Miro,»
  • «After Matisse,»
  • «After Paul Klee,»

which featured images the size of bookplates reproduced in catalogues. This work also signaled the reintroduction of the artist’s own hand into the work, more densely knitting her own touch into these representations of the work of others. Levine’s paintings on panels, begun in 1984, signaled a new approach, appropriating the style or feeling of Minimalism or Surrealism in abstract paintings on mahogany, plywood, and lead.

Levine subjected them to a repetition of format where the (commodified) variation on a theme is marked by the personal touch of the original. A recent body of work based on George Herri Itman’s comic strip, «Krazy Kat» (published 1913-4), features a narrative sequence involving two of the comic-strip characters: Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse. As the story goes, Krazy Kat (of ambiguous gender) is in love with Ignatz (a male). Krazy Kat’s love is unrequited and a masochistic relationship ensues; Krazy Kat is repeatedly struck by a brick thrown by Ignatz, which he interprets as a sign of Ignatz’s love.

The relentless repetition of this sequence is the subject of two sets of untitled paintings by Levine of black casein on unpainted mahogany panels one set of six, each depicting the same image of Ignatz as he is prepared to «Krease that Kat’s bean with a brick,» and six depicting the same image of Krazy Kat at the moment of being struck . Levine is among a number of artists, including

  • Oyvind Fahistrom,
  • Willem de Kooning,
  • Claes Oldenburg, and
  • Philip Guston,

who have been interested in the Krazy Kat comic strip. Her repetition of these images underscores the violence and tragedy in their humor .


Sherrey Levine and her many followers have, from the 80’s onwards tabled a practice which has, to say the least, uncomfortable and difficult foundations. Her legacy is really the fact that she questioned and re-positioned issues around authorship and the original in artistic practice. This legacy is important to explore as the appropriated image and the pastiched image is so central in todays art and commercial practice especially, but not exclusively in digital imaging.

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