A Requested Subtraction, 10 April 1974, 1971–74, silver gelatin print, printed paper with handwritten annotations, 57 × 83 cm. Courtesy the artist and Mayor Gallery, London. 

Mercurial Consistency

Billy Apple

New Zealand
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Without question one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most remarkable artists, Billy Apple is nearing 80. His lengthy, and still ongoing, career has encompassed direct involvement in some of the most crucial phenomena of postwar and contemporary art, from Pop to Conceptualism, body art to institutional critique—sometimes all together. While the artist could be considered mercurial in terms of the sheer number of shifts in direction evidenced within his art practice, he has also exhibited a clear and specific intensity to his singular vision, and there remains a discernible, rigorous internal consistency when his oeuvre is viewed as a whole. Apple has been an early and avid investigator of the significance of mass media, as well as an exceptional problem solver, and while these qualities were evident in his advertising work, they are especially intriguing when applied to the context of his art practice.

Born Barrie Bates, in Auckland in 1935, the artist traveled to London in the late 1950s on a grant to study design at the Royal College of Art. Fellow students at that time included the emergent British Pop painters Derek Boshier, David Hockney, Allen Jones and RB Kitaj. Bates became a proficient designer, working in advertising in the era now immortalized in the American television drama Mad Men. At the time, ideas of “newness” and “novelty” were salient points of intersection that artists were locating between art and design. The younger British artists in Bates’s circle were intoxicated with a wider range of reference points in visual culture, drawing on comics, cinema and science fiction. London-born artist Richard Hamilton’s 1957 litany of Pop art attributes evocatively reflects this new sensibility: “Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass-produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.” While scarcity still characterized many sectors of daily life in Britain, the postwar prosperity of the United States attracted younger artists from afar.

Billy Apple Bleaching With Lady Clairol Instant Crème Whip, November 1962, 1962, uniquely toned silver gelatin print with screen print text, 40.8 × 57.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Starkwhite, Auckland.

It was within this environment that Bates, in 1962, presented his most provocative early gesture, the one that set in motion a definitive trajectory for his practice: renaming and effectively “rebranding” himself as Billy Apple. The images around this act were carefully choreographed, if in a fairly straightforward manner, such that the decision would be captured visually. Apple’s “rebirth” is encapsulated in the black-and-white photograph Billy Apple Bleaching with Lady Clairol Instant Crème Whip, November 1962 (1962), which shows him with newly blonde hair looking into a small handheld mirror beneath a lamp, in a way that suggested his recent transformation. It was an act of erasure of his old identity, and an assertion of the new, a kind of unburdening. In line with the contemporaneous Canadian theorist and pop culture analyst Marshall McLuhan, Apple was very shrewd in determining and realizing how “the medium is the message.” In a context of heightened consumerism, the product that was, and still is, the artist Billy Apple began forming, evidenced by initial documents including “head shot” images of Apple himself taken by the English photographer Robert Freeman—who later became renowned for his iconic portraits of the early Beatles.

While in the United Kingdom, Apple had contact with Lawrence Alloway, the visionary critic who coined the term “Pop Art” in the mid-1950s. For the 1962 “Young Contemporaries” exhibition at the Royal College of Art that Alloway organized, Apple designed the poster based on the submission label for participating artists—which asked for the artist’s name, title of work, its price in British pounds and their school—in effect simultaneously calling attention to the process of mounting the show and annexing any surface onto which the poster was applied as his own work. In addition, Apple printed this information directly onto a canvas, creating an early conceptual gesture as painting, in much the way that John Baldessari would do later in the decade with his works painted by professional sign-painters ironically offering quotes from art critics or, in one instance, “tips for artists who want to sell.”

Greatly influenced by visiting New York City where he encountered other Pop artists working in the vibrant American consumerist world, Apple relocated there himself by the mid-1960s. He later reflected in Being Billy Apple, a 2007 feature film directed by New Zealand filmmaker Leanne Pooley, that in the New York context, “unlike London, anything is possible.” The seminal 1964 “American Supermarket” exhibition at Bianchini Gallery on the Upper East Side featured Apple along with many important American Pop artists of the period, including Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Robert Watts, with their works presented, as if in an actual shop, on shelves and in stacks. Life magazine highlighted—and ridiculed—the show, and foregrounded Apple’s works with a photo captioned: “Billy Apple gazes over his $500 slice of painted bronze watermelon.” The headline further noted that the sculpture in question cost “only $500 a slice.” Apparently the best-selling item there was a Warhol paper shopping bag emblazoned with the iconic Campbell’s Soup logo, which sold for USD 12 apiece. Much like Warhol, Apple learned from and perceptively used techniques drawn from his graphic arts background. This would be in contrast to artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, who came to Pop after fine-arts training rather than commercial art gigs.

By 1969, Apple had formed one of the earliest alternative artist-run spaces in New York, appropriately dubbed “Apple,” at 161 West 23rd Street, in his words, “in order to provide an independent and experimental alternative for the presentation of my own work and the work of other artists.” Apple worked closely with a number of Fluxus artists during this period including Geoffrey Hendricks, Larry Miller and Nam June Paik (the latter recorded a soundtrack to accompany Gaseous Discharge Phenomena, a 1968 film that Apple created of his own twisted, abstracted neon-tube works of the time). Fluxus, the (non-)movement of American, European and Asian experimental artists pushing the boundaries of what “art” can be, had a significant presence in New York at that moment and (non-)leader George Maciunas had been instrumental in making Soho an important living-working district for the arts community. These artists, including Apple, were investing their efforts into far more noncommercial, ephemeral and performance-based works. Apple’s gallery/studio continued over the course of four years, incorporating a variety of exhibitions and events.

Apple Buttons originally shown in “American Supermarket” at Bianchini Gallery, New York, 1964. Installation view at “Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else” at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2015. Courtesy Billy Apple® Archive.

Young Contemporaries 1962, 1961, originally titled Label Painting (With Space For Cynical Remarks), offset lithography on canvas, 51.5 × 76.5 cm. Courtesy private collection, London.

Addendum To ‘Subtraction.’ The Given As An Art-Political Statement, 1998, silver gelatin print and screen print on card, 89.5 × 126.3 cm. Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

During this time, Apple performed and documented a series of works involving cleaning and sweeping surfaces, both interior and exterior, collecting detritus including broken glass and, in “Body Activities, June 1970–June 1973” (1971–73), gathering samples of his own bodily fluids and waste in an obsessive and diaristic manner. This series of artworks makes for an interesting meditation on materiality, particularly in light of the burgeoning amount of performance works of the time, such as those of Vito Acconci (Seedbed, 1972) and Chris Burden (Shoot, 1971) and associated notions of “dematerialization.” Critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler had notably characterized conceptual art as increasingly “dematerialized” by 1967, writing: “The studio is again becoming a study. Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialization of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object’s becoming wholly obsolete.” In his text dated March 1, 1971, however, Apple proposed contradictory aspects of such a designation in his statement: “If you wipe a dirty spot off a wall you’ve removed it, but you haven’t eliminated it. You’re stuck with a dirty rag you didn’t have before.” Through the “Body Activities” works, Apple’s physical residues became exhibited and archived almost as if he were a forensic investigator.

It is also notable that Apple facilitated works of so many Fluxus artists, because they were, as a movement, generally more interested in advancing an eccentric, playful materialism than being involved in efforts to abandon the object-artwork altogether. Yet the no-frills, DIY, street-level egalitarianism of this alternative art scene, despite its temporary freedoms and capacity to fuel innovative modes of practice, ran counter to the artist’s own ambitions for greater public attention. According to American artist Jerry Vis, who exhibited at Apple’s 23rd Street space: “He really wanted recognition. He really wanted fame and glory and anything that could possibly come from being a successful artist. He wanted world renown. He really did. It was very difficult for him, you know, wanting to be accepted but at the same time wanting to push the boundaries back.”

Although personally ambitious and stylistically restless, Apple was sincere in his desire to foster younger experimental scenes. Significantly, Apple would return to making many appearances within the context of New Zealand’s alternative galleries later in his career, recalling the early 1970s period in New York. As Auckland-based critic Anthony Byrt noted in 2003: “In the last decade or so [the 1990s], [Apple] has collaborated with younger artists and has been consistently involved with new contemporary galleries such as Teststrip, 23A, rm401, the High Street Project and now Ramp, all of which are non-institutional project spaces that have sought to support emergent artists.” Throughout his career Apple continued as a productive artist not only working with commercial galleries and major public institutions but as a facilitator and promoter of others. Perhaps, with his media savvy, Apple also understood that without some efforts at intergenerational recognition and cross-collaboration he would be considered solely a “historical” artist.

Even through his New York period, Apple maintained his international connections, and in the spring of 1974, at the invitation of British curator Norbert Lynton, Apple mounted “From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple,” a midcareer retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery, to a mixed reception. In fact, the show was shut down for three days due to complaints to the Metropolitan Police about the “Body Activities” works, which were perceived as obscene and were subsequently removed. This act became a residual documentary work itself, entitled A Requested Subtraction, 10 April 1974 (1971–74). In the aftermath of this, Apple visited New Zealand for the first time after 17 years abroad, holding out hope for a successful tour at galleries across the country. But instead, he was ridiculed by the popular media for his extreme approach to art in a local context that, despite the efforts of many in the art community, was still very traditional and reluctant to immediately embrace Apple’s unconventional practice.

Extension Of The Given (Stairway Entrance), 1977, site-specific work at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1977. Courtesy Mayor Gallery, London.

Invitation card to “Extension of the Given (Stairway Entrance),” at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1977. Silver gelatin print on card, 40 × 30.1 cm. Courtesy Mayor Gallery, London. 

However, from 1977 to 1984, Apple found a more receptive context for some of his installation works in the renowned Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, which was then a key supporter of Pop, Minimalism and later Conceptualist practices. Apple had first met Castelli through Jasper Johns in 1962. In Extension of the Given (Stairway Entrance) (1977), a doorway leading to the gallery was fixed while open—in effect, extending the outward dimensions of the space, with the floor area of the door’s arc outside the gallery demarcated by white paint. This referenced the idiom “get one’s foot in the door” and could be seen to echo Marcel Duchamp’s earlier 11, Rue Larrey studio door from 1927 that hung between and served two doorways, defying the notion that a door must be either open or shut.

It is significant to note that while Apple’s works have always been attributed under his own name, he has variously enlisted collaborators, co-conspirators and contract workers, echoing to some degree his commercial training and experience. The New Zealand art critic Wystan Curnow worked with Apple as a “copy writer” and developed in conjunction with the artist some very key notions, slogans and statements-cum-manifestos throughout the 1970s and ’80s. In the mid-1970s, the critic wrote a lengthy and highly appreciative piece, and later, writing of the artist, Curnow commented in retrospect:

I decided I would myself act the part of Billy’s agent, tour manager and PR man. I jacked up a lecture tour [in 1979] to fund his way around the country [New Zealand], permitting him to take up the opportunities for making in-situ works that had, by then, developed. Several venues were finalized by the time he arrived. Then we discussed his “psychic insulation” and decided that he would be unavailable for photographs or interviews. Reporters were to be invited to lectures and referred to me in Auckland or to the gallery staff at the venues concerned. Our aim was to frustrate media attempts to fetishize the “avant-garde” artist.

Mercury Energy from the series “Paid: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else,” paid invoices mounted on A3 paper printed by offset lithography, 56.5 × 42 cm each. Courtesy the artist.

Parking Ticket from the series “Paid: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else,” paid invoices mounted on A3 paper printed by offset lithography, 56.5 × 42 cm each. Courtesy the artist.

European Motors Ltd from the series “Paid: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else,” paid invoices mounted on A3 paper printed by offset lithography, 56.5 × 42 cm each. Courtesy the artist.

Red Light Police Fine from the series “Paid: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else,” paid invoices mounted on A3 paper printed by offset lithography, 56.5 × 42 cm each. Courtesy the artist.

Appearing on Apple’s behalf, Curnow thus became a significant interlocutor and determining figure for the ways in which the artist’s work was conceived and elaborated to the public. When one considers how involved and integral this process was to the work of a very driven, demanding and meticulous artist, and for an often profoundly unreceptive audience, this was indeed no small feat.

Despite his own carefully crafted public image, Apple has always sought out intermediaries. In a different sense than Curnow, the Wellington-based art historian and curator Christina Barton, with her voluminous knowledge and archivist’s care, has today taken on the role of assiduously articulating the historic significance of Apple’s oeuvre, most recently in the first large-scale survey of the artist’s work at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki this year: “Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else,” which selectively presented examples of the artist’s practice from the past 50 years. Apple is thus being increasingly recognized as one of the key figures in New Zealand’s dialogue with international art historical developments, with fellow artists such as Len Lye (1901–1980) and Julian Dashper (1960–2009), along with gallerists such as Peter McLeavey.

“The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else” is a phrase originally written by Curnow for Apple’s “Paid: The Artist Has To Live Like Everybody Else” series of the late 1980s, a group of works that present an interesting comparison to Andy Warhol’s practice. While Warhol was making commissioned portraits for the social elite in his later career, Apple depicted himself trading art for basic worldly needs in this series. For example, an artist-friend of mine paid the bill for the tires for Apple’s car so that the vehicle would pass a safety inspection. In return, the same artist received a “custom” artwork from Apple memorializing the transaction. In so doing, Apple offers up a portrait of quotidian life as well as a self-portrait in which his identity remains central, rather than that of the other party in question. While Warhol was quite definitively not “living like everybody else,” Apple was making a critical comment particularly related to the smaller, more scruffy New Zealand context rather than his long-standing adopted home of New York. In New Zealand, the chances of an artist living off the proceeds of an art practice are astronomically small, both then and now—although Apple has effectively managed to do so. At the same time, he cleverly highlights the notable similarities and differences between artists—and the economy in which their art circulates—and other members of society.

Apple built on the concept through a number of works under the banner of “Art Transactions,” begun in the early 1980s, which includes commissions where each individual or institutional collector was able to specify certain formal characteristics of the image he produced, in a series of paintings known as “From the Collection . . . ” For these works, the title phrase itself is emblazoned on the surface of the work, becoming part of the composition’s visual content. Executed in an approach that still summons aspects of institutional critique, the paintings are in effect sponsored by patrons but function within the channels of the contemporary art market. Apple continually reiterates both his status as an artist and his ability to negotiate and disperse his practice across numerous (and unlikely) settings. He has even gone as far as trading his art for dual hip replacements.

Installation view of “Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else” at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2015. Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. 

Apple’s most recent projects have included offering a line of Apple-branded commodities: among them, apples (of course), fragrance, wine, juice, tea and coffee, all glossily packaged and designed. In a peculiar way, this lends the impression of an artist who drew inspiration from the commercial environment, in a sense “corporatizing” and dispersing his identity back into the land of everyday commerce. He is perhaps closing a circuit begun and alluded to more satirically in the “American Supermarket” gestures, an impulse that culminated in the artist’s successful attempt to launch Billy Apple as a registered trademark (2007–08). Billy Apple has become a brand of his own.

Another project that creates a 21st-century reverberation to that of the earlier “Body Activities” is The Immortalization of Billy Apple® (2009– ), in which the artist, in collaboration with New Zealand biochemist Craig Hilton and biological sciences professor Rod Dunbar, enables his blood cells to become lab cultures for use in future medical research, as well as the sequencing and archiving of a digital version of the artist’s entire genome. Apple’s canvas I Consent (2009) reads: “I consent to the wide distribution of cell lines derived from my blood, including deposit with the American Type Culture Collection cell bank. I understand that this may enable unrestricted use of my cells in research outside my control, including the potential analysis of my DNA.” Thus Apple’s attempt to become an externally recognizable identity, a brand, a trademark, becomes associated and conceptually merged with his own actual biochemistry and physical attributes.

Immortal or not, “Billy Apple,” a character of his own self-invention, with a little help from his friends, can almost seem like a kind of fictional concoction of manifold selves. I would have thought him a complete and total apparition if I hadn’t encountered him myself from time to time, still a tireless and ubiquitous inhabitant, force and prowler of New Zealand’s contemporary art scene.

I Consent, 2009, UV-impregnated ink on canvas, 100 × 160 cm. Courtesy the artist and Starkwhite, Auckland.