Sep 06 2021

Obituary: Billy Apple (1935–2021)

by Suining Sim

Portrait of BILLY APPLE at his exhibition “Billy Apple® Six Decades 1962–2018,” Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong, 2018. Photo by Esther Chan for ArtAsiaPacific.

On September 5, Billy Apple, a pioneer in the conceptual art movement whose influence spanned art scenes in London, New York, and New Zealand, passed away at age 85.

As part of an international generation of pop artists who used commercial imagery to poke fun at the art world’s elitist pretensions, Billy Apple defined himself by dissolving the boundaries between visual art and mass consumer culture, eventually transforming himself into a brand. He exhibited widely in his lifetime, holding more than 250 solo exhibitions and contributing to more than 250 group shows. His work is held in public collections including the Tate Britain in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and institutions across New Zealand, including the Auckland Art Gallery, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, and Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.

Born Barrie George Bates to a modest suburban Auckland family, he entered the advertising world after leaving school in 1951 despite his lack of formal training. The postwar economic boom opened jobs in the marketing world in the mid-1950s, and Bates developed a modern, pared-back aesthetic. While freelancing for various agencies, Bates continued his studies of fine art by taking evening classes at the Elam School of Fine Arts. In 1958, he met Robert Ellis, who quickly became his mentor and helped him prepare a portfolio for the graphic design course at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, where he relocated to study in 1959.

The postwar vibrancy buoyed him again in London, as the city was emerging from an era of rationing and recovery efforts. At the RCA, Bates found a common outlook with fellow students including David Hockney, Derek Boshier, RB Kitaj, and Patrick Caulfield, who would become part of the pop generation in the British art scene. In 1962, with a tube of hair-whitening product, he went blond and took on his new name of Billy Apple, a process documented by Robert Freeman in the photograph Billy Apple Bleaching with Lady Clairol Instant Creme Whip, November 1962 (1962/2002). This image was featured in Apple’s first solo exhibition in 1963 at London’s Gallery One, “Apple Sees Red: Live Stills,” which explored the extent to which he could style himself as a product. Flattening himself into a consumable brand was a prescient postmodern move, yet no work from the show sold and the perplexed coverage in the press marked the beginning of Apple’s frustration with the staidness of the British scene.

After several visits to New York, where he met numerous artists, from Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, and gallerists including Leo Castelli and Arne Glimcher (of the newly opened Pace Gallery), Apple relocated to the city in 1964. Upon landing, his dealer Paul Bianchini invited him to contribute to the "American Supermarket” exhibition in October of that year, where he displayed his canvas depictions of red apples alongside works by Warhol, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselman, Roy Lichtenstein, and others. In the ensuing years, Apple would begin creating multiples of his articles as well as editioned printed works that were becoming increasingly popular. In 1968, he joined celebrity photographer Bert Stern’s attempt to break down the elitist barriers surrounding galleries to sell “art for living” in a commercial boutique known as On First. He also catered to the growing demand for flashy art to be used in corporate marketing, with a series of neon sculptures created for Pepsi-Cola’s new global headquarters in 1966.

As the city faced financial decline in the 1970s and ’80s and the cultural mood in the United States shifted, Apple transitioned from making pop-art products and toward a conceptual practice. He established the non-profit APPLE space on West 23rd Street in 1969, which his first wife, Jacki, managed, showing more than 30 artists over the course of its run through early 1973. His practice turned toward activities inventorying his daily life, as in projects like Excretory Wipings (1970). In 1974, he took this concept to a survey exhibition, “From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple, 1960–1974,” at the Serpentine Gallery in London, exhibiting a series of tissues smeared with bodily fluids in a project called Body Activities (1970–73). Members of the British public were so scandalized by the show they reported the exhibition to the Obscene Publications unit of the Metropolitan Police, who ordered it closed the next day.

In the 1980s, Apple’s focus shifted back to the economy of art. He launched a series of Art Transactions works (1981–91), which examined art’s place as a commodity by creating aesthetic shortcuts to our everyday economy. In PAID: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else (1981), for instance, he created prints in the form of invoices that were paid by collectors, and later used prints to barter for goods ranging from lunches, haircuts, and even hernia repair surgery in Bartered (1988–91). And throughout the 1980s, Apple split his time between New York and New Zealand, before finally relocating, in 1990, to his birth country for good.

In his later career, Apple pushed his conceptual projects even further, working with Hort+Research to brand a new apple cultivar, an experimentation with intellectual property that would see him formalize his brand status in 2007 and become a registered trademark. In introducing a new legal aspect into the maintenance of the Billy Apple construction, he blurred the lines between person and product in the 21st century.

Up until his death, he acted as an ambassador for New Zealand’s visual arts. His final exhibition, “Billy Apple® – A Brand Looking For A Product,” is on view at MTG Hawke’s Bay, in Napier, until October 31. Apple was represented by Auckland’s Starkwhite, Wellington’s Hamish McKay, London- and Hong Kong-based Rossi & Rossi, and The Mayor Gallery in London. He is survived by his partner, Mary Morrison.

Suining Sim is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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SAM Massimo de Carlo CHRISTIE"S KUKJE GALLERY E-flux 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art