Billy Apple in Rarotonga, in association with Starkwhite, Auckland
August 27 – September 7 2019
Opening Tuesday August 27 @6pm with CITC Liquor.
Billy Apple, Exhibiting Artist.
John McCormack, Director, Starkwhite, Auckland.
Ben Bergman, Director, Bergman Gallery.
Bergman Gallery and Starkwhite are pleased to present pop art and conceptual artist, Billy Apple – in Rarotonga. Billy Apple is a widely regarded international art presence, his 60 year exhibition history and practice spanning Europe, The United States, Australia, Asia, New Zealand and now, the central Pacific.
Recent selected international exhibitions include;
Last Look Before BREXIT, PIASA, Paris.
House of the Sleeping Beauties,S/2 Sotheby’s, London.
Billy Apple®: Six Decades 1962-2018, Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong.
Camera Pop: La fotografia nella Pop Art di Warhol, Schifano & Co, Camera/ Centro Italiano per la Fotografia, Torino.
The Real Thing: Pop and Minimal Art, Scottish National Galleries of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
Constellations: Highlights from the Nations Collection of Modern Art: Cindy Sherman Room, Tate Liverpool.
The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else 1961–2018, The Mayor Gallery, London.
Mutterzunge: Seeing and Hearing, curated by Adnan Yildiz, Apartment Project, Berlin.
Warhol and the World of Pop Art, 2015, The Lightbox, Surrey.
60s Art, 2015, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
International Pop, 2015, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, Dallas Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Art as a Verb, 2015, Artspace, Sydney.
When Britain Went Pop! British Pop Art: The Early Years, 2013, Christie’s Mayfair, London.
Pop Art in Western Europe, 2013, Museum het Valkhof, Nijmegen.
Gold, 2012, Belvedere Palace Museum, Vienna.
Remix, 2011–2012, Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia, Museum in Agency of Unrealised Projects, 2011, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kopfbau Basel.
For Love Not Money, 2011 The 15th Tallinn Print Triennial, Tallinn.
“Early Conceptualists”, Chapter Two, 2011, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff Gallery, Paris. Alternative Histories, 2010, Exit Art, New York.
Toi Te Papa Art of the Nation, 2006, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.
Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture, 2002, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt and Tate Liverpool.
Chronos + Kairos: Die Zeit in der Zeitgenössischen Kunst, 2000, Museum Fridericianum, Kassel.
Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s, 1999, Queens Museum of Art, New York.
Apple’s work is held in public collections such as the Detroit Institute of Arts; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; National Gallery of Australia and Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand. Recent acquisitions include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Tate Britain and Dunedin Public Art Gallery. He is represented by Starkwhite, Auckland; Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington; The Mayor Gallery, London and Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong.
At the invitation of Bergman Gallery and with support from his Auckland art dealer, Starkwhite, Billy Apple presents an exhibition in Rarotonga for the first time. His works are drawn from two of his signature series’ – From the Collections and Billy Apple® Friezes. The From the Collection works are the product of discussions between artist and commissioning collectors and operate both as their text-based portrait and as a frontispiece for their art collection. The Billy Apple® Friezes feature Apple’s brand logo which has its origins in his 1962 name change and establishment of his art brand after graduation from the Royal College of Art, London. Conceptually the two halves and whole apple in Frieze acknowledge the past, present and future.
Billy Apple was born Barrie George Bates in Auckland, New Zealand, December 31, 1935. In 1959, he gained admission to study graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London. After graduating in 1962, alongside David Hockney, R J Kitaj, Peter Phillips and others, this new crop of maverick ‘pop’ artists quickly developed a reputation for their seemingly irreverent preference for appropriating motifs from popular culture and everyday life, challenging traditional definitions of art media and exploiting methods of communication. Bates began a career defining conceptual art statement by formally changing his name and morphing into the art construct, BILLY APPLE on November 22nd 1962, American Independence Day.
Fascinated by the consumer driven nature of American culture, Apple moved to NYC in 1964, producing pop-related paintings and objects before developing a body of neon sculptures, showing at various venues including the Bianchini Gallery, Howard Wise Gallery and the Pepsi Cola Gallery. Of note was the group exhibition American Supermarket where Billy Apple exhibited alongside Claes Oldenbutg, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Bob Watts and James Rosenquist. By 1969 Apple had shifted to a more conceptual and process-oriented practice. To create a venue for his work he established Apple, a not-for-profit space at 161 West 23rd Street which he operated between October 1969 and May 1973. A major survey of Apple’s work, which brought together his pop and conceptual works from 1960 to 1974, was staged at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1974.
He exhibited regularly at various venues in New York’s alternative art scene including 3 Mercer Street, Holly Solomon and the Clocktower, and for one year was director of 112 Greene Street Gallery (1975-76). Apple remained in New York until 1991, continuing to exhibit his work in various venues, including Leo Castelli Gallery (in 1977, 1978, 1980, and 1984). He also made two extended tours to New Zealand in 1975 and 1979-80, producing a string of site-specific installations in dealer and public galleries throughout the country.
Since the early 1980s Apple has complemented his installation practice with text-based works that draw attention to the art system and highlight the network of relations that operate between artist, dealer, and collector. A survey of these, As Good as Gold: Billy Apple Art Transactions 1981-1991, was organised and toured by Wellington City Art Gallery in 1991. He became a registered trademark in 2007 to formalise his art brand status and continues to develop projects that address this, for example working with apple growers over the production and branding of a new apple cultivar and a collaborative art/science project, The Immortalisation of Billy Apple®, in which cells from his blood have been virally transformed to create a cell line that will live outside the body for use in studies like cancer research.
Based in Auckland since 1990, Billy Apple exhibits regularly in dealer, public and artist-run galleries throughout New Zealand and in Australia, and his works have been included in major international and national touring exhibitions. These include: Toi Toi Toi: Three Generations of New Zealand Artists (Kassel & Auckland, 1999); Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin (New York, 1999); Kronos + Kairos: die Zeit in der Zeitgenössischen Kunst, (Kassel, 1999); Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture (Frankfurt & Liverpool, 2002-3); American Supermarket (Pittsburgh, 2002), and Art of the ’60s from Tate Britain (Auckland, 2006).
In 2009 a second major survey exhibition of Apple’s work was staged in two parts at Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam (Billy Apple®: A History of the Brand and Revealed/Concealed). In New Zealand aspects of his career have been reevaluated in exhibitions such as Billy Apple: New York 1969-1973 (Wellington 2009) and Billy Apple® The Artist Has To Live Like Everybody Else, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi O Tāmaki, 2015. Courtesy Starkwhite, Mary Morrison & Bergman Gallery.
Billy Apple in Rarotonga
There is a world that could be written about Billy Apple, as much perhaps as the 60 reams of A4 paper printed back to back that it would take to publish his genome – the complete set of his DNA.
“We’re doing a movie right now. The four letters ATGC in four colours represent the four nucleotide bases that make up my DNA. We’re going to do the whole genome sequence,” says Apple. “It will be an endless running strip that can go for days…a typographic movie.”
Because we don’t have 60 reams let’s skip over the basics: Apple is a living pop and conceptual art legend with a 60 year exhibition history spanning most of the world;books have been written and major institutional retrospectives have been held;he was born Barrie Bates before he rebranded himself in 1962 to become a new work of art named Billy Apple; he studied alongside David Hockney at the Royal College of Art in London and exhibited alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in New York; since 1990 he has lived in Aotearoa New Zealand. Apple has a fascination with the golden ratio of 1:1.618, which can be represented as a classic golden rectangle. In November Billy Apple will be 57 years old, but in December it will be 84 years since Barrie Bates was born.
A Billy Apple show in Bergman Gallery in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, is not perhaps what you might expect.
“For Billy Apple to be exhibiting here is a very big deal,” says Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery. Bergman first met Apple in 2012 through their mutual colleague and friend John McCormack, co-Director of Starkwhite. “I’d been a big fan for quite a while. One day I was sitting in John’s office at Starkwhite and Billy walked in.”
“Billy is a very adventurous soul. He always has something going on – he isn’t afraid. Whenever we would meet, he would ask, how about we do a show in Rarotonga. At first I was a bit taken aback, thinking, perhaps overthinking, how we could deliver a Billy Apple project.”
In August 2019, seven Billy Apple canvases hang in Bergman Gallery, the exhibition presented in association with Starkwhite. There are five Billy Apple® Friezes which refer to the past, present and future, and two From the Collection canvases that function as text-based portraits. Apple maintains that if you read the name, you think of the person. There are a few more visual clues like using their favourite colours.
The From the Collection works are the result of a negotiation between artist and collector, personalised within Apple’s compositional systems. One of these, From the Ben Bergman Collection usually hangs on the wall of Bergman’s apartment. Painted in pearlescent white, Apple knew that Bergman worked in pearls but not black pearls. It is now paired with a second commission, From the Bergman Brown Collection with white text on pearlescent black.
“If we can show Billy Apple within a Cook Islands context, it puts Cook Islands contemporary art in a different framework – to be able to say that, tonight I’m going to see a pop/conceptual art show of original works by Billy Apple, in Rarotonga. It’s about raising the level – demonstrating we can host museum level shows, to show global contemporary art,” says Bergman.
The Billy Apple® Friezes at Bergman Gallery have their roots in Apple’s 1960s self-branding works where he took on the identity of an art work and made works with apples to reinforce the ideas behind his new art brand.
Throughout his career he has returned to the subject of brand apples. ‘Billy Apple/Class 31. Billy Apple ® Cultivar, (Red),2007 is “painted candy apple red and cast from a new apple cultivar named after me – it looks like a big glowing ruby,” he says.
Class 31 refers to fresh fruit, one of eight classes in which Billy Apple is a registered trademark. The apple came about like many of his projects – through discussion and dialogue and an openness to new ideas. In this case, Apple happened on a lecture in the anthropology department of Victoria University of Wellington in the late 1990s. “It was titled ‘It’s all about getting apples into boxes’. I thought, this is a lecture made for me – I’ve got to go.”
He spoke with the lecturer afterwards and told her about his idea to have an apple named after him that he would brand as an art project. It turned out her father was an orchardist in Hawkes Bay, who in turn put him in touch with Dr Allan White at HortResearch. Between 2001 and 2007 he worked with horticulturalists and apple growers on the Billy Apple® cultivar, a cross between Braeburn and Royal Gala apples.
“I loved the notion of having a new cultivar named Billy Apple, which is a contemporary update on my original self-branding works,” he says. “One of the HortResearch conditions was that I had to become a registered trademark and gain registration in Class 31 fresh fruit and 44 orchard services.”
He has extended his trademark registrations to cover other areas of his practice including the classes for printed matter, clothing, fragrance, non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages (Billy Apple® Cider), and coffee, tea and apple pie. Each class became a canvas, all of which are lined up in the offices of his Intellectual Property lawyers, MinterEllisonRuddWatts (MERW).
“I’m probably one of the most interesting intellectual property clients they have had to trademark,” he says. “John McCormack convinced the partners to let me do the work and now they’re very proud of it. Here’s a classic art project about how ideas are controlled legally today.”
Payment for their services, particularly those of Christopher Young, head of intellectual property, who worked through the long and complex process of trademarking Billy Apple, came in the form of a work installed on a wall in the MERW foyer. At Apple’s request this was built exactly to the proportions of the golden ratio.
“Right across the red wall it said in my big bold letters $100 000 in white and underneath in black is Credit held by Billy Apple for legal services from Minter Ellison. It gave me a hundred grand,” explains Apple. “Being commercial lawyers they probably thought we’re going to get a cheap art work, because what kind of legal advice are you actually going to use? I was seeking to do the apple cultivar with HortResearch at the time and needed to become a trademark. So that’s where the legal credit went!”
The MERW work also falls within Apple’s Art Transaction series’ where credit was advanced for legal services. Other arrangements or Barters as he often refers to them, include everyday activities like going to the doctor, the dentist, the hairdresser and having coffee and lunches in exchange for art.
As Apple talks he draws, the table is soon covered in small rectangular pieces of notepaper. They are quick sketches to explain his work over the past 30 or so years – just his recent work. He talks of colours and typefaces, and of measurement and percentages. When conversation moves to science and working with scientists, there is a sense of an endless river of ideas and opportunities.
“It takes you places, working with experts in other fields. I’ve spent a lifetime exhibiting in galleries and institutions. Now I’m enjoying working outside the gallery system with specialists in various fields. I’m able to add a cultural component to their research.”
Molecular biologists at the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland, are working on Apple’s gut microbiome, the microbial species like bacteria that live in the gut. By collecting and comparing recent faecal samples with those from Apple’s 1970 conceptual work Excretory Wipings, Dr Justin O’Sullivan has been able to extend international research by 46 years.
The results showed that 45% of Apple’s gut microbes stayed the same over those 46 years, demonstrating a genetic component to their retention – it’s not just all about lifestyle; and that as you age there is less diversity and a drift towards this core microbiome.
Apple has used the data to make two large-scale art works about his microbiome which he donated to the Liggins Institute after presenting them at an international science meeting held in Queenstown in 2017.
A work Apple finally completed earlier this year included the Cook Islands, following an invitation to contribute to an extraordinary project by marine geologist, Dr Cornel de Ronde from GNS Science. Over a period of ten years, GNS and NIWA have mapped the undersea boundary for the continent of Aotearoa New Zealand, defined by where the continent meets the sea floor, and have added land equivalent to the size of Alaska to the territory. In 2008, the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, UNCLOS, ratified this boundary and Aotearoa New Zealand has now became the fifth largest continent on earth, albeit mostly under water.
For his part, Apple asked de Ronde an ostensibly simple question, “Where is the centre of this extended continental shelf of New Zealand?” Given the vast scale of the largely underwater territory and the curvature of the earth, it was not the sort of question a scientist was likely to ask.
After several months of calculations, much to everyone’s surprise the centre was determined to be on dry land – only 4% of Aotearoa New Zealand is above water – in the Wairarapa on a ridge on the eastern side of the Tararua Ranges. De Ronde and the Department of Conservation helicoptered Apple’s metre wide engraved stainless-steel survey pin into position to mark the site. As he says, “It’s a small work representing a huge idea.”
Apple has lived in Aotearoa New Zealand since 1990. And while this trip to Rarotonga is his first ever holiday, even though it is a working holiday, his home in Auckland is where he works from and where he finds his peace.
“I feel comfortable working there, the yellow breakfast table is my base and I look out on a big sky and wide views across Auckland towards the Waitakere Ranges. My partner, Mary Morrison’s made a lovely place for us and our West Highland White Terrier, Macintosh,” he says.
Their house is a recently restored hundred year old bungalow that sits on a gentle hillside created by the lava flow from an historic volcanic eruption. Above the house is a massive hundred and twenty year old oak tree like an umbrella protecting the developing native garden planted by Mary.
Some of his own work, and works by others such as Bill Hammond and Arnold Manaaki Wilson hang in their house. Recently Morrison made sure a Wilson work went to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. “Mary has a sense like I do that you have to find the right place for these things. History is like that,” he says.
Prior to his exhibition in Rarotonga, Apple was in Ruatoki, working on a project with Tāme Iti, and co-ordinated by James McCarthy. Apple lived intermittently in Ruatokiwith family when he was younger and on this visit Iti helped him locate the landmarks that framed his time there.
“Tāme’s an incredible orator. I was pleased to be in his company,” says Apple, who in 2012 donated work to an art auction that raised funds for Iti’s appeal against his Urewera Raids conviction. “I was privileged to be invited by him to place a work in Te Ranimoaho, the wharenui dedicated to Rua Kenena on the Te Rewarewa Pā.”
The project included an app and a site work on the Line of Confiscationby Iti and Apple’s installation in Te Ranimoaho. The installation was an iteration of his Basic Needstext work, translated into te reo Māoriby Iti, with an addition of a new title Tūmanako, meaning hope for the future. “The rear windows or eyes of the wharenui were covered by the works, focusing attention on the spiritual aesthetics of the interior,” Apple explains.
Apple talks continually of what he would like to work on next, endless new ideas of projects that are underway or in discussion. He sketches out the rough dimensions of a house, its proportions based on the golden ratio. A residence, maybe in Ruatoki, is under discussion.The house is not a new idea, having first been presented to McCormack back in the 1980s when he was working for the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council.
“Billy turned up to talk to me about a project that I am embarrassed to say I didn’t get. It was Billy saying he wanted funding for a house,” says McCormack. McCormack’s advice was that it wouldn’t go through. The idea was shelved, only to reemerge 35 years later.
“We still do the same things – we talk about good ideas. We spend Saturday mornings mostly sitting and drinking coffee talking about great ideas. Billy makes things, we make shows. It’s been a good long and rewarding relationship,” says McCormack. “I think Billy is our greatest living artist, and I think he’s one of New Zealand’s greatest ever artists – one of the artists who has made a huge reputation offshore. Billy will be one of the very few artists who gets a late great moment.”
“Helmut Krone (the legendary New York art director) came up with this idea for Avis Rental Cars that if you’re number two you have to try harder,” says Apple. “It’s an amazing concept. I have to try harder, every day I try harder. I’m still hungry. I haven’t achieved all I want to yet.”
There is no sense that Apple is slowing down. From here he goes to a four week residency in Shanghai. After that, there will be a new project planned. And he says he might even come back again to Rarotonga for another holiday.
Portrait of an artist: Billy Apple
14 Mar, 2015
New Zealand Herald Article.
“Sold”, 1981, acrylic on canvas. Photo / Billy Apple archive
More than 50 years ago an artist from Auckland changed his name to Billy Apple and became a living brand. On the eve of a major retrospective of his life’s work, he talked to Greg Dixon about his past, his present and his future.
The artist Billy Apple, who turns 80 this year, said, “I think I’m going to be a late finisher”.
From his living room’s leather couch, surrounded by old papers, exhibition catalogues and art-works encased in bubble wrap he eyed me quietly, almost puckishly, as I sat by the living room window on a straight-backed chair. In his short silence, we could hear the cicadas singing in his Mt Eden garden. They couldn’t quite drown out the howling irony of what he’d just said.
Apple, after all, has been making art for well over half a century. He was there when art went pop in the 60s, when he hung out with Hockney in London and Warhol in New York. He was there when art went conceptual later that decade. He was shown by perhaps the most famous dealer in New York and had a London show shut down by the British cops for indecency. In the 80s he made a golden apple with a price tag of $85,000, and went on to “barter” his art for everything from coffee to legal advice. By 2007 he was a registered brand – though of course he’s been a registered original all his life – and, in 2010, cells from the body of this man who may well be New Zealand’s most successful artist were made immortal.
A late finisher? Was he joking? Not a bit. My question might have been about art and immorality but his answer was clearly about the thing that was most on his mind: will the man Billy Apple survive long enough to see the brand Billy Apple set in what he see as its rightful place?
“You know what I mean?” he continued. “I think where things are now, and the interest that people are taking in what I’m doing, and the people wanting to buy things, is doing this” – he made an upward line with a hand – “and that’s nice at the end of one’s time.”
Today the Auckland Art Gallery (AAG) opens its doors on what is being billed as the most substantial survey of the artist’s work to be held here, an exhibition spanning more than 50 years of practice and more than 150 works. It will run for three months. It follows a major two-part exhibition of his works at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art in 2009, two major solos shows at London’s old and prestigious Major Gallery – the esteemed James Major is Apple’s Northern Hemisphere dealer – and next month the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will include him in its survey of Pop Art. His work, meanwhile, is held by major museums and galleries around the world, including Te Papa in Wellington, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Tate Britain in London.
This is the brand’s upward line. As for the finishing – late or otherwise – of the man, he’s showing few outward signs it’s imminent. Wearing shorts, a grey T-shirt with an unbuttoned blue dress shirt over the top and his trademark amber-framed glasses, he seems a bit fragile but not frail. He moves a little slowly – this perhaps due to a recent fall – and appears to rely heavily on his partner, Mary Morrison. But he doesn’t look his age, and his hair, which has spent much of his adulthood threatening to leave him, is still hanging on for dear life; as grey as a cloud it rests on the back of his head like a Roman laurel.
If the body has weakened somewhat, his voice is still strong, his memory clear, his opinions sharp and if he grows at all tired during our nearly three-and-a-half-hour chat, he shows no sign of it.
Yet time is running out, and preparations must be made. And he’s quite upfront about this retrospective in his hometown’s largest public gallery being less an excitement to him than an opportunity to be prepared.
“What it does do is it allows you to review your work, it allows you to review where you’ve been. At some point people like to get their ‘affairs in order’, so it’s like getting your affairs in order in your mind.”
And there is much to be remembered before the finishing – not least how it all began.
Billy Apple the brand, the idea, the artist, was forged in the white heat of Swinging London in the early 1960s. And the story of how he came to be there and how he came to be the brand is a unique story in New Zealand art.
The man who became Billy Apple was born at the other end of the world, in Auckland, with the rather more prosaic name of Barrie Bates, on the last day of 1935. His parents Albert and Marija’s first born (of four), he was not sent to a school in Orakei where the family lived, but to Mt Albert Grammar. He did not thrive. Instead he was bullied. Bates left the school as soon as he could, in 1951 aged 15, without a qualification. He quickly found a job working for a paint manufacturer, but the boy clearly had artistic talent. His father encouraged him to take night classes in drawing at the Elam School of Fine Arts. It was there he encountered possibly the most important person in the Billy Apple story, Robert Ellis. A British painter and product of the famed Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, Ellis taught, encouraged and finally assisted Bates to apply for and gain his own place at the RCA, in the college’s graphic design school.
So it was that in 1959 Bates boarded a boat for England and the start of another, almost entirely unexpected, life as an international artist. It was not what his family wanted.
“Billy’s father didn’t want him to go,” Morrison says as Apple sits silently. “Bob Ellis told me this: [Albert, Billy’s father] was on the dock and turned around to Bob, who had been instrumental in getting Billy into the RCA, and he said ‘why have you done this to our family?'”
If it hurt the father, the son didn’t look back; he didn’t return to New Zealand for 16 years.
Did it take guts to go, to leave family and country far behind for London as not much more than a kid back in 1959? It must have done. But the old Apple says of the young Bates, that even then he knew exactly what he was about. “There was a purpose at the end of it … it wasn’t like ‘I’m going to go and have a look’ … [if that had been the case] maybe I wouldn’t have had that courage.”
Bates’ boldness in getting on that boat turned to good fortune when he stepped off it. He happened to arrive in London just in time for a revolution. British fashion and music were about to discover the miniskirt and the Mersey beat and, thanks to Apple and a small group of young artists at the RCA, including David Hockney, British art was about to go pop.
“Sold”, 1981, acrylic on canvas. Photo / Billy Apple archive
Taking inspiration from consumerism and commercial art, the work done by the young RCA students helped create the Pop Art movement and made a star of Hockney.
For Bates, who completed his three-year diploma in graphic design in 1962, Pop Art and the RCA (where he was uniquely allowed to work across the various art departments and facilities) opened his mind to a different kind of artistic approach. Drawing insight from methods used in advertising, where creatives generate ideas and others make the advertising material, he developed an art practice whereby he used the technical skills of others to realise his ideas. Why be a painter or a sculptor or photographer, he thought? It wasn’t the medium that mattered but the idea.
“[The RCA] allowed me to have a ‘hands off, head on’ [art practice]. I didn’t want to spend 10 years learning how to mould a peeled banana. There were people around who were fantastic at doing it … It has always been like that: the idea is paramount.”
And so, too, was the identity of the artist having the ideas. On November 22, 1962 – Thanksgiving Day, he later discovered – the artist born Barrie Bates decided he wanted to do something more radical still: to break down the barrier between “art activity and life activity”. After kicking the idea around with British painter Richard Smith, whose warehouse he was temporary crashing in, he decided to change his name and remake himself. To mark this rebirth, he bleached his hair with Lady Clairol Instant Creme Whip. Not long after, Robert Freeman, who would go on to photograph The Beatles, took a few pictures. Billy Apple had been born.
He shed Barrie Bates like a skin; he changed his name, he changed his look and he trained himself not respond if people referred to him as “Barrie”; he didn’t contact his family. In fact his parents, wondering if he was alive, contacted the British police and asked for them to find out if he still was.
“I suppose it’s like coming out,” he says about inventing Billy Apple half a century ago. “It gave me freedom, it was my own subject matter … It was a brand new thing.”
Or, in fact, a brand thing. The coming out of Billy Apple was a solo show, “Apple Sees Red” at Gallery One off Grosvenor Square in April the following year. “My very first show in London in 63 opened on April the first. It just turned out that way, but I was a bit worried at the time: April 1st, people will think it’s a joke.”
The reviews – including those in The Times, The Guardian and the Listener – were “enormous”, he says now. The trouble was his first show as Billy Apple “didn’t sell a bloody thing”. On the bones of his arse, he got work teaching at Maidstone College of Art for the then stonking sum of £20 a day – “It was rags to slight riches,” he deadpans – but the money and the terrific pub lunches weren’t nearly enough for one so driven. Was he ambitious from the very beginning?
“Absolutely, [I was] very competitive and quite envious of other people’s success. But eventually that went away and I realised that I didn’t need to be envious of anybody and that Billy Apple is Billy Apple and I’m inventing my rules and my game and what not, and it has nothing to do with anybody else, I couldn’t care less. And today, wherever I go, I feel the same way. I don’t give a shit.”
Within a year of becoming Apple he was in the Big Apple. He’d already visited New York with his friend Hockney (they still keep in touch) three times since 1961 – there’s a wonderful picture of them both smoking cigars on a beach at Coney Island – and he’d made art world contacts. As 1964 drew to a close he decided to move there permanently.
“Floor Painting 6 November 1971” at 161 West 23rd Street in New York. Photo / Jacki Apple
Christina Barton, a Wellington art academic and also the curator of the AAG’s Apple retrospective, has written that Apple headed across the Atlantic partly because he was an avid consumer of all things American, but also because he was frustrated by the “staidness of the British art world”. He tells me that when he saw famed London art dealer Robert Fraser’s eyes “glaze over” at Apple’s idea for a neon rainbow installation he thought “‘f*** it, that’s it’. So I went to New York.”
Again his timing was impeccable. Although, as Apple had hoped, the famed New York dealer Leo Castelli didn’t take him on, Castelli did introduce Apple to another top dealer, Paul Bianchini, who invited him to contribute to a new show. Two months after moving to New York, Apple had four works in one of the most influential and extraordinary Pop Art exhibitions ever mounted in New York. Called The American Supermarket, it transformed the Bianchini Gallery into what appeared to be small supermarket, but everything in it had been created by artists including Apple and some of American’s most important artists: Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.
“That show was very successful,” Apple says. “It was in Life magazine. It was like a big launch for me. I am a non-American in The American Supermarket – it’s bizarre – and I’m the youngest of all of them.”
Over the next two and a half decades Apple would make his home New York, would marry and divorce American designer and artist Jacki Apple and would support himself financially by periodically working, not quite Mad Men-style, for some of New York’s top advertising agencies. He would exhibit his art around the world, including at his own eponymously-named space in New York, at the Leo Castelli gallery in New York and at the Serpentine in London (the controversial survey show which was closed for three days while used tissues and earbuds were removed from display because of complaints to police) and in New Zealand, where he began revisiting for art projects from 1975 onwards and returned to permanently in 1990.
His life’s work, from neon light sculptures in the late 60s, to his work examining the notion of gallery spaces in the 1970s and, in the 80s and 90s, the relationship between the dollar and art, to his most recent works exploring branding and intellectual property, is too voluminous and too diverse to detail here; the AAG show is certainly the best place to start for those unfamiliar with Apple’s unique oeuvre.
But if it is a life’s work quite unlike any other made by a New Zealand-born artist, what worries the man is whether this will be enough to be remembered.
BILLY APPLE has already achieved a kind immortality. If his first incarnation, Barrie Bates, was killed off during the summer of 62, his 52-year-old heir, Billy Apple, or least millions of his cells, will never die, even when the artist is long gone.
In 2008, Apple was approached by a scientist, Craig Hilton, to create a project dubbed “The Immortalisation Of Billy Apple®” in which cells taken from Apple’s blood were then scientifically altered using a virus so that they will keep regenerating forever. These modified cells are now held at both the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences and the US-based bio-resource centre, the ATCC. Some of these cells will also appear, in an incubator, of course, in the AAG show.
Billy Apple (then Barrie Bates) and David Hockney at the wedding of a fellow RCA student in Cornwall, 1961. Photo / Billy Apple archive
“I think about death all the time,” he says when I ask if he’s conscious of his age.
“I haven’t told Mary. But you know, you can’t help it, you know it’s going to happen. I’m hiding behind the immortalisation … ”
If “The Immortalisation Of Billy Apple®” is, in its own fashion, a way of cheating death, so, too, is the registration of the Billy Apple brand and the continuing search for and development of branded products, which includes a special Billy Apple cider and a Billy Apple coffee blend, both served at the AAG opening ceremony last night. There are three books on the way, too, he says, including a major monograph by Barton.
However it’s clear that Apple is concerned about his legacy. He is clearly exasperated that in the past he has been left out of shows and books charting the rise of Pop Art.
“I was in the Pop Art book that [art critic] Lucy Lippard did in New York [in 1966]. But then when they did Pop Art books in London I was left out of all of them. They’ve got a show in Sydney right now, a Pop Art show, and I’m not in it. I’m the only f***ing one from the Southern Hemisphere and I’m not in the show! It’s outrageous! I wouldn’t want to be in the bloody thing, but it is full of Australians who did Pop Art in the 70s and 80s – [after] it was all f***ing over. The American Supermarket was it!”
However, a 2013 Pop Art show at London’s Christies, titled “When Britain Went Pop”, did include his work – “So finally we’re in this bloody show” and he is also in the the lavish book that accompanied it; his chapter sits along side those of such old RCA colleagues as Hockney and R.B. Kitaj.
Did he feel like he’d been written out or forgotten?
“Well I wasn’t there [in Britain], and if you’re not there … You’d think your friends would sort of say something … ”
As he said this he picked up and opened the Christies’ book and began flicking through it, looking for his chapter.
“Here we all are, just a few of us together,” says the late finisher. And then: “I’ve waited years for that to happen.”
Exhibition Opening Images: Akau Film.