A pioneer in the pop art movement, New Zealand’s Billy Apple has died at the age of 85.
Billy Apple ONZM
31 December 1935 – 6 September 2021
“In the early hours of 6 September 2021 the inimitable Billy Apple concluded one final part of his exceptional living artist project. There hasn’t been a more present and visible person on the Auckland art scene since Billy’s arrival back to his hometown in 1990. Billy visited almost every exhibition, connected with artists over their work, negotiated with art dealers and, in more ways than one, lived by example. He will be greatly missed and always remembered.”
– Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki Director, Kirsten Lacy.
Billy Apple was born in Auckland in 1935 and named Barrie Bates. In Billy Apple® Life/Work (Auckland University Press) Christina Barton writes that when Apple embarked on his career, graphic artists were adopting new design trends and adopting modernist aesthetics: shifting from representational depiction to abstraction graphics and stylisation. “Apple soaked up what he could of this new atmosphere, early on manifesting an ambition to rise above the local norm and match his work to that of his international peers.”
At the Royal College of Art in London from 1959–62, Apple studied with key contemporaries – including David Hockney – and staged one of the earliest solo exhibitions in the new “pop” art genre, after changing his name, in 1962, to “Billy Apple”. In 1964 he moved to New York. There, he worked as an art director, and developed his art, and exhibited extensively with leading artists (notably in the 1964 American Supermarket exhibition with Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns among others). He established one of the first alternative art spaces, "Apple”, which hosted some of the ephemeral activities that enlivened the New York scene in the 1970s. He returned to live in New Zealand in 1990, where he continued to produce his particular brand of conceptual art. Apple constantly explored the commercial framework of the art world, most obviously in the commodification of his identity. The change in name and constructed identity of "Apple" became a marketing device – he internationally registered his fruit-shaped logo as a trademark in 2008. Apple’s work is held in permanent collections from the Tate to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
When Barton curated the major retrospective Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else, at Auckland Art Gallery in 2015, she said, “Apple tests the limits between artist and artwork, self and other, subject and object, identity and brand, art and commodity. He is an artist of and for our times who insists we reconsider not only what art and the artist can be, but what they can do to experiment with the nature of existence in our contemporary world.”