Billy Apple (1935–2021)
THOUGH HE WAS much else besides, Billy Apple had a convincing claim to have been the consummate artist of Pop, the one who pursued its implications so thoroughly as to have achieved escape velocity from the category altogether. His career stands as a corrective to recent attempts to internationalize Pop by multiplying local scenes across the globe. Like his peers Öyvind Fahlström, Richard Smith, Mario Schifano, and Hélio Oiticica, Apple defied parochialism by moving from his place of origin to and from London or New York, those magnets of maximum stimulus and information. At twenty-four, still under his birth name, Barrie Bates, Apple left his native New Zealand for London and the Royal College of Art. Admitted to the institution’s comparatively new school of graphic design, he made trouble from the start but nonetheless impressed the program head as the leading talent of his class—so much so that when he proposed joining his friends David Hockney and Derek Boshier in the painting concentration, he was granted license to use the resources of all the RCA’s schools. Whatever the rough edges of his personality, Bates proved adept at enlisting photographers, ceramicists, metal casters, and printmakers to labor on projects that went out under his name. To his mind, he was more an art director than a studio hand with ink, glue pots, and T-squares. And so he remained over a long life and career.
Bates and Hockney both won monetary prizes in spring 1961, which provided the funds—$99 fares on the charter carrier Flying Tiger—for their first forays to New York. Various acquaintances gave them lodging during their two-month sojourn, and both returned to London altered by the experience. Bates leapt immediately into the jazz paradise that was Manhattan’s clubland (a prime enticement for other Pop-oriented foreign visitors). On one of his first nights in the city, his English host took him to the Village Vanguard to see the Miles Davis quintet. He later wrote to a friend back in New Zealand that he had “seen every one who’s anyone.”
Low-priced enhancements to one’s appearance became a theme of their summer. While watching television, Bates and Hockney were regaled with the slogan for Lady Clairol hair lightener: “Is it true . . . blondes have more fun?” Making an immediate pact, both men went out to acquire the product and went blond together that night, achieving a state of peroxided splendor that the naturally dark-haired Hockney would maintain for decades, his emerging identity as a public figure already attracting an inestimable surplus of recognition for his art.
None of this escaped Bates, and he eventually arrived at a point where he could no longer pretend that the machinery of publicity was an extraneous supplement to an artist’s practice. So in November 1962, he underwent, in a kind of private ceremony held at the studio of Richard Smith, the erasure of his birth identity to emerge as a new personage named Billy Apple©. The baptismal fount was once again a container of Lady Clairol bleach, the moment captured in a photograph taken by Smith (and later designated the inaugural Apple work). Trademark registration affixed, Billy Apple became the only appellation to which he would henceforth respond, the idea being that the marketable identity of the artist would no longer remain an unruly add-on to an “authentic” body of work. Instead, the artist would be a saleable artifact to be subsumed within that body of work, just as susceptible to aesthetic and cognitive control as any other artistic product.
Apple unfurled the manifesto of his new condition in April 1963: His exhibition “Apple Sees Red: Live Stills” took over an entire gallery, the walls painted funereal black to control the entire environment. In twelve bust-length self-portraits in which he is pointedly stripped of any telltale accessories, indeed any clothing at all, the bare-shouldered Billy Apple reveals himself dressed in effect by nothing but the bleached hair and eyebrows. On a sculptural plinth, with a conscious nod to Jasper Johns, was a trio of cast red apples ranging from whole to half-eaten to core, their pulp black (he titled them 2 Minutes 33 Seconds, after the time it took him to consume the apple). Press reactions caught the mortuary chill of the exercise, “Live Stills” for still life, with or without awareness of the death rites for Barrie Bates hanging over the advent of this new hybrid being.
Shortly after that sea change (“into something rich and strange”), Apple established himself in New York, claiming a place in the downtown milieu of process and site-based practice. He served for a time as manager of the storied alternative venue 112 Greene Street in SoHo, while establishing one of his own in Chelsea, naturally called Apple and generously open to installations by other artists, who came primarily from the Rutgers circle around Geoffrey Hendricks and Robert Watts. Outwardly the opposite of Pop splash, these experiments remained in his mind consistent with his never not inhabiting a product called the artist. By extension, every particle and moment in the life of this entity would be of a piece with the rest. This determination led him to rigorously austere alterations of gallery spaces—a couple of them executed on the premises of the Castelli Gallery—entirely free of vernacular quotations and pursued in intentional dialogue with cognate works by Michael Asher. As his prime interlocutor, critic-historian Wystan Curnow, pithily expressed it, “Apple’s art keeps the promise Pop art always claimed for itself but seldom actually kept.”
Apple had one attribute that helped him live up to that claim: He had absolutely no fear of the commercial world and so never required the alibi of irony. He was easily able to move from the gritty precincts of 112 Greene to a succession of advertising agencies in the glamorous upper tier of that profession, readily finding assignments whenever the financial needs of his art space required it, with a series of high-profile ad campaigns to his credit plastered all over the city. James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol secured fine-art legitimacy by putting their formative commercial pursuits behind them, displaying a fastidiousness that appeals to art-critical decorum but a consideration that never occurred to Apple as being remotely necessary—not if art could be made to shed any illusions of innocence as far as marketing imperatives were concerned.
Far from being an obstacle to Apple’s engaging with the rarefied modes that defined much advanced art into the 1970s, that ontological realism drove a series of works exposing the incomplete premises of Minimalism. Fixated on somehow isolating “the thing itself,” artists like Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Carl Andre had left out of account the necessary equal and opposite condition: nonexistence. In a series he called “Subtractions,” mostly undertaken at art venues in New Zealand, Apple cleared the portable contents from his exhibition spaces, scrupulously noting and posting what had been removed. At the same time, he insisted that a more profound transformation had taken place. In his words, “Absence cannot be defined as the result of subtraction”—even when that was the objective outcome of his interventions—“because absence does not necessarily imply that there was anything there to begin with.” Thus the information component that defined so much Conceptualist practice found itself confounded by basic epistemology.
To Apple, Curnow, and a small like-minded band, the “Subtractions” may also have stood for the clearing away of provinciality that the artist’s return to New Zealand for more extended periods was doing so much to catalyze. As he had done in London to unveil his new identity, he sealed 1981 with an exhibition simply titled “Art for Sale.” Apple’s uncompromising persistence helped to foster the emergence of a newly enlightened class of collector, on which the exceptional thriving of contemporary New Zealand art has since relied. But the show made plain that the price of participation for these new patrons, however well meaning and informed, was literally a price, cash on the barrelhead. (“The artist has to live like everybody else” became another of his repeated, double-edged mantras.) The word SOLD appeared in crisp bold sans-serif type (always executed by another professional hand) across the top of each canvas, with blanks below for filling in the particulars of price, recipient, vendor, and date. Saving critics the trouble of interpretation, THE GIVEN AS AN ART-POLITICAL STATEMENT appeared above his printed name and signature, just as it might appear on a contract. And, true to their rubric, the paintings were not put on display—that is, they remained unfinished—until purchased.
As his entry in the London Young Contemporaries exhibition of 1962, Barrie Bates had submitted a lithographed blowup on canvas of the standard identifying label affixed to the back of every submission, leaving blank the spaces for artist’s name, title, price, and school. The Billy Apple of 1981 onward drove home the same fundamental point that works of art are simultaneously expressive forms, documents of themselves, implicit contracts, self-advertisements, and luxury items, thus making good not only on the half-hearted commercial flirtations of early Pop, but also on the early, propositional, self-reflexive word paintings of John Baldessari and Art & Language, which put into play insights that Apple had both anticipated and kept alive. Over the subsequent four decades, across myriad materials and variations, he never relaxed the pressure on art’s half-measures and alibis.
Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.