Thomas Crow on Billy Apple

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ALTHOUGH IT WAS much more, Billy Apple had a convincing claim to have been the accomplished Pop artist, one who pursued its implications so thoroughly that he managed to escape the category altogether. His career is intended as a corrective to recent attempts to internationalize Pop by increasing the number of local scenes around the world. Like its peers Öyvind Fahlström, Richard Smith, Mario Schifano and Hélio Oiticica, Apple has challenged the parochial spirit by moving from its place of origin to and from London or New York, these magnets of maximum stimulation 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 relatively new graphic design school, he caused problems early on but nonetheless impressed the program director as the top talent in his class, so much so that when he offered to join his friends David Hockney and Derek Boshier in the painting concentration, he obtained a license to use the resources of all RCAF schools. Whatever the rough edges of his personality, Bates proved adept at recruiting photographers, ceramists, metal founders and engravers to work on projects that came out under his name. In his opinion, he was more of an art director than a studio technician with ink, pots of glue and set squares. And so he stayed on for a long life and career.

Bates and Hockney both won monetary awards in the spring of 1961, which provided the funds – $ 99 on the charter carrier Flying Tiger – for their first forays into New York City. Various acquaintances accommodated them during their two-month stay, and both returned to London distressed by the experience. Bates immediately jumped into the jazz paradise of Manhattan underground (a main draw for other Pop-oriented foreign visitors). On one of his first nights in the city, his English host took him to Village Vanguard to see the Miles Davis quintet. He later wrote to a friend in New Zealand that he had “seen everyone”.

Inexpensive upgrades to her appearance have become a theme of their summer. Watching TV, Bates and Hockney feasted on Lady Clairol hair lightener slogan: “Is that true… Blondes have more fun?” Making an immediate pact, the two went out to acquire the product and went blonde together that night, achieving a state of peroxidized splendor that naturally dark-haired Hockney would maintain for decades, his emerging identity as an eye-catching public figure. already an inestimable surplus. recognition for his art.

None of this escaped Bates, and he eventually got to a point where he could no longer claim that the machinery of advertising was a foreign complement to an artist’s practice. Thus, in November 1962, he underwent, during a sort of private ceremony organized at Richard Smith’s studio, the erasure of his birth identity to emerge in the form of a new character named Billy Apple.©. The baptismal fountain was again a container of Lady Clairol bleach, the moment captured in a photograph taken by Smith (and later referred to as Apple’s inaugural work). Trademark affixed, Billy Apple becomes the only name to which it will respond henceforth, the idea being that the commercial identity of the artist no longer remains an undisciplined addition to an “authentic” work. Instead, the artist would be a salable artifact to fit into this body of work, just as susceptible to aesthetic and cognitive control as any other artistic product.


Billy Apple, Sold, 1981, ten framed serigraphs.  Installation view, Peter Webb Galleries, Auckland.

Apple rolled out the manifesto of its new condition in April 1963: its exhibition “Apple Sees Red: Live Stills” took over an entire gallery, the walls painted in funeral black to control the entire environment. In twelve bust self-portraits in which he is ostensibly stripped of any revealing props, even clothing, bare-shouldered Billy Apple is revealed indeed dressed in nothing but bleached hair and eyebrows. On a sculptural plinth, with a conscious nod to Jasper Johns, was a trio of poured red apples ranging from whole, half-eaten to stone, their pulp black (he titled them 2 minutes 33 seconds, after the time it took him to consume the apple). Press reactions have captured the deadly cold of the exercise, “Live Stills” for the still life, with or without awareness of Barrie Bates’ death rites hanging over the advent of this new hybrid being.

Shortly after this drastic shift (“into something rich and strange”), Apple established itself in New York City, claiming a place in the midst of downtown site-based processes and practices. He served for a time as the manager of the legendary alternative venue 112 Greene Street in SoHo, while also establishing one of his own in Chelsea, naturally called Apple and generously open to installations by other artists, who came mainly from the circle. Rutgers around Geoffrey Hendricks and Robert Watts. Externally the opposite of Pop Splash, these experiments have remained in his mind consistent with the fact that he never inhabits a product called the artist. By extension, every particle and every moment of that entity’s life would be part of the rest. This determination led him to rigorously austere modifications to the gallery spaces, a few of which were executed in the premises of the Castelli Gallery, entirely free of vernacular quotes and continued in an intentional dialogue with related works by Michael Asher. . As his main interlocutor, historian-critic Wystan Curnow, put it with conviction: “Apple art keeps the promise that Pop art has always claimed for itself but rarely really kept.


Billy Apple, 2 Minutes 33 Seconds (Gold) (detail), 1962, gold leaf and paint on cast bronze, total 5 1⁄4 × 14 × 6".

Apple had one attribute that helped it live up to this claim: it had absolutely no fear of the business world and therefore never needed the alibi of irony. He was able to easily move from the sandy neighborhoods of 112 Greene to a succession of advertising agencies in the glamorous high level of this profession, easily finding assignments whenever the financial needs of his artistic space demanded, with a series of high profile ads. campaigns to his credit plastered throughout the city. James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol ensured the legitimacy of the fine art by leaving behind their formative business activities, demonstrating a rigor that appeals to art critical decorum, but a consideration that never came to the fore. Apple’s mind as being remotely necessary – not if art could be done to rid itself of any illusion of innocence in the face of marketing imperatives.

The artist would be a salable artefact to be integrated into a set of “authentic” works, just as susceptible to aesthetic and cognitive control as any other artistic product.

Far from being an obstacle to Apple’s engagement with the rarefied fashions that defined much more advanced art in the 1970s, this ontological realism has led to a series of works exposing the incomplete premises of minimalism. Somehow fixated on isolating “the thing itself”, artists like Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Carl Andre had left out the equal and opposite necessary condition: non-existence. In a series it called “Subtractions,” mostly undertaken at art venues in New Zealand, Apple wiped portable content from its exhibition spaces, scrupulously noting and posting what had been removed. At the same time, he insisted that a deeper transformation had taken place. In his own words, “absence cannot be defined as the result of subtraction” – even when it was the objective result of his interventions – “because absence does not necessarily imply that there is had something there to begin with. Thus, the informational component which so defined conceptualist practice was confused with basic epistemology.


Billy Apple, Young Contemporaries 1962, 1961, offset lithograph on canvas, 20 1⁄4 × 30 1⁄8".

For Apple, Curnow and a small like-minded group, the “Subtractions” may also have represented the elimination of provinciality that the artist’s return to New Zealand for longer periods did 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 perseverance helped foster the emergence of a newly enlightened class of collectors, upon which the exceptional prosperity of contemporary New Zealand art has since been built. But the show made it clear that the price of participation for these new clients, however well-meaning and informed they were, was literally a price, money on the barrel. (“The artist must live like everyone else” has become another of his repeated double-edged mantras.) Blanks below to fill in the details of price, recipient, supplier and date. Sparing critics the trouble of interpretation, THE GIVEN AS A POLITICAL STATEMENT OF ART appeared above his printed name and signature, just as it might appear on a contract. And, true to their heading, the paintings were not exhibited, that is to say they remained unfinished, until they were purchased.

Upon entering the Young Contemporaries Exhibition in London in 1962, Barrie Bates submitted a lithographed on canvas enlargement of the standard identification label affixed to the back of each submission, leaving blank spaces for the name of the submission. artist, title, price and school. The Billy Apple from 1981 made the same fundamental point that works of art are both expressive forms, documents of themselves, implied contracts, self-advertisements, and luxury goods, thus ending not only the timid commercial flirtations of early Pop, but also the early propositional and self-reflective word paintings of John Baldessari and Art & Language, which bring into play ideas Apple had both anticipated and maintained desire. Over the next four decades, through a myriad of materials and variations, he never relaxed the pressure on the half-measures and alibis of art.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Art forum.


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