Billy Apple 1935–2021

Wystan Curnow, Anthony Byrt, Natasha Conland, and Christina Barton pay tribute.

Job Done

Wystan Curnow

When the end came, Billy was ready. There was a to-do list, and, when I last spoke with him, he told me he was onto it, his work ethic seemingly undiminished. Billy was one of those self-employed people for whom time off was overtime. The main thing he wanted known was that he was satisfied with his life, that he was dying a happy man. I believe that was because of the attention, international attention especially, that his work attracted over last fifteen years of his life, attention that had eluded it earlier. Perhaps I can best celebrate his life by writing about that.

Billy made a few big changes in the course of his life, each of which had its up side and down side. In 1964, he abandoned a nascent career as a Brit pop artist to move to New York to become an American pop artist. In the late 1960s, he gave up pop to join the new ‘alternative’ downtown scene. When that scene ran its course, he began exhibiting in New Zealand, and later left his New York loft to settle in Auckland. There were too many new starts, which, for a time, meant being left out of survey exhibitions and books. On the other hand, in the long run, it made him a more interesting artist.

By the end of the twentieth century, diverse sectors of a more outward-looking art world were beginning to realise this. Apple’s inclusions in the bellwether show Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s at Queens Museum and Toi Toi Toi: Three Generations of Artists from New Zealand at Kassel’s Fridericianum (both 1999) were good signs. A string of pop-art museum surveys followed; among them were Shopping (Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, and Tate Liverpool, 2002), The American Supermarket (The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, 2003), and International Pop (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Dallas Museum of Art; and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015). In 2010, the Mayor Gallery, a Cork Street veteran, known for representing American artists of Apple’s generation, began showing and selling his earlier works. A combination of globalisation and ‘generational rollover’ was driving emerging artists, curators, and dealers in Apple’s direction.

Nicolaus Schafhausen was one of several young European curators now taking a serious interest in Apple’s career. Tobias Berger and Hans Ulrich Obrist were others. In November 2008, Schafhausen visited Apple’s warehouse with his curator Zoe Gray, to choose works for a show, to open the following May in Rotterdam’s critically acclaimed kunsthalle, Witte de With, where he was Director. For Apple, this was a career-defining event, which would set the stage for the international profile that distinguished his final decade. It included fifty works, occupied two floors of Witte de With’s spacious building, and was up for over three-and-a-half months. For the very first time, viewers outside New Zealand got to see Apple’s work as a whole and to understand its integrity and ambition. It was a knock-out show, succinct and compelling in its selection and presentation. 

When I arrived, the day before the opening, Billy was eager to walk me round. The pleasures and rigours of installing with him came back to me: he pointed out the walls he’d rearranged, the fluorescent tubes he’d changed, the room-by-room fine tuning of ‘the white cube’ required by each work. There was a rapport with the preparators, whom he’d won over by his bloody-minded fastidiousness. The following morning, Tina Barton and I walked round the show together rehearsing our double-act floor talk, scheduled to follow David Elliott’s public conversation with the artist in the afternoon. Elliott, then Director of the Biennale of Sydney, asked Billy about his 1974 London survey show, From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple. Billy spoke of his bad memories of the Serpentine Gallery’s failure to back him up over a public controversy provoked by one of his works, while Elliott vividly recalled seeing the show as a twenty-five-year-old and how it had inspired him. 

After Witte de With, there was a marked growth of international interest in Apple’s work. In 2010 and 2011, he had solo shows in London and group shows in New York, Paris, and Tallinn, and was featured on the Mayor and Starkwhite stands at the Basel and Hong Kong art fairs. Interest in New Zealand was also booming. Apple was in his late seventies, yet the number of his exhibitions was doubling. The last decade did wonders for his reception. Audiences for his work were expanding locally and worldwide, and advances were being made in its interpretation and appreciation. Most of this took place in New Zealand: Tina Barton’s long-awaited, comprehensive, and lively retrospective, Billy Apple: The Artist Has to Live like Everybody Else, at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2015, followed by more specialised surveys at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary, Nelson’s Suter Gallery, and Hawke’s Bay’s MTG, plus three substantial books—my collected writings on Apple (Sold On Apple), Barton’s definitive biography (Billy Apple® Life/Work), and Anthony Byrt’s back story to Apple’s stunning London debut (The Mirror Steamed Over). His ending came in the midst of a bonanza, an Apple bonanza.

Billy Apple, A Brand Looking for a Product 2010/5, UV-impregnated ink on canvas, 38.2 × 61.8 cm. Courtesy Rossi and Rossi, Hong Kong


Anthony Byrt

When Barrie Bates rinsed the Lady Clairol from his hair on 22 November 1962, the reflection he saw in the mirror perfectly embodied the societal transformation Western culture was then embarking upon, one that would shape the next sixty years. Despite emerging in London, Billy Apple was a fundamentally American invention—not just a riff on consumer branding but an expression of the larger force that consumerism was accelerating, American exceptionalism, which advertising helped raise to its bombastic peak. Billy had various ways for explaining his choice of name, but my personal favourite was always that it was ‘as American as apple pie’. American exceptionalism—unsullied, satisfying, sweet—was the world’s most sustained advertising campaign. It didn’t matter whether it was true, only whether we bought into it.

Billy and I talked about advertising a lot. He venerated the great advertising figures he learned from and worked alongside: Bob Gill, Herb Lubalin, Bert Stern, Helmut Krone, Bill Bernbach, George Lois, and others. He told me that Lubalin had taught him ‘how to make type talk’. (In reality, Billy had adapted a famous campaign Lubalin designed to advertise the services of the agency he worked for, Sudler and Hennessey.) Billy was obsessed with type, and with Futura in particular. He also had a remarkable memory for specific advertising campaigns. One of the great pleasures of researching my book The Mirror Steamed Over was going through The New Yorker archives and seeing the exact ads that, as Barrie Bates, he had encountered on his trips to New York in 1961 and 1962. The lessons he learned from American advertising became integral to the Billy Apple® project. The relationship between type and image—and type as image—was, in many ways, the key to the whole thing. 

One of the best examples of Billy’s pure advertising work was his contribution to Tareyton cigarettes in the 1970s. Tareyton had established its market share with a full-strength product whose tagline was a celebration of its addictive qualities, masked as brand loyalty. ‘I’d rather fight than switch!’, the copy claimed, accompanied by an image of a model with a stylised smudge under their eye, like a bruise from a punch. Apple was part of the team that worked on the launch for Tareyton’s light cigarettes. The copy and image templates were reversed out. ‘I’d rather light than fight!’, read the new line, and the model instead wore a white smudge. The first campaign images were shot by Bert Stern. In Billy’s archive, there’s a Stern photo of Billy, with that same white crescent under his eye. Billy was at his most playful when working with reflections and reversals.

Tareyton Lights advertisement, featuring Bert Stern photograph, 1978, courtesy Billy Apple® Archive
Billy Apple Billy Apple® Logo (Black) 2007/18, acrylic on linen, 60 × 60 cm

Although many people in the art world like to sneer at advertising, the truth is that the best of it is remarkable, hard to do, and more world shaping than anything contemporary art has dished up over the past sixty years. Advertising was the engine for consumer capitalism. But, while equal access to mass-produced goods was implicitly framed as America’s greatest social achievement, it also planted the seeds of America’s decline. The economy this consumption supercharged eventually launched the age of fiat currencies, with the US dollar as the world’s reserve (another strand of Apple’s practice was his fixation on the value of gold, which fiat USD effectively replaced). Fiat currencies led to the global explosion of credit and several decades of steadily falling interest rates. The availability of cheap credit to any and all created the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the GFC. The moment the United States pretended to have achieved equality through the democratisation of its greatest product, modern money—now everyone can own a home!—was also the moment the exceptionalist project fell apart. Billy Apple® was there throughout it all. 

Since then, America has been on borrowed time. Advertising has been hollowed out too, turning as nihilistic and pornographic as the nation that created it. The pure brand-building advertising Billy admired subtly nudged its way into the dark corners of our capitalist desires. Now, potential customers stand naked and blinking under algorithmic floodlights—we know everything about you, what you want, and how you want it—endlessly slapped around by low-grade gifs and banner ads. We’ve moved from the sensual saturation of CMYK to the crass screen light of RGB, but I doubt Billy felt any nostalgic pangs about this transition. All great brands need to move with the times and Billy Apple® had a remarkable knack for feeling the coming cultural mood. Bates’s disappearance was an archetypal American act, pupate and Icarus-like. Always a hubristic character, Bates created, as his final gesture in this world, a brand that was both beautiful and radical.

Billy Apple Alpha State 1972, in Billy Apple®: The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2015. Photo: Jennifer French

Well Being

Natasha Conland

In the catalogue to his 1974 survey exhibition From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Billy Apple describes his transformation: ‘This change of identity which was done initially as an “art act” became a life situation and as such is a continuing process. During the time between the conception of the idea and its execution, the invented identity evolved into the actual identity.’ Apple wrote this clinically, reflecting on the seemingly frictionless transition as if commenting on it from outside of himself. By the time of the Serpentine show, he had already lived as Apple for over a decade, and, over the course of his later life, his transformation into a brand and ultimately a registered trademark would continue. Privately, I have wondered what psychological acuity it took to sustain this. In the process of transforming himself into a cohesive brand, I sensed there was something lost, a residual leftover particle of Apple—like the shadow of his psyche—to which he would occasionally allude.

In the year before his death, Apple and I had begun to develop an exhibition that he titled Billy Apple: Well Being, asserting his prior claim to a term New Zealand’s Labour Government has adopted as a key facet of its arts policy. The show would include works involving clinical observations on his biology and negotiations with medical practitioners and scientists. The first of these—Eye Examination (1962–7) and An Enlargement of the Left Eye (1963)—show Apple superimposing information on the malfunctioning vision in his left eye onto his transformation portrait. The show would also include his records of his bowel motions and nose blowings, as in Excretory Wipings (1974). We would then skip to his many Transactions with healthcare professionals, including his first golden-section Well-Being work (1991) and a work made for the ceiling above his dentist’s chair. Finally, there would be The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® (2010), which preserved his cells indefinitely, and The Analysis of Billy Apple® (2014), which recorded data from his genomic sequencing.

This Well-Being barter was transacted between Billy Apple and his chiropractor Dr Andrew Braun. Screen print on gold-passivated steel

In addition, Apple proposed drawing into the scope of his Well Being show works that dealt with his psychological well being. On the surface, it would seem incongruous if his 1972 list of possible ‘Life and Art Activities’—such as ‘wood chopping’, ‘cleaning’, and ‘making a fire’—had also included ‘visiting my analyst’. However, Apple told me that sometime around 1975–6, in a bid to live by his edict that every action would now be an art work, he made an audiotape work, recording his therapy session at the Albert Ellis Institute, the headquarters of rational emotive behaviour therapy, a precedent for what we now call cognitive behavioural therapy. Just days before Apple’s death, we spoke of the tape and its status as a work of art in relation to this project. For Apple, this was clear. The fact that the session was taped indicated his intention to include it in the expanded field of his life actions. He told me that his request to retain the tape solicited initial disagreement from the psychologist and led to an inevitable discussion on the nature of his art practice, and, no doubt, questions of patient–doctor confidentiality.

This Well-Being barter was transacted between Billy Apple and his physiotherapist Sam Broome at Physio Rehab, Auckland, in 2020. UV-impregnated ink on canvas

With the tape yet to be located, due to Apple’s sudden death, the spectre of this work nonetheless extends his work beyond the visible and quantifiable, into the indeterminate area of the mind, at the time of his body’s final failure. Apple’s entry into the mind’s inner workings would seem to unravel our conception of this artist who denied interiority in favour of the outward signs of culture. Yet, that interest is there, particularly in the period 1972–6, a time of increased doubt for the artist. In 1974, in the Serpentine catalogue, he writes: ‘At significant points of marked alteration in my life and identity I did a new series of self portraits documenting both physical and psychological changes.’ Despite the shift in medium, it is possible to see some of Apple’s audiovisual works of the 1970s as an extension of his self portraits of the 1960s. In 1972, he made two video tapes: Card Reading, recording a fortune teller conducting a reading into his future, and Alpha State, showing electrodes attached to his head to indicate when he produced alpha waves, distinguishing ‘a condition of receptivity and acceptance without conscious effort’. While performing Negative Conditions Situation (1973), an action involving cleaning dirt from a floor, Apple writes, ‘psychological doubt existed even though physical acceptance through touch supported by visual verification was acknowledged’. Was he recognising that the mind—usually locked into neutral when performing such tasks—could ghost his actions?

The conversation with the psychologist is perhaps the last piece of Apple’s self portrait, and potentially the most daring in its reach towards the private recesses of the mind. I wondered why Apple didn’t throw my interest in this missing tape back at me. He had no insecurity about its ability to perform as a work or about showing it publicly, as he might an image of his face or a line demonstrating his shrinking height. Apple referred to the Well Being show as his ‘last exhibition’. It is possible that, with an exhibition that examined the works of his physical and mental being, he might ready himself for the final transformation into the merely cellular.

Basic Needs

Christina Barton

Billy Apple never stopped working. This made my job as his monograph writer difficult. As my book Billy Apple® Life/Work was in the final stages of production in late 2019, I was tempted to push pause to insert a postscript that would have extended the narrative beyond its 2018 cut-off date. I wanted to add a note about Tūmanako, a version of Apple’s work Basic Needs (2014), presented in the wharenui Te Ranimoaho at Te Rewarewa Pā in Rūātoki in the Bay of Plenty, on 31 July 2019.

I couldn’t attend the pōwhiri for the project (organised by ex–Te Tuhi director, now Whakatāne local, James McCarthy, and described by Hamish Coney in the Summer 2019 issue of this magazine). But, from Sam Hartnett’s photographs, it was clear I had missed one of the more remarkable collaborations of Apple’s career. This was with Tūhoe activist and artist Tāme Iti. Apple had been in conversation with Iti for some time over their shared connections to Rūātoki, a small township in the foothills of Te Urewera. This led to the artists delivering works that speak urgently about dispossession and social inequality in the context of Iti’s marae and the contested ground upon which it sits.

Rūātoki is one of the remotest locations Apple had ever been to. For an artist who looked to the international art world as his natural home, who had spent years living in London and New York, and who needed the complex infrastructure of an evolved metropolitan art scene to do his work, this small rural community, still scarred by the legacy of colonial land confiscation, might have seemed an unlikely destination. But it was, in fact, a homecoming.

Through his childhood, Apple had spent time there, sent from Auckland by his parents to stay with his paternal aunt Edna, her husband James, and their daughter Cherry Merritt. He remembered these visits with affection and with his usual vivid recall. He told of playing with local children, including Arnold Manaaki Wilson, who would, later, with fellow artist Cliff Whiting, restore and repaint Te Ranimoaho in the brilliant primary hues associated with the Ringatū faith, which still flourishes in the area. So, to return and reconnect was to bring one strand of his life story full circle.

‘Tūmanako’, meaning ‘hope’, is the term Tāme Iti gave Apple as a Māori equivalent for ‘basic needs’. In the work, it heads up translations in te reo of ‘food’ (kai), ‘water’ (wai), ‘shelter’ (haumaru), and ‘clothing’ (kākahu), the four essential items to which all humans are entitled, according to the United Nations. Printed in Apple’s distinctive all-capitals Futura font, in black and white on a red ground, and installed on two window panes on the back wall of the wharenui on either side of the tāhuhu (ridgepole), this was Apple’s fourth iteration of his Basic Needs series. The series had been commissioned by Artspace Director Misal Adnan Yildiz to support the Syrian refugee crisis in 2014, for the Artists for Kobanê online auction, a global event organised for E-Flux by Hito Steyerl and Anton Vidokle to raise awareness of and financial aid for that humanitarian cause. Since then, it has been translated from English into German, Romanian, Turkish, and Kurdish, and presented in online and physical venues where those languages are spoken.

Billy Apple and Tāme Iti standing in front of Apple’s work installed over the windows of the wharenui Te Ranimoaho, Te Rewarewa Pā, Rūātoki, Bay of Plenty, 31 July 2019. Photo: Mary Morrison

If Rūātoki, the collaborative project undertaken by Apple and Iti in 2019, brought Billy back to a place he had not visited since childhood, Basic Needs marked another return. This was to a project he had worked on in the early 1980s with Wystan Curnow, in which he used information from the Consumer Price Index and the Labour and Employment Gazette to compile bar graphs and pie charts that set out his relative expenditure on the basic costs of living, calculated in relation to the national average of annual wage earnings. This was one investigative strand in an emerging body of work that used the line, co-authored with Curnow, ‘The artist has to live like everybody else.’

There is something fundamental, grounding, and profoundly democratic in this reckoning, which undoes assumptions people might have about Billy Apple’s penchant for the high life. Apple knew what it was like to grow up with little and to live hand to mouth as an artist, and that drove him to anatomise the economic system, focusing on its every niche, from the moneyed classes to those with next to nothing, finding alternatives to business as usual (like his ‘IOU’ and ‘Bartered’ series), giving works to charity as a means to level the playing field. Basic Needs was a late project produced as the wealth gap widened. I wish I had found a way to factor this into my book, as it would have lent the publication a suitably trenchant but also personally poignant ending.

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