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Billy Apple.
Billy Apple.

Billy Apple (1935–2021)

New Zealand Pop artist Billy Apple, who cast himself as a brand decades before the commercial practice gained widespread prominence thanks to the use of social media, died September 6 at the age of eighty-six. Apple, whom Anthony Byrt in 2011 characterized in Artforum as having “arguably done more for Conceptualism in [New Zealand] than any other figure,” was hugely influential both in his own country and abroad, exhibiting alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein at the peak of their popularity and founding one of New York’s first alternative art spaces.

Born Barrie Bates in Auckland in 1935, Apple dropped out of secondary school as a teenager, taking a job at a paint manufacturer in 1951 and attending evening classes at the Elam School of Fine Art. Awarded a scholarship, he studied at London’s Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1962. That year, he bleached his hair and eyebrows and assumed his new moniker, to which he would later append a registered trademark symbol. On moving to New York in 1964, he began working in neon, at the time an uncommon artistic medium, exhibiting works of this nature heavily over the next five years, including in two 1965 solo shows and in the 1967 group show “Unidentified Fluorescent Objects (UFOs),” at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery, which later morphed to become Electronic Arts Intermix.

In 1969, Apple founded an eponymous alternative art space in a portion of his Chelsea studio. One of the first venues of its kind, the gallery ran for four years and served as a meeting place and the setting for shows featuring Apple’s own works as well as those of Fluxus and Conceptual artists. In 1974, London’s Serpentine Gallery staged a major exhibition of his work; the following decade, Apple began making art centered around currency and wealth, notably producing the series “Art Transactions,” which stemmed from a 1980 show in which he exhibited receipts for payments relating to his own artwork; and a 1983 gold apple he created as a commission. Made of 22-carat-gold poured into a hollowed-out fruit-stand apple, the costly work in many ways predicted Damien Hirst’s 2007 For the Love of God, a diamond-paved platinum cast of a human skull.

Returning to New Zealand for good in 1990, where he was a vibrant and forceful presence in the country’s art scene, supporting the work of others as well as continuing to make his own, the latter of which were the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at museums in New Zealand and beyond. “He was at every opening, thinking, talking, living the art life,” curator Robert Leonard told The Guardian. “Apple is remembered for the catchphrase, ‘The artist has to live like everybody else.’ But he was exceptional. He lived like no one else.”

In line with his early branding effort, Apple in 2009 donated blood to New Zealand artist and scientist Craig Hilton, leading Hilton to create a 2010 series called “The Immortalisation of Billy Apple®,” in which a virus was employed to alter a sampling of the artist’s cells so that they would continue to reproduce eternally. Two other later works by Hilton respectively sequence and analyze Apple’s genome.

Apple’s work is held in the collections of numerous institutions across the globe, including the Auckland Art Gallery; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Tate Britain, London; and Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, Wellington. He was appointed an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2005, and in 2018 was named an Icon by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, which allows only twenty living New Zealanders to possess the title.

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